PRINT May 1999


Dr. Gachet and the van Goghs

THE BROTHERS VINCENT AND THEO are buried side by side in the cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise, a village some twenty miles north of Paris; and their graves have made the destination a place of pilgrimage. When van Gogh arrived in Auvers in May 1890, following a year’s confinement in the asylum at St-Rémy-de-Provence, he was placed under the friendly surveillance of Dr. Paul Gachet, who was already known to Theo van Gogh. These two remarkable figures are celebrated in separate exhibitions this summer (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam).

Gachet (1828-1909) was a homeopathic physician practicing in Paris, an amateur painter, yachtsman, angler, and collector, and, as few failed to notice, a crank. He was immediately attracted to the avant-garde painting of his time, acquiring works from Pissarro, Renoir, Cézanne, and van Gogh to hang in his home, which was otherwise chock-full of gloomy bric-a-brac. His special study was nervous diseases, particularly melancholia; this led Pissarro to recommend him to Theo van Gogh when he was looking for a suitable place for Vincent to live after his release from the asylum.

Van Gogh painted two portraits of Gachet (wearing his habitual white sailing cap) and also made an etching of him. The painter astutely realized that Gachet himself was far from sane and captured something of his neurotic character, or, as he told Gauguin, “the heartbroken expression of our time.” Gachet reported to Theo that the painter appeared to have recovered. He could not have been more mistaken. When van Gogh shot himself, at the end of July 1890, it was Gachet who almost shamefacedly informed Theo and tended (and sketched) the dying man. At the funeral in Auvers, Gachet pronounced van Gogh “an honest man and a great artist”—making him one of the first to acknowledge his achievement. Theo, desolated by his brother’s death, lost his mind, was placed in a clinic for the insane, and died in January 1891. Gachet’s extraordinary collection was left to his son Paul, who gave much of it to the Louvre (though it is now housed in the Musée d’Orsay); one of the great benefactions to the French state, it is not without its disputed items. One of the aims of the Met’s show on Dr. Gachet is to sort the fake from the authentic and truth from legend, for Gachet and friends freely copied the works he owned. But no cloud hangs over Cézanne’s Dr. Gachet’s House at Auvers, 1872-73, or Pissarro’s Road at Louveciennes, 1872, both in the show.

Theo, too, was an adventurous collector and one of the most perspicacious dealers in Paris. Art dealing ran in his family, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Vincent’s first job was with the prestigious firm of Goupil in London, The Hague, and Paris, where, as yet innocent of the Impressionist revolution, he found merit in some of the most awful painters of the period. Becoming totally disenchanted with the profession, van Gogh was so unproductively aggressive toward Goupil’s clientele that he was dismissed in 1876. His experience, however, gave him a great visual memory bank; he was more informed about contemporary French, British, and Dutch art than any other painter of his generation. Theo, younger than Vincent, joined Goupil in 1873. Swallowing his disgust at the mostly meretricious work he had to sell, Theo prospered and was gradually allowed to stock works by Monet, Pissarro, Degas, and others. He was a godsend to a whole circle of progressive artists although he often despaired at the slow trickle of sales and an indifferent public. He was, wrote the poet Gustave Kahn, “so melancholy that he seemed to offer the pictures as if asking for alms.” With the news of his death, there was widespread consternation at the loss of this reserved, tenacious young man. Only with the publication of Vincent’s letters to Theo was the crucial moral and financial support he gave to Vincent publicly acknowledged. It is highly appropriate that the opening exhibition of the renovated Van Gogh Museum should be devoted to Theo. It includes not only his favorite works by Vincent, but many of the paintings he collected from the dazzling decade of the 1880s, including first-rate works by Degas, Gauguin, and Renoir. Seen not solely as the long-suffering brother, Theo is presented in his own right as that rarity—a disinterested and discerning dealer.

Richard Shone is editor of The Burlington Magazine.

“Cézanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Doctor Gachet,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 15-Aug. 15. “Theo van Gogh (1857-1891): Art Dealer, Collector, and Brother of Vincent,” Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, June 24–Sept. 5.