Monday 18 May 2009

The Other Van Gogh

In a rather quaint looking cul-de-sac called the Cité Pigalle in the 9th arrondissement of Paris sits the Villa Van Gogh hotel. It looks rather idyllic as spring brings lush foliage to the trees in the street, but what actually is the connection to Van Gogh here? Walk a little further along, past the hotel, and look carefully through the thick tangles of bottle-green ivy and the answer can be seen on the wall of the building at number 8. This was Theo Van Gogh’s appartment, yet the sign gives more information about his brother Vincent, who stayed here only once for barely a week in 1890. We put the great and good on very large pedestals, but what happens to those who lived in their sometimes very dark shadows?

Jane Austen wrote in Mansfield Park that “the younger brother must help to pay for the pleasures of the elder”. This was certainly the case with the Van Goghs where Theo, four years younger than Vincent, not only helped but often fully supported his brother’s lifestyle. From 1880, until Vincent’s death in 1890, Theo regularly sent his brother both money and painting materials. He also used his position as an art dealer in Paris to try to find an audience and market for his brother’s creations. In many ways it was Theo who created the Van Gogh myth, sacrificing his own name to promote that of his brother, and eventually sacrificing himself when he believed that he had failed.

Theo first arrived in Paris in 1884. He was working for the French art dealers Goupil and Cie in The Hague, and had received a transfer to their head office in Paris following good work at the regional branch. Goupil and Cie specialised in traditional, classical artists, and Theo often antagonised his superiors by attempting to promote the new generation of Impressionist artists, his borther included, from the Paris dealership. Vincent first arrived in the city in March 1886, and Theo lodged him at his appartments, first on the Rue de Laval (today Rue Victor Massé), then on the Rue Lepic.

The building where Theo lived in the Cité Pigalle.

Much of what we know of the two brothers is through the many letters that they sent to each other, and as they lived together in Paris, this stretch of time has become the cloudiest period of their lives. We do know though that Vincent stayed in the city until 1888, and that although Theo worked tirelessly to introduce him to fellow artists or clients, he could not make him respected or successful. Vincent had become friends with Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac and Gaugin, but he did not like city life and eventually moved out Arles in the south of France where he intended to create a kind of artistic colony.

Theo stayed in Paris, married, then fathered a son he named Vincent Willem after his brother. He moved to a larger, smarter flat, the property mentioned previously at the Cité Pigalle. The two brothers’ paths would not cross again until May 1890, when Vincent arrived to stay with Theo and his family. He was irritable, telling his brother that he should not bring up a family in such a city, and stayed only three days before moving to Auvers sur Oise where he would die two months later. Visiting the grave of Vincent in the pretty cemetery in this quaint town throws up one final surprise in the story of the two brothers. Theo is buried alongside him, and died himself 6 months later aged only 33.

The final resting place of the brothers in Auvers sur Oise.

What happened in the 6 months between the two deaths? This is the question that a French author, Judith Perrignon, asked herself, and her imagined story, based on much documentary evidence, can be found in the book ‘C’était mon frère’. What we do know is that in reality Theo was as unstable as his brother. He eventually died in an asylum in Utrecht in the Netherlands, some say driven mad by feelings of guilt for his brother’s death, but almost certainly also through complications from the Syphilis he had contracted. It is said that he tried to kill his wife and young son, so perhaps it should be no surprise that he is also separated from them in death.

We are all unique individuals, yet we are connected to others through choice, and most importantly through the sometimes tainted links of blood and chains of DNA. The family protects but the family unit is also a nest of competition and feuds, forced as we are from a young age to be constantly compared to our siblings. Theo decided that his brother had the talent and he the business brain, and that together they could be successful. He believed that he had failed and had betrayed the family name, but the stone plaque we see on the wall at number 8 Cité Pigalle shows us that he had in fact succeeded.


Starman said...

I wonder why it is that most people we call "genius", tend to be quite mentally unstable?

Anonymous said...

great article.

ArtSparker said...

I didn't know Theo's story. Thank you.

CarolineLD said...

A fascinating article: I didn't know about Theo's death.

*Chic Provence* said...

And the Theo Van Gogh story had a sad note when his great grandson Theo was murdered in Amsterdam in 2004 while riding his bicycle.

Love discovering your blog, very interesting!

Adam said...

Hi Chic Provence - and welcome! I had thought about the second Theo, but I wasn't sure how to tie it in. In fact, there's probably a story to tell about the generations between the two Theos, but I'm not sure how much of the story takes place in Paris! I'm not even sure what happened to the wife and child of Theo (Vincent's brother) after his death. Did they stay in Paris or return to the Netherlands?

PeterParis said...

Fascinating story indeed about the van Gogh brothers! To answer your last comment, I believe Johanna returned to the Netherlands. She defintely made a lot to promote Vincent's work and she also was the one who donated his paintings, published the correspondence between the brothers... I think that we all owe her a lot!

rahma dona said...

Not in the book or even New papers article but i know abut Theo while i was watching the chalk zone cartoon (Niclodeon )when Rudy Tabothi wandering around the chalk world and meet the Gogh brothers .Ah thanks for the information any way .)

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