Over Christmas, we went to the blockbuster Van Gogh in America exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts—the DIA–focused on his works in the context of American art collecting. The DIA pulled out all the marketing stops, as the photo suggests. And it received an unexpected boost from reports of a $5 million art crime (more later).
The Detroit exhibit included 74 works from around the world, many of them rarely seen, because they are in private collections. But Why Detroit? Why now? The exhibit celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the museum’s purchase of this beautiful van Gogh self-portrait, painted in 1887. In January 1922, the DIA became the first public museum in America to purchase one of the artist’s works.
In fact, as the exhibit emphasized, it was museums and collectors in the middle of the country who initially were acquiring and exhibiting van Goghs, while the major museums on the coasts were still snubbing him. Not until 1941 was the first van Gogh painting purchased by a New York museum, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired “The Starry Night.”
A trio of art scholars from the van Gogh museum in the Netherlands described some of the myths surrounding the artist. For example, the myth that he sold only one painting in his lifetime—a “The Red Vineyard,” now in Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum. In fact, van Gogh sold several other paintings, their titles unknown and details lost. He also sold drawings, and he sometimes exchanged paintings for food or art materials. By the time of his death, his fame was growing in Europe. He was on the verge of a breakthrough.
Another possible myth is that he didn’t commit suicide, but was accidentally shot by some children and kept it a secret, so as not to implicate them. It is an attractive theory, but the van Gogh Museum experts don’t buy it. They believe he was simply worn out by his mental health problems.
Bringing his work to this country depended on many forward-thinking individuals, especially Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, widow of Vincent’s brother Theo, who worked tirelessly to gain attention for her late brother-in-law’s work. And many of his other collectors, purchasers, and advocates were forward-thinking women.
The painting below, which you’ve probably never seen in person, because it’s privately owned, is “The Novel Reader.” According to federal court documents, Brazilian art collector Gustavo Soter purchased the work for $3.7 million in 2017. Today’s value is an estimated $5 million. Soter transferred possession of the painting (but not the title to it) to a third party, who absconded. The owner learned the painting was in the DIA show and sued to recover it. A federal judge has ordered the museum not to move the painting until this dispute can be resolved. They’ve given it its own security guard.
Do you subscribe to the foreign television streaming service MHz? If so, you might enjoy the fun series, The Art of Crime, in which an uncultured Paris cop is teamed with a spacey researcher from the Louvre.