What if, Van Gogh, what if?


When you walk the same streets that Van Gogh did, you start to think “what if” questions.

What if Gauguin hadn’t joined Van Gogh in Arles? After all, he wasn’t the most dependable guy and could have been a no-show. Likely the “ear incident” wouldn’t have happened. Perhaps Van Gogh wouldn’t have ended up in the hospital and then the asylum. He might have stayed in Arles much longer. But would he have been as productive? Much of his work was done in anticipation of Gauguin joining him.

Gauguin, Self Portrait, Les Miserables, his gift to Vincent

Does this look like your best friend? Someone who sends you a gift portrait enscribed Les Miserables? Perhaps everything would have been different with a slightly more charming room mate.

Van Gogh, after Christmas 1888

Van Gogh was unflinching in his gaze. Who would paint 3 self-portraits with his bandaged ear? He faced it head-on, as if to say, this is who I am. Notice the Japanese print in the background. Arles was his Japan.

A stark self-portrait

Here's a man not prone to self-flattery. Look at the background. Like a Rothko painting, 80 years before Rothko. Now there's a parallel, Van Gogh and Rothko.

What if he had seen even a little success in his life? If he’d started to sell paintings, how would that have changed his outlook? After all Gauguin, and other Van Gogh contemporaries were starting to sell. Would this have boosted his confidence and changed his course?

In 1882 in The Hague, at age 29, Van Gogh lived for over a year with Clasina "Sien" Maria Hoornik, a seamstress and a prostitute, and her child. He felt sorry for her and thought that he could support her, and that this would be his family. Their poverty doomed that relationship. This would seem to be the one and only time Van Gogh lived with a woman.

What if Vincent had been luckier in love and had a more conventional life with a wife and perhaps children? This was a dream of his, and he fell desperately in love many times. But he was awkward, not easy to get along with and  completely dependent on his brother financially. Not exactly a great catch. But still, an interesting, highly empathetic man, able to speak and write in Dutch, French and English, well-read in the classics and the literature of his time and certainly a hard worker. People have had worse mates!

What if his story hadn’t been so dramatic? Would his work command the prices it does, or is his story and his early death an integral part of the price?

What if he’d lived longer, say like Monet who lived to be 86 (who tried and failed to commit suicide at the age of 28) or Henri Matisse who lived to be 84? What might his output have been? If he’d lived to be 80, he would have died in 1933 and experienced WWI, the great depression, the invention of automobiles and air travel. Would he have become wealthy, like Monet, during his life? A longer life would have made for a completely different story.

Paris - Monet Lilies

By the time Monet painted his famous series of water lilies, he was old, famous and rich. Like many artists, his powers didn't diminish. What would Van Gogh have accomplished as a more mature painter? After all, everything you know of him, he did in 5 years.

What if, at the end of his life, he was put in the care of a competent doctor, instead of the very flaky Dr. Gachet? Could his life have been saved? After all, he lived for two days after he shot himself with a cheap revolver. No attempt was made to operate or intervene. Basically, Dr. Gachet waited for him to bleed to death or die of his infection, which he did.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet

At one time the most expensive painting in the world. Now rumoured to be owned by the Barillo family (pasta) in Switzerland, but officially listed as "missing". The digitalis plant was used in his homeopathic medicines which he gave Van Gogh to "cure" him.

What if he had actually gone to Japan, as was his fantasy, instead of Arles? For him, Arles was a substitute for Japan. After all, Gauguin ended up in the south seas, Degas visited and painted in New Orleans and Monet lived and painted in London for a time. It’s interesting to speculate what direction his painting might have taken had he been in a completely different environment.

Hiroshige on the left, Van Gogh's copy on the right

Van Gogh made numeous copies of the Japanese prints that he collected. Here's his take on a famous Hiroshige.


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