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Life and Times of Van Gogh's Melancholy Masterpiece

Book Review / Non-Fiction

PORTRAIT OF DR. GACHET, by Cynthia Saltzman, Viking, $25.95, 408 pages

June 12, 1998|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I've done the portrait of M. Gachet with a melancholy expression," Vincent van Gogh wrote in 1890. "I had to paint it like that to convey how much expression and passion there is in our present-day heads in comparison with the old calm portraits, and how much longing and crying out. . . . There are modern heads that may . . . perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later."

Taking her cue in part from these prophetic words, Cynthia Saltzman has written "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," a rigorous financial, political and art historical account of Van Gogh's masterpiece, which in 1990, precisely 100 years after it was created, became the most expensive ($82.5 million) painting ever sold at public auction. Told through a series of detailed capsule portraits of dealers, collectors, art historians, museums and masterminds of the Third Reich, Saltzman's book demonstrates that certain inanimate objects can have as lively, intricate, even in places as poignant a biography as animate beings.

Van Gogh painted "Dr. Gachet" in June of 1890, a few weeks after his release from an asylum in the south of France where he had been treated for a mysterious illness then diagnosed as epilepsy. He had recently moved to Auvers, both to look for subject matter and because he hoped that a physician there, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, might treat him successfully. A kind man and himself an amateur painter, Gachet was, however, an ineffectual doctor who seemed, Van Gogh wrote his brother, Theo, "as ill and distraught as you or me." In painting the portrait, Saltzman believes, "Van Gogh reversed the roles of patient and doctor and scrutinized Gachet as the patient afflicted by their shared disease." This was melancholia, in Van Gogh's words, "the heartbroken expression of our time."

Completed just weeks before Van Gogh's suicide, the painting is both a profoundly personal and a more general human meditation on a stricken state of mind and being. The elusive quality of the personal in this picture, as in much of Van Gogh's late work, is never simple to gauge. Saltzman sets the myth of the tragic, mad, isolated and unrecognized Van Gogh, which turns out to have enveloped his work remarkably early on, alongside certain contradicting facts. These include the painter's thoroughly middle-class background; his experience as an art dealer in a family full of them; Theo's steady patronage and friendship; the wide respect Van Gogh had from his Postimpressionist peers; his astonishing productivity during the last months of his life; and the dialogue with art history that Van Gogh engaged in with the painting, whose classic pose of melancholia has precedents in works by Delacroix and Puvis de Chavannes.

Saltzman's rigor continues as she follows the portrait's often dramatic 100-year trajectory through many shifts in taste, political regime and economic worth. After Van Gogh's death, "Dr. Gachet" went to Theo, then to his widow, Johanna, who became the caretaker of her brother-in-law's legacy. It passed through the hands of the tricky Parisian dealer Ambrose Vollard and Paul Cassirer, a Berlin dealer who introduced Van Gogh to Germany, where modern art was in some quarters embraced and in others seen as a foreign threat to nationalism.

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In 1911 Georg Swarzenski acquired "Dr. Gachet" for Frankfurt's Stadel Art Institute, whose collection of old master paintings he presciently expanded to include modern art. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Van Gogh was categorized as a degenerate artist, and in time the Nazi propaganda ministry seized and sold the painting. "Dr. Gachet" was eventually acquired by Siegfried and Lola Kramarsky, German Jews who fled Hitler and followed the canvas to America, where it remained part of the family collection until its 1990 sale to Ryoei Saito, a Japanese paper magnate.

Saltzman lingers over each of the picture's peregrinations to draw rounded sketches of the people whose lives "Dr. Gachet" touched. This imbues her narrative with a vibrancy that is sometimes absent from her exhaustive accounts of the picture's financial history. Now and then, Van Gogh's passionate art slips out of the story, whose neutral tone only rarely turns evaluative, as for example when Saltzman refers to vast sums of money being "squandered" on the commodity that art has become. (From today's perspective, the buying habits of the 1980s warrant stronger language.)

Yet considering that we know the end at the beginning--that the picture will appreciate financially and, more significantly, aesthetically--Saltzman manages to render a suspenseful and always interesting narrative. It is to her great credit that the reader roots less for the depressing millions spent on the painting, which remains sequestered in a Tokyo warehouse, than for the art historians who come to reassess Van Gogh not as a mad or accidental talent but as a trailblazing and visionary intellectual leader of the Postimpressionists.

Likening the soaring art prices he observed during his lifetime to the tulip craze, Van Gogh reminded his mother that, while the tulip craze came and went, the tulip growers still remained. "And thus I consider painting too," he said, "thinking that what abides is like a kind of flower growing." Under Saltzman's thoughtful custodianship, Van Gogh's "Dr. Gachet" opens its petals a little further, the heartbroken expression of his time becoming a revealing expression of our time as well.

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