The paintings pile up – under the bed!


Imagine for a moment you are Theo in your Paris apartment, receiving your latest shipment of paintings from Arles. You already know what to expect, because Vincent would have described them all in previous letters, often with sketches enclosed.

Couple in the Park Arles

Another portrayal of a couple by Van Gogh. You can see his longing for friendship in this couple walking through a park in Arles.

But still, here you are, and you take the wrappings off a big roll and spread canvas after canvas over the floors of your apartment – portraits, landscapes, trees, flowers and cafes. And then what do you do with them all?

When Vincent wrote the following to Theo, he was thinking about painting Gauguin, but the model turned out to be the Belgian artist Eugene Boch instead. Vincent said, "I’d like to do the portrait of an artist friend who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because that’s his nature. This man will be blond. I’d like to put in the painting my appreciation, my love that I have for him. I’ll paint him, then, just as he is, as faithfully as I can — to begin with. But the painting isn’t finished like that. To finish it, I’m now going to be an arbitrary colourist. I exaggerate the blond of the hair, I come to orange tones, chromes, pale lemon. Behind the head — instead of painting the dull wall of the mean room, I paint the infinite. I make a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I can prepare, and with this simple combination, the brightly lit blond head, against this rich blue background achieves a mysterious effect, like a star in the deep azure." What a writer he was.

You can’t put any more of your brother’s paintings on your walls, because they’re already covered with them. You’ve tried on occasion to sell some by including a few in a show, but there were no buyers. It’s a relatively small apartment with little storage space, so after looking at the paintings and perhaps commenting on a few of them in your next letter back to Vincent, you stack them up and put them under your bed along with the many previous canvases he’d sent.

La Berceuse

This one stayed in Arles. Of the five versions of the portrait of Augustine Roulin, wife of his friend the postmaster of Arles, this is the one she chose for herself. Van Gogh remarked that "she had a good eye and took the best." He began the portraits just before his breakdown in December 1888. As he worked on the successive versions, the composition (which he titled La Berceuse, meaning "lullaby, or woman who rocks the cradle," indicated by the rope the sitter holds) took on added meaning.

This method of storing his paintings went on for years, until there were hundreds of paintings stored under beds and in closets.

Now shift focus to today. Most of these paintings are in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, thanks to Theo’s wife Johanna and her son Vincent. If they were to come up for auction, the sums would total billions.

The Red Vinyard

The infamous, Red Vinyard, the one painting Van Gogh sold at at a show for 400 francs. It was bought by Anna Boch, also an artist, sister of Eugene Boch. Anna went on to buy numerous Van Gogh paintings after his death and built a large collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Her uncle is the Boch in Villeroy & Boch.

The Langlois bridge with cypress trees. Van Gogh painted many of the bridges around Arles.

And there they were, off their stretchers, in piles under beds at 54 Rue Lepic in Paris. All yours Theo, all in exchange for the money, paints and canvas you sent down regularly. Mind boggling!

Arles - coming home

Would this street have changed much since Van Gogh's time? Doesn't look like it.


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