Van Gogh, rather famously, only sold one painting in his lifetime. Why was this? Mostly it came down to marketing. A subject his future sister-in-law put into good use. Plus a few marketing lessons for artists.
Vincent Van Gogh. Does any other artist’s name stir up so many images. Tortured genius. The artist who cut off his ear. The starving artist who only sold one painting.* Paintings that sell for hundreds of millions on auction today. Don McLean wrote a song about him. On it goes.
I love Van Gogh’s paintings. I know his work is singular in its genius. Utterly unique and breath taking. I have more books on Van Gogh than any other artist. Even a massive biography about his life. Which I read, by the way.** There are so many aspects to his life that we could discuss. But for this article I want to look at the idea that Vincent was a business failure.
The truth is Van Gogh was not a great businessman. Why should we even care? His art is here for our enjoyment after all. The thing that rankles a bit is that it is Van Gogh’s example that all the dream-killers rely upon. You know the friend or family member who says that you cannot succeed at art? Look at Van Gogh, they say: ‘’ A Genius (unlike you) and even he died penniless’’. Blah blah blah.
Well it is time to set a few things straight. Van Gogh was recognised as a genius by contemporaries like Monet, Pissaro and Gauguin. Art dealers knew this too. If only Van Gogh had the temperament to focus on the marketing side a bit more. Oh, but that was then. Marketing did not figure in those days. Not true.
Even J.M.W Turner, many years before Van Gogh, knew how to market like a showman. Turner would complete a painting in one go before crowds of onlookers at the national gallery. Leaving them all gobsmacked and proclaiming his greatness. Yes, Turner knew how to impress the punters and he was a wealthy man for it.
Lesson one: Keep a close eye on your marketing.
So why not Van Gogh? Well he carried a lot of mental baggage. A difficult childhood, family guilt, low self-esteem and his troubled relationships. Not to mention the bipolar episodes. He could not get people to like him. Later on he could not even get models to pose for him. The French provincials regarded him with suspicion too. Typical.
Lesson two: be open and personable with others. Relationships are important to growing your potential supporters. But not in a creepy way of course.
Then Vincent had his brother Theo as his art dealer/agent. Theo was, by all accounts, a loving brother and a good chap. But as Vincent’s agent it seems he fell down on the job. There was all that dysfunctional family dynamic going on. Theo was in the middle between Vincent and their disappointed parents. Why was Theo not promoting Vincent’s paintings more when other big-name impressionists were endorsing Vincent’s talent?
Lesson Three: Don’t mix business with family.
Some argue that Vincent could have sold much more, but that his paintings took so long to dry. The paintings were never ready to sell. Particularly in the prolific last three years of his life. His paintings could take a year or more to dry. I cannot accept that reason. Many artists sold paintings not fully dry. Dry to the touch is fine for a sale. Hang up the painting and let it dry fully. Besides Vincent did send paintings to Theo to sell. Why did Theo not sell them?
Vincent died in 1890 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Theo died two years later from syphilis. Neither brothers ended their short lives well at all.
But what then? Enter Theo’s wife, Johanna Gesina Bonger. She lived on until 1925. She was allegedly very clever and her actions proved that to be true. She edited Vincent’s many letters and published them in book form. On the advice of her well-connected family Johanna marketed Vincent’s paintings in Europe to great acclaim. She became an astute art dealer and grew to become quite wealthy. Even within her lifetime Vincent’s paintings were selling for record prices. Thanks to Johanna’s efforts Vincent’s paintings quickly grew in fame. His legacy would continue to grow long after her death.
Lesson 4: Get the right people to help or mentor you.
Lesson 5: Know the importance of a story. Johanna knew this and it made Vincent's fame, and her business, soar.
Which all goes to show that you should persist at all costs. You never know when your break is going to come. Plus you must market your art consistently, learn from mentors and follow a balanced, strategic approach to your art career. Sadly Vincent’s mental state made these rational choices impossible to implement. Who knows what might have happened otherwise. One thing is certain. The starving artist myth would have been dealt a blow.
*What painting did Vincent sell? The Red Vineyard. The Red Vineyard, near Arles, painted in 1888. It supposedly is the only piece sold by the artist while he was alive.
** Van Gogh, The Life