Why did Van Gogh fail to sell his work?

One of the key aspects of Van Gogh’s legend is that he could not sell his art: he was a solitary genius, shunned by the artistic establishment. But that’s not entirely true. During the last two years of his life he was beginning to gain recognition, at least among the avant-garde.

It is often said that Van Gogh sold a single painting, with only one identified work going to a buyer. In March 1890, the Belgian artist Anna Boch bought The red vineyard (November 1888) at an exhibition in Brussels.

But Van Gogh may have made a few more sales. There is tantalizing evidence that one of his self-portraits was purchased by London dealers Arthur Sulley and William Lawrie. This revelation comes from a letter from Vincent’s brother, Theo, in October 1888, although the self-portrait is now lost.

Letter from Theo van Gogh to “Misters Sulley and Lori [Lawrie]/London”, October 3, 1888. © Published in M. Tralbaut, By Gebroeder Van GoghUitgave van het Gemeentebestuur, Zundert, 1964, p.186

Early in Vincent’s artistic career, while living with his parents in 1884 in the village of Nuenen, he was commissioned to paint six landscapes for the dining room of a retired goldsmith, Antoon Hermans. Trouble developed and Hermans ended up giving him only 25 guilders (then around £2), which barely covered his painting.

by Van Gogh Potato planting (August 1884), commanded by Antoon Hermans Credit: Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal

Two or three years later, in Paris, Vincent painted the portrait of a friend of his paint dealer, Father Julien Tanguy. He received 20 francs (then about £1). Although not conclusively identified, it is believed to be a portrait that was last recorded in 1927 and is known only from a black and white photograph.

by Van Gogh Portrait of a man (circa 1887), probably depicting a friend of Father Julien Tanguy

On another occasion in Paris, Vincent traded a still life of smoked herrings for a carpet (a bargain later recorded in correspondence with his brother Théo in March 1889).

In October 1888, Vincent mentioned in another letter to Théo that “a study”, probably an oil painting, had been bought by the Parisian dealer Athanase Bague.

The latest evidence of new sales is a letter of condolence sent by Vincent’s aunt, Cornelia van Gogh-Carbentus. She wrote to Theo in August 1890 that it must be satisfying that her brother had succeeded in “selling a painting and making it more than once”. So The red vineyard wasn’t quite the only one.

But even if Van Gogh managed to sell a handful or two of his paintings, that still represents a tiny proportion of the nearly 1,000 he completed. Despite encouragement from her pioneering colleagues, most people simply dismissed her work.

But what is surprising, and which has received surprisingly little attention, is the price of The red vineyard. It was bought by Anna Boch, sister of his friend Eugène Boch, for 400 francs (then around £16 or in today’s currency around £500). At the time, Vincent complained, surprisingly, to his mother that the price “is not expensive”. Maybe that offhand remark was Vincent’s way of telling her that he was finally going to make it in the art world.

by Van Gogh Portrait of Eugene Boch (September 1888), brother of Anna Boch © Musee d’Orsay, Paris

But 400 francs was actually quite a considerable price for an aspiring artist. It was the equivalent of two months of subsistence allowance that Theo sent to Vincent in Arles – more than two years’ rent for the Yellow House, where he was then living. It was also a higher price than some of Gauguin’s paintings, which were beginning to have success (Théo sold two Gauguins for 200 and 300 francs in 1890).

So why the high price of The red vineyard? The arrangements were made privately by Theo, who was an art dealer working for the main gallery Boussod & Valadon. We can only speculate, but maybe Theo felt it was better for Vincent to sell a few works at a high price rather than start low.

Vincent was certainly blessed with a younger brother who was a successful merchant. This meant that Theo had the resources to provide Vincent with a regular stipend, which allowed him to paint. The two brothers constantly discussed art, which gave them a lot in common. But it also meant that Vincent had a brother with the contacts and knowledge to sell his art, even if it proved very difficult. But a start was about to be given.

During the last two years of his life, Van Gogh was really beginning to gain recognition. He exhibited at the progressive Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris: three canvases in 1888, two in 1889 and ten in March 1890. In January 1890, he exhibited eight canvases at the Brussels exhibition of the Vingt, where The red vineyard sold.

I tracked down more than 20 newspaper and magazine articles citing paintings by Van Gogh in exhibition reviews during the last seven months of his life, a record that would delight most struggling artists today.

Although most mentions are only a sentence or two, the critic Albert Aurier had written an enthusiastic six-page article in the January 1890 issue of Mercury of France. Aurier concluded that Van Gogh is both “too simple and too subtle” – but he is understood by “his brothers, the true artists”.

The tragic fact is that Vincent’s potentially successful career was cut short by his suicide in July 1890. Had he lived to the 20th century he would likely have become a successful contemporary artist, his work increasingly more sought after.

Since then, Van Gogh’s prices have steadily skyrocketed. The artist who “failed to sell his work” is now among the most expensive.

Martin Bailey is the author of Van Gogh finale: Auvers and the artist’s rise to fame (Frances Lincoln, 2021, available in the UK and U.S). He is a leading Van Gogh scholar and investigative journalist for The arts journal. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY exhibition: Van Gogh and Great Britain (March 27-August 11, 2019).

Van Gogh’s Last Books by Martin Bailey

Bailey has written a number of other bestselling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in UK and U.S), Southern Studio: Van Gogh in Provence(Frances Lincoln 2016, available in UK and U.S) and Starry Night: Van Gogh in the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and U.S). whiskey cream Living with Vincent van Gogh: the houses and landscapes that shaped the artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and U.S) provides insight into the artist’s life. The Illustrated Letters of Provence by Van Gogh has been re-released (Batsford 2021, available in UK and U.S).

• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: [email protected] Please note that it does not perform authentications.

Read more on the Martin’s Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.

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