Art Around the World

Paying Homage to the “Other” van Gogh

By Tom Gross, February 06, 2001

All art lovers have heard of Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch Post-Impressionist renowned for his sunflowers, cypresses and irises and for cutting off part of his earlobe. On the occasion of the recently completed traveling exhibition of masterpieces from the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, it is interesting to think about the significant role the brother of the world’s most famous artist played in his career.

How many of us know about the “other” van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother, Theo? Efforts have been made to bring to the attention of a wider public the important contribution Theo van Gogh made to the history of modern art. The Musee d’Orsay in Paris even mounted an exhibition last year devoted to this half-forgotten van Gogh.

Even though Theo himself never painted a single canvas, he is now hailed as deserving a major place of his own in art history: without the allowance that he provided his older brother, some of the greatest paintings of the late 19th century would probably have never been created.

But as the Paris exhibition explained, Theo did much more for art than just help his brother buy materials. As a successful art dealer in Paris in the 1880s, Theo played a pivotal role in promoting and encouraging Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Sisley, Signac, Toulouse-Lautrec and Monet.

At the time, Theo was attacked by one gallery owner as a “crazy man” who had “disgraced his gallery” with canvases by “frightful” painters “such as the landscape artist, Monet.”

The Musee d’Orsay was determined that Theo be praised for his foresight. The exhibition included 130 pieces bought and sold by Theo, including a dozen of the seventy Monets that passed through his hands. The display also included documents, photographs and letters Theo exchanged with his brother and other artists.

Some French art historians, however, have criticized those who portray Theo in too generous a light. They point out that as a wealthy art dealer, he could in fact have done a lot more to help his impoverished brother. They also add that other historians often neglect to mention that he had tried to kill his wife and baby son, and suffered from advanced dementia caused by syphilis. Theo died at only thirty-three, the year after his brother committed suicide in 1890.

For those of you who cannot get enough of van Gogh, a small but extraordinary show titled Portraits of Van Gogh’s Postman: The Portraits of Joseph Roulin will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, February 1 – May 15, 2001.

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.