Behind the Art: Is “The Red Vineyard” by Vincent van Gogh the only known painting sold during his lifetime?

Vincent Van Gogh is a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter and acclaimed artist who posthumously became one of the most famous and influential figures in Western art history. In over a decade, he created around 2,100 works of art, including around 860 oil paintings and several hundred sketches. Yet he only managed to sell one painting during his lifetime – The red vines in Arles, for just 400 francs (about $2,000 today) at an exhibition in Brussels in March 1890, four months before his suicide. The painting now resides in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia. But how did it get there and what’s so special about it? Is this the only painting sold by Van Gogh before his death ?

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The story behind the art

The story goes as follows: Van Gogh came across a vineyard during an afternoon walk with his painter friend Paul Gauguin on October 28, 1888. He later described the scene to his brother Theo in a letter saying, “A red vineyard, completely red like red wine. In the distance it turned yellow, then a green sky with a sun, sparkling purple and yellow fields here and there after the rain in which the setting sun was reflected.

Van Gogh was so moved by the scene he saw that he decided to paint it in his studio using his imagination. Gauguin played a vital role in influencing Van Gogh’s painting style. He encouraged him to make his images more creative by using bright colors and a less realistic look. His use of color in his painting is extreme and harsh. The vines are much redder than you might expect and to the right of the composition, what might look like a river is a road, glistening and wet after a recent rain. It uses different shades of yellow to represent the huge sun in the sky, producing an eerily yellow sky. The brightness of the colors has of course faded over time. The original painting would have been even more dramatic. Recent analysis has shown that Van Gogh made several changes to the painting, one of which is that the man standing in the road in the upper right was originally a woman in a skirt, white blouse and a hat. The woman on the far right, by the side of the road, wears the traditional costume of the Arlésiennes, the famous Arlésienne. Analysts suggest that it represents Van Gogh’s friend, Marie Ginoux, who, with her husband, ran the Café de la Gare, a few doors down from the Maison Jaune, the artist’s home and studio.

His use of color in his painting is extreme and harsh. The vines are much redder than you might expect and to the right of the composition, what might look like a river is a road, glistening and wet after a recent rain. (Photo: Instagram/@trt2)

The trip to Russia

The red vines in Arles has an interesting travel history. In April 1889, Van Gogh sends his painting to his brother Théo, who then resides in Paris. It is said to have been a wedding present for his brother and his wife Jo Bonger. A few months later, however, Van Gogh asked his brother to ship the painting to Brussels, where the artist had the opportunity to exhibit a few paintings during an event organized by the group Les Vingt in January 1890. It was then that the Belgian painter Anna Boch bought it and kept it until 1907. Two years later, the painting was acquired by a Moscow collector and textile factory owner, Ivan Morosov. The price had risen from 400 francs to 30,000 francs – an indication of Van Gogh’s growing popularity. Morosov’s collection was nationalized in 1918. In 1948, The red vines in Arles was among the works transferred to the Pushkin Museum.

Did Vincent van Gogh only sell one painting in his life?

For such a famous painter, selling just one oil painting in his life is quite a hard fact to believe. Although Van Gogh gained popularity after his death, he was still talked about in the art world in Europe. The myth of a single painting sold by him was disputed by the famous Van Gogh scholar Marc Edo Tralbaut, author of ‘Vincent van Gogh, a comprehensive and authoritative biography of Van Gogh‘. Tralbaut claims that Theo sold a self-portrait by the artist more than a year before the sale of The red vines in Arles. Van Gogh Museum claims that the artist sold several paintings during his life. Van Gogh’s uncle was an art dealer and to help his nephew’s career he commissioned 19 cityscapes of The Hague, Netherlands. Van Gogh is also said to have traded his paintings for art supplies or food when he was young – not a common practice among young artists. According to Louis van Tilborgh, chief curator of the Van Gogh Museum, the artist also mentions in his letters that he sold a portrait to someone, but it is not known which portrait.

Art dealers and analysts must have relied heavily on the letters that Vincent van Gogh exchanged with his brother Theo. This source alone was not sufficient in finding the truth behind the claim that he only sold one painting. It is common knowledge that not all artists thrive financially during their active years. Despite several theories surrounding the artist, his remarkable work is still appreciated and celebrated around the world. Millions of people visit Moscow every year just for a glimpse of The red vines in Arles painting, and that alone is proof that art is immortal.

Next step in Behind the Art: Why is Katsushika Hokusai The Great Wave off Kanagawa considered the most famous Japanese work of art?

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