Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet. Yes, I know you know, but I have to caption just to be fair.
The first time I went to Paris, my friend and I made sure, like any good American tourists, that we went to the Louvre. Mostly we meandered through the galleries, trying to make sure we saw the museum's greatest hits. The greatest hit of all in the Louvre is the Mona Lisa, of course. We made our way into the room where it hangs, and there was a crowd about six people deep in front of the roped off picture. We got as close as we could, and looked at the painting. After a minute I turned to my roommate and said, "Well, it looks just like the postcard." And we left.
Famous paintings travel different routes through history. Some were immediate stars, some spent years being ignored until they were "discovered." If they become famous enough, they become prints, posters, postcards, and t-shirts, their ubiquity all but obscuring what once made them startling and different. Once avant-garde, now part of the furniture, these paintings, although quite well-known, can become lost again in our familiarity with them.
Cynthia Saltzman tells about one such painting in The Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece. The painting of Dr. Gachet, a physician who was treating van Gogh for his various, unidentified ailments, was described by the artist as having "the heartbroken expression of our time." The painting has become famous for that expression, but to me, it seems more pensive than heartbroken (and ladies and gentlemen, I know my heartbreak). Then again, I know nothing about art.
Dance Hall at Arles
The portrait was the last major painting van Gogh completed before his death. Vincent van Gogh's brother, art gallery owner Theo van Gogh, got the painting next, but he died soon after Vincent. Theo's widow sold it, and the painting, usually sold for very low prices, passed through the hands of a few art collectors before being given as a gift to the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, an art museum in Frankfurt, Germany ((why don't I have any names? I returned the book and didn't take notes--apologies). The Nazis condemnation of modern art made the painting a target for confiscation. Despite the best efforts of the director of the museum and even the mayor of Frankfurt, the painting was eventually removed from Frankfurt. Hitler's government had decided that although they considered modern art valueless, it was a good way to raise money by selling the paintings to people in other countries. Hermann Goring sold the portrait to a collector in Amsterdam; Goring apparently diverted some of the payment from the sale to help finance his own art favorites. The painting was again sold to a wealthy Jewish family, who managed to spirit the painting out of the Netherlands as they made their own escape from the reach of the Nazis. In New York, the painting alternately hung in the family's apartment or was loaned out to museums, as van Gogh's increasing popularity spawned a number of exhibits. In the 1990s, the painting was sold for a then record price at auction, to a Japanese collector who was arrested soon after for shady business deals. With its owner stuck in jail, the painting was packed away in a warehouse for a while; it's now believed to have been sold privately and is in the hands of an unidentified collecor.
This will be quick and informal for a number of reasons, the primary one being that I don't have a lot to say about this book. Saltzman's book is clearly written, and she knows her subject well. Yet...I was disappointed. It seems a bit unfair for me to say that, because there's nothing really wrong with this book. I think it's just that as well as Ms. Saltzman can write about the history of the painting, and as lucidly as she can explain how the painting passed into each person's hands, her account just lacks drama. She gives enough biographical information about each person involved, but these accounts lack that one little story or quote that makes a person spring to life, that turns a name on a page into a living, breathing, quirky human (van Gogh himself is pretty much out of the book by page 47 or so, but I suppose he's gotten enough ink in the last 100 years or so).
Events are described, but I got no sense of what it was like to be there--and maybe that's impossible, maybe the info just isn't there. Maybe I was expecting too much--when I got to the Nazi Germany part of the book, I thought, ah hah! This is where the story must really begin--surely this painting will have had some kind of breathtaking, tense, hair-raising voyage out of Germany. But it didn't really. Okay, maybe I've seen too many movies and it's no one's fault that the painting's escape wasn't a cross between "The Sound of Music" and "Casablanca." Okay, that's kind of a scary thought, but I guess that's what I was hoping for--some kind of spectacular, melodramatic, cinema-worthy backstory that would make the painting deserve its own book. And without that, I felt let down. The closest Saltzman comes to capturing the drama of an event is her description of the auction in the '90s, when the painting sold for its record-breaking price. Other than that, though, the book didn't captivate me. I have no reason to believe that Saltzman doesn't love her subject, but that love didn't come through for me. I am always hoping to feel an author's passion for his or her subject, and when I don't, I despair a little. Again, it's a perfectly fine, useful book and surely others will find what they want in it. It just didn't thrill me, though, and oh, I am dying to be thrilled.