Fact-checking 9 Van Gogh Myths

After all is said and done, more is said than done,’ goes the old saying. Indeed a lot has been said about the life and times — and death — of Vincent Van Gogh, one of art history’s most renowned figures.  In the 130 years since his death, the myths generated about Van Gogh, his time in Arles in particular, far outweigh the truly astounding facts about his life. So ahead of the opening of the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, we take a moment to look for the facts behind nine of the most popular myths about the famous Dutch painter.

He cut off his ear as a gift to his lover:
There are probably as many variations of the circumstances surrounding Van Gogh’s right ear than there are knock-offs of his Starry Night. But the truth is: no one knows what actually happened! The most conservative hypothesis about how he came to be missing part of his ear (and it was in fact only part of his earlobe that lopped off) is that it was a self-inflicted injury during a period of psychosis. One of the more sensational but nevertheless plausible versions is that he was in a fencing duel with his friend Paul Gauguin when his ear was nipped. Apparently he and Gauguin concocted the self-mutilation story in order to prevent unwanted attention and embarrassment from local authorities. Not likely, but again, who knows…

2 He’s always been famous:
He sold exactly one painting in his 37 years of life — The Red Vineyard (for 400 Francs). Perhaps that he died in poverty and without much recognition from contemporary critics owes just as much to his short and tumultuous lifespan as to the stringencies of 19th century artistic tastes in Europe. It’s hard to picture the history of European art without the influence of Van Gogh, but such a period did in fact exist, notably during most of the painter’s actual existence.

3 His hard work and talent brought his fame:
Yes, and also no. As we saw above, he lived most of his life without much recognition from the salons of Europe in the 19th century. The posthumous recognition that he found also didn’t just fall out of thin air. That everyone and their uncle today knows Van Gogh’s name owes, to a significant degree, to the efforts of one woman: Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, wife of Theo van Gogh. It’s an unfortunate case of behind every great man is a great woman—unfortunate because they rarely get their due recognition. After Vincent’s death, followed six months later by her husband’s, Johanna had Theo’s body exhumed and reburied at Auvers-sur-Oise Town Cemetery right next to his brother. She thereafter began an eleven-year journey of collecting a catalogue of Vincent’s paintings as well as translating his correspondence with family members. Without the undertaking of this monumental task — done with a diligence and devotion possible only within the context of familial bond — we might not have the same access to Van Gogh’s genius as we do today. That said, a considerable amount of his paintings remain lost.

4 Van Gogh was a self-involved narcissist:
Van Gogh is often thought of as being obsessed with his own  internal world. A notion propagated most by his own hand: he painted over 30 self-portraits during his lifetime. There’s something about just one self-portrait by an artist that already screams narcissist — now imagine 30! There’s an honest reason for that though: he had little money. Most of his financial support came from his brother Theo’s benevolence and he had little to spare to pay models like other similarly prolific painters. He adjusted to this situation by painting flowers, landscapes, farmers in his vicinity, and the occasional selfie.

5 He was born a painter:
It’s hard to believe that one of the most celebrated painters in art history did not devote himself to the profession till the age of 27, but that’s exactly the case! For much of his early adulthood, Van Gogh was bent on making a living in the same profession as his uncle and brother: as an art dealer. But as is the case in so many biographies of world-famous artists, decisive failure in one endeavour resigns them to a life-long devotion to the work that brings them fame in the end. Even more, painting was not Van Gogh’s only artistic passion, he was an incredibly busy writer as well, authoring almost as many letters as paintings.

6 Van Gogh was self-taught:
That is in fact true, Van Gogh was largely a self-taught painter — perhaps that explains his unique painting style. He received just over four months of formal artististic training near the end of his career. There is an alluring quality about the self-taught artist, especially when they also have a relentless work-ethic to go along with it. The ones that really make a splash in their field also tend to have an enigmatic personality (the prime example being Francis Bacon). There’s a timeless modernity to Van Gogh’s style, it’s hard to imagine he could have achieved that had he gone through the highly conformist systems of formal training. Though it must be said that his substantial experience as an art dealer did provide him with something of an education on the styles and schools of his day.

7 Van Gogh and Gauguin were two peas in a pod:
Not exactly so. Their friendship was as genuine as you’d expect of two artists who share a strong belief in the pleasure of a blank canvas and a palette of paint. There were however a lot of verbal fisticuffs between the two — a recurrent topic in a lot of the picks for our Van Gogh film list. As Van Gogh’s mental health began to deteriorate in Arles, Theo sent for Gauguin hoping that his company would be a boon for his ailing brother. Perhaps to a certain extent it was, but their frequent and spirited arguments in the short period after Gauguin arrived in Arles is the subject of curiosity.

8 His art drove him mad:
A certain amount of madness is often portrayed as part and parcel with the idea of genius — Van Gogh is one of the foremost examples of this trope. Although the frequency and velocity with which he was producing paintings in the last nine years of his life undoubtedly took a toll on his mental well-being, his neurological illnesses are the most significant factors in his deterioration. Van Gogh was a victim of temporal lobe epilepsy, and suffered from frequent seizures and depression. The paltriness of his diet also didn’t do much to help his mental health; stale bread with wine make a frequent appearance in accounts of his meals during the more precarious periods of his poverty. The important distinction modern historians and audiences have to make is between the truly breathtaking quantity of his output — the mark of his genius — and taking care to not romanticize his mental illness in order to promote the image of the mad genius.

9 Myth: Van Gogh committed suicide:
That’s probably true, but a controversial recently published book, Van Gogh: A Life, makes a compelling case for his accidental murder. Authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith argue in an interview with the BBC that “The accepted understanding of what happened in Auvers among the people who knew him was that he was killed accidentally by a couple of boys and he decided to protect them by accepting the blame.” If true, that might corroborate the theory that it was in fact Gauguin that accidentally cut his ear during a fencing match. It would also give insight into Van Gogh’s character, eager to take the blame in order to spare the next man. Though thoroughly researched and suggested with caution, this only remains a theory and the authors are quick to add that it’s still premature to rule out suicide.

Author: Michael Zarathus-cook