Portrait of Dr. Gachet.
Penquin Books: New York.
Vincent van Gogh painted Portrait of Dr. Gachet in 1890, about two months before he died by his own hand. The painting depicts an older man seated at a red table. He leans to the left, his head resting on his right hand, elbow on the table, with his left hand also on the table in the right of the picture. He wears a dark blue jacket, a “midnight of northern waters”. Running diagonally from lower right to upper left is a lighter blue trim of the jacket, snaking beside three buttons to a curl below his chin. His face is pale with a moustache, his red hair mostly covered by a cream-coloured cap, his eyes sad but penetrating. Vincent wrote that, “…I had to paint it like that to convey how much expression and passion there is in our present-day heads in comparison to the old calm portraits and how much longing and crying out.”
Two foxglove stems in the foreground, placed in a glass of water, veer diagonally to the left complementing Gachet’s tilt. Two yellow books on the table complete the foreground. The background is vintage van Gogh, strokes of lighter blues on darker blues, but all lighter than Gachet’s jacket, run diagonally, forcing the viewer’s eyes to those of Gachet, engaging the viewer in his melancholy contemplation. It is a picture that challenges and draws the viewer in.
Cynthia Saltzman was trained in art history at Harvard and Berkley and then did an MBA at Stanford. Her credentials are perfect for the enthralling saga she relates about the history of this painting. Beginning with a brief biography of van Gogh, she traces the provenance of the picture over the 100 years from the time of its creation to its sale in a New York auction for $US82.5 million in 1990. The journey takes the reader through the growth of art collection and dealers, the art market and the establishment of some of the world’s greatest art galleries. Along the way the reader meets Vincent’s brother Theo and Theo’s wife Johanna and other prominent XIX century art dealers in Paris.
Gachet traveled to Frankfurt in 1911 and then became embroiled in the Degenerate Art proclamations of Nazi Germany in 1933-38, ending up in the confiscated art amassed by Hermann Göring. The portrait was sold and allowed to leave Germany, traveling to New York where it remained in a private collection and then hung in the Metropolitan Museum from 1984-1990. In 1990, Gachet was auctioned by Christies where it was purchased by a Japanese industrialist for the record-breaking and breathtaking price of $US82.5 million.
Gachet ended up in a cloth bag stored carefully in a cloth-lined box in a vault in Japan. The buyer, Ryoei Saito, headed a company that fell on hard times, was charged and convicted for financial improprieties, and subsequently died in 1996. As of the publication of this book, Gachet remained entombed in a Japanese vault.
Saltzman called her book a, “Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed and Loss.” For anyone interested in the economics and politics of high-end art dealing and the interface between creative genius and corporate greed, this is an enlightening read. Return to top Silcox, DP.
The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson.
Firefly Books: Toronto.
This volume provide a glimpse into the origins and influences of the Group of Seven art movement that began officially in Canada in 1920 and ended officially in 1933. The book is mostly pictures providing about 400 high quality reproductions of Group of Seven works organized by region of Canada. This organization helps to emphasize how utterly Canadian this art movement was, being organized explicitly to document the raw, natural beauty of Canada. So many of the regions painted by the members of the Group are still today major outdoors destinations and for anyone who has been to some of these places (Algonquin Park, Killarney Park, Bon Echo, the Rockies, North of Superior, Baffin Island…), the images can’t help but remind them of being there. One of the most prolific and energetic members of the Group was Lawren Harris. He was born in Brantford and heir to the Massey-Harris fortune making him independently wealthy and able to paint full time unlike most of the other members of the Group who had day jobs. His paintings are among the most stirring, capturing the stark beauty and immensity of Canada’s wilderness. The brief commentaries in this book make you want to read more of the biographies of the members of the Group and of Tom Thompson, their inspiration. Return to top