Van Gogh’s fame dates from the early years of the 20th century, and since then his reputation has never ceased to grow. A large part of this reputation is based on the image of van Gogh as a struggling genius, working unappreciated in isolation. The dramatic elements of his life—poverty, self-mutilation, mental breakdown, and suicide—feed the drama of this mythology. The notion that his unorthodox talent was unrecognized and rejected by society heightens the legend, as it is just that sort of isolation and struggle that has come to define the modern concept of the artist. This mythical van Gogh has become almost inseparable from his art, inspiring artists to dramatize his saga in poems, novels, films, operas, dance ensembles, orchestral compositions, and a popular song. Wide and diverse audiences have come to appreciate his art, and the record-breaking attendance at exhibitions of his works—as well as the popularity of commercial items featuring imagery from his oeuvre—reveal that, within the span of a century, van Gogh has become perhaps the most recognized painter of all time. The unprecedented prices his works have attained through auction and the attention paid to forgery scandals have only increased van Gogh’s stature in the public imagination.
Gogh, Vincent van: Portrait of Joseph RoulinPortrait of Joseph Roulin, oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh, Arles, France, early 1889; in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. 64.4 × 55.2 cm.Photograph by Stephen Sandoval. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Rosenberg, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mr. and Mrs. Armand P. Bartos, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Werner E. Josten, and Loula D. Lasker Bequest (all by exchange)
Largely on the basis of the works of the last three years of his life, van Gogh is generally considered one of the greatest Dutch painters of all time. His work exerted a powerful influence on the development of much modern painting, in particular on the works of the Fauve painters, Chaim Soutine, and the German Expressionists. Yet of the more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings that constitute his life’s work, he sold only one in his lifetime. Always desperately poor, he was sustained by his faith in the urgency of what he had to communicate and by the generosity of Theo, who believed in him implicitly. The letters that he wrote to Theo from 1872 onward, and to other friends, give such a vivid account of his aims and beliefs, his hopes and disappointments, and his fluctuating physical and mental state that they form a unique and touching biographical record that is also a great human document.
In 1957 Francis Bacon based a series of paintings on reproductions of Van Gogh's The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, the original of which was destroyed during the Second World War. Bacon was inspired by an image he described as "haunting", and regarded Van Gogh as an alienated outsider, a position which resonated with him. Bacon identified with Van Gogh's theories of art and quoted lines written to Theo: "[R]eal painters do not paint things as they are ... [T]hey paint them as they themselves feel them to be."
Gogh, Vincent van: La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851–1930)La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851–1930), oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh, 1889; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1996, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002 (accession no. 1996.435); www.metmuseum.org
There are more than 600 letters from Vincent to Theo and around 40 from Theo to Vincent. There are 22 to his sister Wil, 58 to the painter Anthon van Rappard, 22 to Émile Bernard as well as individual letters to Paul Signac, Paul Gauguin and the critic Albert Aurier. Some are illustrated with sketches. Many are undated, but art historians have been able to place most in chronological order. Problems in transcription and dating remain, mainly with those posted from Arles. While there Vincent wrote around 200 letters in Dutch, French and English. There is a gap in the record when he lived in Paris as the brothers lived together and had no need to correspond.
By this time van Gogh was ready for such lessons, and the changes that his painting underwent in Paris between the spring of 1886 and February 1888 led to the creation of his personal idiom and style of brushwork. His palette at last became colourful, his vision less traditional, and his tonalities lighter, as may be seen in his first paintings of Montmartre. By the summer of 1887 he was painting in pure colours and using broken brushwork that is at times pointillistic. Finally, by the beginning of 1888, van Gogh’s Post-Impressionist style had crystallized, resulting in such masterpieces as Portrait of Père Tanguy and Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel, as well as in some landscapes of the Parisian suburbs.