Dutch Treat

Vincent van Gogh receives art therapy at the St. Louis Art Museum

Painters of the Petit Boulevard provides a view of contrasting styles and shared ambitions. One of the more stark comparisons can be seen in the portraits of Mme. Roulin, the wife of van Gogh's friend Joseph Roulin, the postman in Arles -- one painted by van Gogh, the other by Gauguin during his brief sojourn to Provence. Van Gogh's portrait is loud, vibrant, full of depth and movement, with a frenetic background. Gauguin is more calm, decorative, flat, with softly layered colors and muted lines. To Homburg, these paintings reveal distinct artistic sensibilities and strategies rather than feral expressions of personality burst onto the canvas.

Homburg says the making of the van Gogh myth began immediately after his death. His suicide occurred when tragic artists were all the rage: "The 19th century was perfect for mad artists. It was something that came out of the romantic idea of the genius.

"Van Gogh died exactly at the moment when he's getting to be known. In the last few years of his life, people were really paying attention. In the avant-garde circles, people would come and look at work in Theo's home [Theo was Vincent's brother, his financial support and a Paris art dealer]. There was talk about exhibitions. People were starting to want his work."

"I could have told you, Vincent, the world was never meant for one who could network and strategize like you" just doesn't have the same tragic tone to it.
"I could have told you, Vincent, the world was never meant for one who could network and strategize like you" just doesn't have the same tragic tone to it.

Then, at the age of 37, after painting for only 10 years, says Homburg, "He dies in a dramatic fashion." And that drama immediately begins to be told by his friends and associates. A year after the death, one of the petit boulevard, Emile Bernard, publishes an article about van Gogh. "So already," says Homburg, "in the very beginning there is this interest in the personality of the artist, in the personal life -- or, should I say, "persona,' because it's not about the real person. In the first years of his death, that persona is brought up again and again and again."

And with the publication of Vincent's letters to Theo in the early 20th century (by Theo's widow, who had her own agenda), and Stone's novel in the '30s, and the film version in the '50s, and the subsequent pop renditions of van Gogh in all forms of media, the myth took on substance.

Since the 1980s, however, with the mother of all blockbusters, Van Gogh at Arles, new scholarship has begun to uncover a painter driven by ambition more than demons. The artist Homburg wants the public to learn about is still a troubled and passionate character, an interesting character but not so unlike his contemporaries and, inevitably, not so unlike most of us.

But don't expect that myth to die anytime soon. That misunderstood genius is not so unlike the myth many of us have of ourselves, the one we encounter in our worst moments of adolescent self-pity.

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