A key part of the legend of Vincent van Gogh is that he was ignored during his lifetime and never sold his work. Although largely true, during the artist’s period in France he gradually began to gain recognition. And a year after his suicide, sales began, slowly at first.
We track down the first 12 paintings known to have sold up to the year after Van Gogh died. It reveals what kind of collectors made the bold decision to buy, the prices they paid, and what images they chose.
The red vineyard
The red vineyard (November 1888) is now famous as the only painting Van Gogh is certain to have sold during his lifetime. It was shown in an exhibition in Brussels in March 1890, four months before the artist died. At the price of 400 francs (then £16), it was purchased by Anna Boch, a Belgian avant-garde painter. She sold The red vineyard circa 1907 and is now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
It’s no surprise that the first sale after Van Gogh’s death includes three sunflowers (August 1888). This is the first of four still lifes of sunflowers that he painted at the Maison Jaune in Arles. Sold in April 1891, the buyer was the French critic Octave Mirbeau, who had just published a glowing review of Van Gogh’s work.
A well like three sunflowersMirbeau also bought Iris of Father Julien Tanguy, an art dealer close to avant-garde Parisian artists — and sometimes selling their works. Tanguy organized the Van Gogh sales on behalf of Jo Bonger, the widow of Vincent’s brother, Theo, who had inherited the family collection.
The price of the two flower paintings was 600 francs. Mirbeau attempted to hide the purchase from his wife, who would have been angry if she found out that he was spending money on this kind of art. Cheating on his wife, he asked for a note saying the two photos were a gift, not a purchase.
Mirbeau kept three sunflowers until 1912, when its value had soared to 50,000 francs, a dramatic increase from the 300 francs he had paid. Since then, the painting has always been hidden in private collections and was last briefly displayed in Cleveland in 1948.
Mirbeau’s other purchase, Iris (May 1889), is the first picture painted by Van Gogh just after his arrival at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It’s an incredibly optimistic image, produced under the most difficult of circumstances.
Claude Monet was a friend of Mirbeau, visiting him shortly after his purchase of the Van Goghs. Seeing three sunflowers and IrisMonet exclaims: “How could a man who loved flowers and light so much and rendered them so well, how could he be so unhappy?
The choice of the two Van Goghs, which he hangs in his dining room, does not surprise those who knew Mirbeau. As Léon Daudet, a writer friend, explains: “Mirbeau has two points of refuge, namely his love of flowers and painting. For them, its taste is excellent, almost infallible… Its eye… is 15 years ahead of its time.
Mirbeau sold Iris in 1905 and, after passing through various collections, it was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1990, for approximately $50 million.
Peach trees in bloom
In June 1891, Anna Boch, who had previously acquired The red vineyardadded to his collection, buying Peach trees in bloom (April 1889) for 350 francs. Vincent had given a brief description of the painting to his artist friend Paul Signac: “Green countryside with small cottages, blue line of the Alpilles, white and blue sky. In the foreground, enclosures with reed hedges where small peach trees bloom.
Boch sold her two Van Goghs in 1906 for 10,000 francs, a good return on the 750 francs she had paid. Peach trees in bloom is now at the Courtauld Gallery in London.
Vase with pink roses
Vase with pink roses (May 1890) was painted just days before Van Gogh left the asylum (the pink pigment has faded and is now almost white). In June 1891, it was purchased for 400 francs by Paul Gallimard, a Parisian who owned an important collection of Impressionist works. He sold the Van Gogh in the early 1900s and it is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
the sower (November 1889 or January 1890) is Van Gogh’s own color painted version of a black and white print by Jean-François Millet. It was an image that had inspired him for a decade since deciding to become an artist. Van Gogh’s version was sold for 400 francs to an unknown buyer in September 1891.
White Cottages in Saintes-Maries
In November 1891, the first buyer of a group of Van Gogh paintings appeared: Willy Gretor, pseudonym of one of the most eccentric characters, Wilhelm Peterson. He was an art lover and an artist of Prussian origin who had just arrived in Paris. It is still unclear whether he acquired his Van Goghs as a collector or to resell them, but the fact that he bought no less than six suggests that he spotted their commercial potential. Gretor paid 2,200 francs for the group.
White Cottages in Saintes-Maries (June 1888) depicts a view of the fishing village Van Gogh visited for just under a week, coming from Arles. Inspired by his first vision of the Mediterranean, he was then at the height of his power as a colourist.
Mas in Provence
Mas in Provence (June 1888), as well as the following four works, were also purchased by Gretor. It represents a setting at the gates of Arles. At the time, Vincent described the composition to his sister Wil as a summer scene, under a blue sky: “A landscape takes on golden tones of all shades, green-gold, yellow-gold, red-gold , ditto bronze, copper , in short from lemon yellow to dull yellow, say, from a pile of threshed grains.
Harvest in Provence
Harvest in Provence (June 1888) was painted just days after Mas in Provence, with an even more powerful blues. On June 21, 1888, Vincent wrote to Théo: “I had a week of hard work concentrated in the wheat fields in full sun.
Houseboats (August-October 1888) depicts a nocturnal scene on the Rhône in Arles, just a five-minute walk from the Yellow House. Under a blazing sunset, stevedores rush to complete their task of unloading sand onto the dock.
Gretor’s last two paintings were both painted versions of prints by two artists whom Van Gogh greatly admired. As Vincent explains to Théo: “It’s not pure and simple copying… It’s rather a translation into another language, that of colors.”
prison yard (February 1890) is a colored version of a smaller black and white print by Gustave Doré, originally published in the book London: a pilgrimage. The individual print that Van Gogh chose to reinterpret in color was Newgate—Exercise Park. It is no coincidence that this is a prison scene, painted by Van Gogh when he was locked up in the asylum.
Van Gogh made a colored copy of Eugène Delacroix’s print from The Good Samaritan (May 1890) just before his release from the asylum. Gretor’s life remains shrouded in mystery, but he sold his six Van Goghs in the 1890s or very early 1900s.
Advance sales at today’s mega prices
All 11 Van Gogh paintings sold in 1891 were marketed on behalf of Bonger by Tanguy, at prices of around 400 francs each (then £16, but with inflation equivalent to around £1,400 today).
Unsurprisingly, they include some of what we now consider Van Gogh’s finest landscapes and flower still lifes, although the presence of the three works inspired by black-and-white prints by Millet, Doré and Delacroix may come as a surprise.
Following these 1891 sales, a further trickle continued over the next three years. But Van Gogh’s eventual commercial success began in 1895, when Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard recognized his importance and began to hold a series of exhibitions, eventually selling around 30 paintings over the next five years.
Now, of course, Van Gogh is one of the best-selling artists in the world. In recent years, 11 of his paintings have sold for over $40 million.