Love, Art, and Terrorism in the Late 19th Century
Van Gogh in Paris
February 28, 1886
It’s an hour past final curtain and all Montmartre is quiet. Amazingly. Quiet. There is no petrol-based traffic. No electric motors. No amplified sounds. Huge steam-powered locomotives and ships of the day sit idle, almost two hours before boilers are fired and journeys begin. But the silence of this early morning is not complete. With occasional sounds from horses, dogs, and cats, every so often another outburst is heard. One that demands attention. It is the human voice shouting. Usually, this falls into one of two categories: either incomprehensible ranting and raving from someone who’s had too much to drink or specific accusations erupting from within a domestic quarrel. As Montmartre is the largest entertainment district of Paris, both situations occur more frequently than elsewhere, and not uncommonly, from the same location, the natural progression of one leading to the other.
Theo van Gogh is slim, handsome, and well dressed. As the twenty-eight year old manager of one of the most popular art galleries in the world, he feels obligated to keep in step with the proper fashion. Uncle Cent used to say, “To be successful, one must first look successful.” Theo tries his best to follow Cent’s advice, as this particular uncle was one of the founders of the company for which he now works.
The only area where Theo must compromise is housing. Because he is supporting his older brother (and Cent’s namesake), Vincent, Theo is forced to live in a tiny, one-room apartment at 25 Rue Laval. Still, he is able to gain maximum value from his dwelling as the location is just up the street from “La Chat Noir”, one of the favorite gathering places of local artists. How better to keep abreast of all the latest news than to live in their neighborhood, eating and drinking with them? And, his apartment is a perfect place for private showings of some of the more avant-garde works, too radical to be shown in a proper gallery.
Theo is sleeping, but it’s the kind of restless sleep you have when you’re wanting a special someone next to you. The person Theo is missing is his ‘mistress’, Marie, a twenty-year-old entertainer/bartender at the Folies-Bergere.
He would like her to stay with him on a full-time basis, but Marie is a modern Parisienne who thinks sex is different than love and has no qualms about having been the mistress of several different men. And, as much as Theo wants to be with her, how can a man ask a woman like Marie to move in with him when he argued so long and passionately against Vincent when Vincent had been in exactly the same situation four years ago? He is resigned to knowing this is the only way he can have Marie in his life. He makes the best of it by saying how fashionable it is to have a mistress these days and how much cheaper it is, when you don’t have to be her only means of support.
Theo doesn’t approve of her current job, she makes more when she’s modeling, but as she’s been the subject of so many paintings the last few years, it’s almost impossible for Theo to find work for her. As the elder Pissarro commented, "Marie is beautiful, obviously, but her real talent is her incredible presence. An artist would give anything to capture that on canvas. But, what happens when everyone wants to paint the same person? Not since Jesus has so many people wanted to paint the same person! The only difference is, in addition to painting Marie, all the artists want to sleep with her, too.”
Marie knocks softly three times and calls out as quietly as she can while still being heard, "Theo, are you up?"
"Yes. Yes, of course." Theo puts on his pants, walks carefully in the dark, opens the door, yawning. "You made it. Sorry I wasn’t there for the walk, I was so tired."
"There is nothing to be sorry about."
Feeling guilty, Theo tries to explain, "I had a late appointment and just couldn't drag myself out of bed. Are you all right? I worry so much."
"There is nothing to worry about. Everyone up at this hour is an old friend. But, it would be easier if you could give me a key."
"You know I can’t do that. What if you lost it or got robbed and someone realized the key was to this apartment?" Waving his arm at the nearest wall, "You know how much these paintings would be worth?"
Giving a one-sided smile, "Not much from the latest critique." She lays a newspaper on the table. "But, one day, you will be proven right and the world will recognize the beauty as you do. I know this to be true."
"You're the only beauty I recognize now."
"Theo, you’re sweet." Theo is rewarded with an embrace and affectionate kiss. As Marie is backing away after the kiss, she looks at a painting on the wall and smiles, "Although Pierre does make me look pretty good."
After a few more kisses, “Theo, if I do some paintings, will you sell them for me?"
“I can’t sell Renoir and he makes some of the most likeable visions you could put on a wall." Looking at her, "But, we’ve talked about this before. Bring me something, I’ll look at it, and we’ll see what we can do. It’s my job. It’s what I do, day in and day out. I can help, just bring me something to look at."
Marie pouts, "Oh, I'm never satisfied with anything I do. …except for one or two, and I like those so much, I could never sell them… I need more time." Smiling and kissing Theo again, "…and a studio would be… nice… too."
"You know I’m doing everything I can to get better accommodations by June when Vincent comes. He’ll have a studio and you can use it whenever he’s not there and he paints outside every day, weather permitting. It’ll be perfect for you."
"What do we do when it rains?"
"There’s no law that says two people can’t paint in the same room, is there?"
Marie looks at a painting of a skeleton smoking.
"I don't know. You say he is harmless?"
"Yes, of course. That’s just his sense of humor. He's very peaceful. He was in the clergy, for God's sake! All you have to do is not talk to him about religion, love, or art, and you’ll be fine. You’ll see, it’ll be perfect! Which brings me around to a favor I need to ask of you. My late appointment today was with Paul Signac. He wants to use the apartment at 3, this afternoon, today, to show some paintings to a critic before the next exhibition. Confidentially. To fully explain their new technique."
Marie has been searching in a drawer for one of Theo’s flannel shirts and takes it behind a screen to undress, "Some of the new Impressionists’ works?"
Theo, watching her with interest, "Yes, probably some of the new works with the dots. He and Seurat are at the forefront of this, you know. Should be very exciting!” Smiling, "You know the best part? The money he’s giving me to use the apartment will ensure that we’ll be able to move into the bigger place in June, when this lease expires! But, I need your help to make this happen. I need you to be here tomorrow at noon, when the landlord, Dupree, has his nap, to let the movers in, with the paintings. I have to meet a potential client at 11:30 and don’t think I can get back here in time. It shouldn’t be a problem, all you have to do is let them in. I told him the dimensions of the wall, so that should be fine. I’ll be back as soon as I can. But, they need to be quiet, so Dupree doesn’t know what we’re doing. If he thinks we’re conducting business, he’ll raise the rent; I know he will. You know, he even asked about you the other day? …as if a man can’t have a mistress over once in a while!"
Marie comes out from behind the screen. Theo’s shirt is a knee length gown for her, with one bare shoulder. "Your landlord is a bourgeois pig. OK. Strictly hush-hush."
"They should be in and out in no time. …at lunch time. Noon, I told him."
Marie pouts, "Theo?"
Theo smiles, knowing another favor is about to be asked, "Yes?"
"Is it possible I could talk to Monsieur Signac about this new technique, so I can learn more about painting?
"Marie you could charm Monsieur de Paris, the guillotine operator."
"Oh, I don’t think so, but I like to charm you. Please?"
"I’ll do everything I can. Just remember me when you become famous and need a dealer."
"Mais oui, mon cher! You will be my number one dealer!"
They embrace and lay down.
Theo arises shortly after sunup, puts on some trousers, washes, sits at his desk and starts writing.
My Dear Vincent.
It is with warm regards that I enclose 50 francs to use however you see fit. I haved rented the apartment for a one man show today, at a fair price, and, hereby pass on some of my good fortune to you. Too bad my landlord won’t accept some sort of permanent arrangement of this, as there is money to be made as long as there are so few galleries willing to display Impressionist’s works. The more I think about your arrival here in June, the more I am coming around to it. By then, I will have secured a larger apartment, with a proper studio.
I can see where it will be most beneficial for all involved-more on this later.
Your last group of paintings found there way here with no damage and I believe I can see some improvement in the overall painterly qualities, better than the last lot. However, again, I must advise, you must lighten your palette. No one is buying dull, drab, dreary. Please recall what we talked about regards what will sell and what you want to say. There has to be a way of accommodating both. Your thoughts about making the painting come alive when viewed at a distance are very much in line with the Impressionists and, especially, the latest thoughts of Seraut. He will have much to say at the next Impressionist’s exhibition which you will be able to study when ou come in June. This, plus the study at Corman’s studio should be just what you need.
Keep faith in your art. It is with the first step that progress is made.
With a handshake in thought,
Theo puts the letter in an envelope, finishes dressing, and leaves for work.
Marie is up, but still in Theo’s shirt when the manager of the moving crew knocks at the door. She considers putting on more clothes, but the apartment is warm and it’s not necessary. As she opens the door, before she can finish "Bon Jour", she is rendered speechless by the sight of a huge, covered painting being carried by four men.
"Bon Jour! Just sign here Madame." As he hands Marie a clipboard, the crew manager smiles broadly at the sight of an attractive woman dressed only in a man’s shirt.
"Oh, My God. It is huge!" Marie signs the form. "Do you think it will fit?"
With practiced modesty, "As someone who’s been asked that question many times, I can say, if it is at all possible, we will find a way."
Marie ignores the remark.
The man, still amused at his cleverness, sticks his head in the doorway. "Should not be a problem. After we move the sofa, chair, other paintings against the bed, we’ll just leave the ones on the wall where they are and lean this one over them. They’ll be fine."
The men come in, move the sofa and chair, put the painting in place. But, their main attention is on Marie as she dresses behind a screen.
Startled when she comes from behind the screen and sees them staring at here, she chides, "Most men are interested when a lady undresses." She is even more taken aback when the men remove the painting's cover and she recognizes the painting, ‘Sunday Afternoon at the Grand Jatte’.
"This is so amazing! I have heard about this. Georges Seurat’s masterpiece."
"Don’t stare at it too long, Madame. Gerard has gone cross-eyed by looking at all the dots!"
Gerard obliges and looks at her cross-eyed.
"Not really, but it makes a good joke, no? You really like this or do you think it is just another trick to sell paintings? …something designed to distract from an obvious lack of talent?"
Marie, unimpressed with the man’s remarks and still bothered by all of them watching her dress, "I don’t know, it’s the first time I’ve seen it. It’s big." Smiling, "I like big. I think we’re supposed to look at it from a distance." Walking toward and opening the door, "Here, look at it from down the hall."
The manager and crew go outside the door and look back in. "Oui, oui, much better. When you step back, you don’t see the dots and, Wow! The colors are so bright!"
"A little farther back." The men step back in unison. "A little farther. A little farther…" Again, they step back and again, until one of them starts falling down the stairs. With a broad wave of her arm, Marie closes the door. "Bourgeois pigs…"
She walks back to look closer at the painting and its technique. "Monsieur Signac, What can you tell me about this painting?"
Marie washes her face, takes an apple, and leaves the apartment making sure to lock the door behind her.
At 12:20pm Theo opens the door and is positively gobsmacked by the sight of "Grand Jatte". "Goodness Gracious Lord Who is Almighty!" Inspecting Seurat’s signature, "This is it! The one everyone is talking about.” Looking closely at the technique, “Truly amazing. The colors are…" He stands back as far as he can, but it’s not far enough. He tries to back up even farther by opening the door to look at it from the hallway. When he opens the door Signac is reaching for the knob on the other side. They startle each other.
Theo shouts, "Good Lord… Paul!"
At the same time Signac shouts, "Oh!” Then, in quick succession, “Bon Jour! Excellent! Perfect! What do you think?"
"I was about to view it at a distance."
They both go from the door to the hallway.
"There. Very impressive! It’s amazing, actually!" Theo is overwhelmed.
Signac begins to explain. "It’s the deliberate separation of component colors to allow the final tone to be mixed in the eye. It creates a much cleaner image in the mind. Can’t you see it?"
"Amazing. Truly Amazing! At a distance you see the color intended, but, in reality, what’s on the canvas are dots of color. What do you call it?"
"We think the best term for it is ‘Chromoluminariaism’.
Theo as diplomatically as he can, “You know, I’m having trouble imagining ‘Chromoluminariasm’ on a business card. Would you be upset if someone else gave a name to it, like they did for Impressionism.”
"Hmm… That may be a good idea. The Impressionists got a lot of attention when they embraced the derogatory remark from that critic.”
They go into the room. Theo looks around, wondering where his apartment and paintings went, "This is just for this afternoon, right?"
"Signac smiles, "Right, right! It’s a one man show just for a certain critic, this afternoon only!"
"One man show, this is a one painting show! I’ve never seen anything like it."
"No one has. It’s very scientific, you know, not only one has to choose the component colors exactly, but the size of the points of color and how close or far away they are from each other determine how far one needs to be away to see exactly what the artist wants. And, as we are expecting a lot of people to see it at the next Impressionist exhibition, it has to be this big for everyone to see at a distance. Otherwise, only a few people could see the effect, one at a time."
"Too bad my apartment is so small. You have to be outside the door to give it justice."
"I don’t mind, really, makes it that much more dramatic when you first see it when the door is opened."
"You can’t miss it, that’s for sure. You’ll be coming back at 4 this afternoon for the meeting with the critic, right?"
"Right. Now, very importantly, I must have absolute quiet while I explain this to him. I must have his undivided attention so he can fully realize the significance of this. I may even ask you to leave the room to insure that nothing will distract him. Do you understand?"
"Of course, absolute quiet while the critic is here. At some point…" Before Theo could pose the possibility of Marie dropping in, there is a knock at the door.
Upon opening the door a young boy announces, "Message for Monsieur Theo van Gwah!"
"That’s van Gogh", says Theo, in his best Dutch pronunciation, correcting the boy.
"Oui, monsieur, van Gock."
"No! van Gogh!"
"Whatever you say, Monsieur, you have a message." The boy hands Theo a scrap of paper and continues holding out his opened hand, anticipating a tip. Theo’s eyes quickly scan the note.
My Dear Theo,
Don’t be angry with me for arriving out of the blue. I’ve given it so much thought and I’m sure we’ll gain time this way. Shall be at the Louvre from midday onwards, or earlier if you like.
Please let me know what time you can get to the Salle Carree. As far as expenses are concerned, I repeat that it won't make much difference. I still have some money left, of course, and I want to talk to you before spending any of it.
We’ll sort everything out, you'll see.
So come as soon as you can.
I shake your hand.
"Bad news, Theo?"
"Oh, Dear God, No…"
"Someone has passed away, unexpectedly?"
"No. Worse. My brother. He’s come early. He’s not supposed to be here until June! He’s at the Louvre and wants me to pick him up as soon as possible! And, this note is hours old." Theo grimaces at the boy, "It’s already midday!" The boy usually waited for a tip as long as it took, but due to the fact that he had stopped for lunch causing the obvious delay, was unable to pronounce Theo’s last name, together with Theo’s obvious dismay, and now look of a man pushed over the edge, it was too much. The boy ran away.
Signac makes an optimistic proposition, hoping to avoid any negative discussion during his meeting, "Monsieur, this is good news. Family is always welcome. I tell you what, take this 20 francs and take him to La Guinguette for an early dinner. Have a good time!"
"You don’t understand. Vincent can’t be here until June, there isn’t enough room… My landlord will have a fit… I have a business appointment at 1… Meeting a friend for dinner… He doesn’t know about Marie!" Theo closes his eyes as tightly as possible, overwhelmed, repeating the last sentence, as if squeezing his eyelids together hard enough would make the situation go away, "He doesn’t know about Marie…" Realizing he still needs to talk to Signac about Marie, "Also, Marie, my uh, …mistress. …do you mind if she comes to see this painting? She’s got the idea that she wants to be a painter. It would be a great personal favor to me."
Signac accommodates, "Oui, oui. As long as it is before or after the critic is here. He and I must be alone so I can fully explain the significance of this work."
"Of course. Thank you, so much. I must run. In case I don’t return in time, here’s a key. I know you’re a man of substance. I know you’ll be responsible for all my paintings, eh, wherever they are." Theo stops to think for a second and grabs an extra hat and coat.
Signac is puzzled by the extra clothing.
Theo notices Signac’s consternation and, as he is rushing out the door, "My brother is... ah… uh…” Theo is momentarily rendered speechless, trying to describe his brother in a few words, “I’m sorry, with Vincent there is no way to make a long story short. I must hurry."
This will be Vincent’s third time to live in Paris. The first two times, he was working as an art dealer with the same firm Theo works for now, Goupil & Company. Of course, Sunday was the day he would be at the Louvre. Every Sunday had free admission. Indeed, he couldn’t remember one Sunday when he hadn’t gone to the Louvre when he last lived in Paris.
As Theo is entering the Salle Carree area, he hears a group of schoolgirls giggling and knows, instinctively, that Vincent can’t be far away.
A lady with an ermine wrap is listening intently to her gentleman companion when her eyes fall upon a pitiful sight. Apparently, some goat herder who must’ve delivered fresh meat to the staff’s kitchen has wandered down the wrong corridor, opened the wrong door and was here in the midst of the world’s most beautiful and expensive paintings, studying them with all the concentration the poor soul could muster, while trying, inconspicuously, to find the nearest exit. She points in Vincent’s direction and asks her friend, "What sort of hat do you think that is, on that poor misplaced drover in the Guernsey jacket over there?"
"Looks to be a cross between shepherd and beagle, I’d say".
Theo hears and interjects, "I sincerely believe it is dead tomcat and I’ve been after him for years to bury it in the nearest pet cemetery."
The couple laughs, but, can’t make out if Theo is serious, or not.
Polite, but sincere hand shakes and hugs ensue as the brothers, in spite of their frequent letters to each other, haven’t actually been together since their father died almost a year ago in Nuenen, Holland.
"Vincent, you’re a sight for sore eyes! How are you?"
"Well, old man, I’m much the better now from seeing you!"
"Excellent! The trip was satisfactory?"
"Yes, although I lost my easel, the idiotic fireman thought it was firewood, broke it up, and threw it in the stove! I tried to rescue it…", holding up his slightly scorched sleeve, "But, it was too late. Blasted idiot. Theo has it turned so cold that you need an extra coat and hat?"
"Vincent, we need to talk." The words are spoken in no uncertain terms as Theo ushers Vincent down the hall to an area which has a large trash bin.
As he approaches the couple commenting on Vincent’s appearance, speaking loudly so they can hear, "Vincent, do you think Delacroix with his modern approach to color is able to capture the simple life of the peasants as well as, say, Millet?" Directly to the lady, "He’s in costume. Very eccentric artist."
They reach the bin with Vincent still trying to explain the difference between
someone who is eccentric and someone who appreciates the value of money.
"Vincent, you have no right to be here. …here and now. I have no room! I just sent you a letter explaining all this, again. I won’t have space until June."
"Theo, all this is academic. I am here. I am here to stay. It will be beneficial for both of us. Please don’t argue about something that is so obvious and perfectly sensible. Let’s go to the apartment and I’ll show you. It will be fine."
"You don’t know the situation." Looking at his watch again, "Right now, I am almost late for an appointment with a client and there is a meeting in my apartment, in two hours. Something that might change the whole course of the appreciation of what art is. Something that might benefit you and all the Impressionists to make your mark on the world. It could be something that could be huge in the entire history of art!"
"Now, this is most intriguing. Something to do with the Impressionists? You’re in the midst of a big sale?"
"No. Nothing like that. But, it is big and, most definitely, requires you to not be there!"
"It requires me to not be there?" Vincent is obviously sorry for the frustration he hears in Theo’s voice, but cannot grasp how his mere presence has the possibility of ruining everything.
"I’ve even been given 20 francs to take you to an early dinner, to ensure privacy, for this meeting. I’ll tell you everything, when we eat and we can figure out what to do with you then, but first, you must start dressing appropriately."
“Oh? Is that what this is about? These clothes have kept me warm and dry for years.”
“Do you remember what Mother used to say? You create squalor simply by entering a room? Your clothes are hand-me-downs from miners who received them as hand-me-downs, before you! They’re second hand, second hands! But no, in this case, as inappropriate as you clothes are, it’s not the reason you can’t come to my apartment this afternoon. It’s a very sensitive meeting. That’s all. …and, you need to dress better.” He hands the hat and coat to Vincent.
Vincent reluctantly takes off his hat and coat and exchanges them with Theo. Looking at the hat Theo has just handed him, "A bit formal, don’t you think?"
"Not at all. Look around you." There were quite a few of the hats around, but the gentlemen were all wearing suits. Vincent’s working clothes were out of place. "Uh, just try to make the best of them. We have to start somewhere. "
Theo, unceremoniously, rolls Vincent’s dead cat hat into the Guernsey hide jacket, puts them in the bin and starts walking away, "Come we must hurry."
As they are walking away, Vincent’s mind turns from the present to the future and thoughts of the Impressionists. "In Antwerp, they are saying Manet is the Father of Impressionism, even though he is not one of them. Do you share this viewpoint and if you do, could you tell me why? …or, are there some examples here that demonstrate that he is or isn’t? During his life, I didn’t think much of him, but, after he’s gone, people can’t stop talking about his revolutionary approach to painting. I must say, I’ve only seen a couple of prints of his work, just a couple of portraits, but they didn’t strike me as anything special. Maybe the subject material was more important than his technique?"
Theo looks at Vincent as though Vincent knows where they are going. "It is positively incomprehensible how you do this."
"You know, every so often, well, more than that, really, often enough to be positively the most impossible thing to understand, is, you say something that’s directly related to something that I know is going to happen, but you wouldn’t have the slightest idea about."
Vincent ponders what Theo has said… "Is this directly related to the some times when I know absolutely nothing about which you’re talking?"
After a slight pause, Theo responds, "In this case, yes, I think so."
After a short time in which Vincent looks at Theo wondering what he could possibly be talking about and Theo looks at Vincent wondering how in God’s name he knew where they are going, both appearing to hope for Divine Intervention to each of the questions they had asked the other several times before. Vincent finally breaks the silent stare only brothers can have, "Well?"
"It’s another case of you asking me something that is directly related to where we are going, even though there’s no way you would know anything about it, where we are headed. Eugene Manet has asked me to stop by his house and give him my opinion on the value of some of his brother’s works. Eugene and his wife, Berthe Morisot, have several of Edouard’s paintings, you know."
"How would I know this?"
"Of course, you wouldn’t! That’s the whole point! Sacra Bleu! We must go! We are going to be late!”
After a polite offering of scones and coffee, Theo and Vincent are led into Berthe Morisot’s studio which was now also serving as a gallery for her brother-in-law’s work. Eugene and Berthe walk along the row of paintings, giving a short description of each while Theo asks questions, trying to get a sense of what the painting is about, if there was anything about the creation of the painting that might add to its value. In the end, Theo would give them a couple of different values, what price Boussod, Valadon and Company would put on them and how much they might be worth in a few years. Vincent listened to the descriptions then spent a minute or two closely examining each work, then walking a few steps back for another view, until he heard something that would catch his attention about the next painting and he would move up to see what the others were talking about. After the third painting, Berthe, noticing Vincent’s keen interest asks, "What do you think, Vincent?"
Vincent clears his throat. "Well, Eduoard Manet’s brush stroke is the lightest I have ever seen." Thinking a bit, "He was obviously a student of Delacroix, the way he paints the sea. He handles light extremely well, especially outdoors, something with which I am in a constant state of frustration." Vincent continues, "Sometimes primitive, I can see how some would say unfinished, but at a distance I see, exactly, that he, indeed, is conveying a sense of movement, forcing us to see exactly what he has chosen to present. And, what he wants us to see gives us some remarkable things to think about! His compositions are much considered and designed to imbue the characters with thought, although, the subtlety with which he poses them scarcely gives us more than a suggestion as to what their thoughts may be. Very thought provoking and fresh looking." Turning to Theo, Vincent exclaims, "Theo we should, at once, buy them all!"
Berthe, Eugene and Theo laugh loudly at Vincent’s enthusiasm, but Vincent is not smiling. "I am serious!"
"Vincent, you are very generous with Goupil’s money, you know we have only a certain budget within certain styles. We have a large number of customers with many different tastes."
"You must educate the customer."
Theo takes the company’s point of view. "Vincent, we have talked about this many times. Our job is to serve the customers, not tell them what they should buy. The company knows what the customer wants."
"Those gentlemen don’t know their…"
Vincent is stopped by Theo’s slightly raised hand and forceful words. "Those gentlemen have been quite generous in the last few years allowing Boussod, Valadon and Company to be the only respectable gallery to have an Impressionist display. …to invest in a representative cross-section of the new art. We will have ample opportunity to discuss this later." Getting back to the business at hand, "Now, about this one, do you know if it was painted before or after the similar one by Monet?"
Eugene and Berthe look at each other, not familiar with the Monet painting Theo is talking about.
Vincent's eyes fill with emotion, "This is one of the most powerful anti-war statements I have ever seen." His soul is touched by the sight of a one-legged man hobbling into the scene of a street with several French flags in honor of the 14th of July celebration.
“Yes, Edouard was most sad about the tremendous loss of life in '71. First the siege, then the blood bath in the streets. We were here the whole time, you know."
"No, I didn't know." Theo replies respectfully.
"I'm sure you've heard the stories... eating animals from the zoo, mass executions..." It’s obviously still painful for Eugene to talk about.
"The painting by Monet has many more flags, a cacophony of red, blue
and white, if you will. No crippled man. A joyous painting, very patriotic."
"Interesting." Berthe reports matter-of-factly. "Monet and his family went away to London ahead of the Prussians. But, we really shouldn’t hold that against him. His father didn’t want him to be a painter, at all, and completely disinherited him afterwards."
"Well, this is something for a museum. Would be lovely to get the Monet and put them side by side. On the market, maybe 800, 900 francs… really something more suited for public display, at the right time, with the right government…"
Theo focuses on the next painting, "And this?"
Berthe responds, "A study for the Bar at Folies."
"Ah, yes, ‘Bartender at the Folies-Bergere’, from the Salon of '82. Very interesting, how different it is from the final version. Obviously, added a lot to it as the concept progressed. The lady is younger with a different pose, the gentleman much taller, more things on the bar, trapeze in the upper left corner."
“I am impressed, you are so familiar with the final painting.”
They round a corner. Theo is shocked to see the exact painting he just described, Manet's last masterpiece. "Oh, my! Here is the final painting!
The beautiful young woman… Whose mind is far, far away, on what, we do not know, but, probably, has something to do with the reflection, that's not a reflection, on the right side. Magnificent. Just magnificent. Totally in Edouard's style. Again, would be great to have these two, together, to demonstrate how the painting changed as he went along."
Vincent, who had been looking at the left side of the painting, looks over to the right side. As he sees the man in the reflection, Vincent interrupts the conversation by shouting out, "Theo, it's you! You are the man in the reflection! This is remarkable! Why didn't you tell me?"
Embarrassed over Vincent’s lack of decorum, Theo tries to dissuade him, "Vincent, it’s not me."
"Don’t be silly. Look! The hat! It’s the very same hat you gave me today!"
"Vincent, these hats were very popular a few years ago. Everyone in Paris has one. How many did we see at the Louvre today?" Looking to Berthe and Eugene for help, "Probably eighty percent of the male population still wears them."
"All right, but what about your face? Look at you! It’s you, my brother. Why would you be talking to this lady at the Folies-Bergere?"
"Vincent, it’s not, me." Speaking to his hosts, "Do you know anything about this painting?"
Eugene sighs, "Not much. There are more questions about this one than all the others combined. Her name is Suson and she really was a bartender at the Folies-Bergere. She would come to Edouard’s studio with a body guard, or, maybe, her boyfriend. Whether that’s him in the reflection, we don’t know. We weren’t there when he painted it. You know, there is a resemblance. It could be you, for all we know."
"Please don’t encourage him," pleads Theo.
"The only thing Edouard would ever say about it was, "When one knows, all will know."
"What could that mean? Does that mean one person will be able to tell everyone? …or, somehow everyone will discover what it means at the same time? …and, if that is so, how could everyone know at the same time?" They consider the questions for a moment.
"Come Theo.” Vincent breaks the silence. “Tell us. You know you could never lie to me."
Theo grabs Vincent’s shoulders and looks him straight in the eye, "Vincent, if it were me don’t you think I would know what it is all about and I would tell you? I am telling you, I don’t know what it’s about and it’s not me."
Vincent doesn’t know whether to believe Theo, or not. "That’s pretty good, Theo. Maybe it’s just your coat and hat."
"Now that’s possible. I did go to Folies from time to time and I did see Edouard there. Even spoke with him on occasion, as I am an art dealer and he was an artist. That is all. Now, again, this should be on public display, if for no other reason, than to see if the prophecy can be fulfilled. As far as the worth, it will be directly related to his reputation. If the Impressionists gain favor, it could become priceless, but, until then, upper end, maybe 30,000 francs due to it being Edouard’s last major work and the mirror theme. Be a shame to go to a private collector, though. Would you like me to talk to a few museum curators?"
"We already have someone working on it, to see how much interest there is. Good to see you agree." Eugene looks pleased because Theo is so familiar with Edouard’s work.
Three more paintings are presented, all works of flowers. Vincent continues studying "The Bar".
"That’s it then? We must go. …another appointment. No rest for the weary, you know. Come Vincent, we must move on."
They walk to the door as a houseboy brings Theo and Vincent their hats and coats. Vincent studies his hat so much that Theo has to guide him in the right direction through the door. Theo thanks Berthe and Eugene for their hospitality. They thank Theo for his professionalism.
As Vincent is about to step in to the carriage, "It is you, isn’t it?" Vincent asks one last time.
Theo responds with a heavy sigh and pushing him forward.
It’s 1:50pm. Theo has planned to take Vincent to lunch, but the appointment at Manet’s took less time than expected and he has a feeling something isn’t going right back at the apartment. Although there are many things that still need to be explained to Vincent, Theo’s immediate concern is Signac’s meeting with the critic. As they pull up in front of the building, Theo asks Vincent to wait in the carriage. Vincent complies as he considers what time the Louvre will be closing, if there is enough time to go back and get his hat and coat out of the trash, and whether it would be quicker to go now or wait until after lunch.
Theo bounds up the stairs two at a time, hoping all is well, but eager to put things right, if they’re not, just in case. He knocks on the door and enters, "Paul, is everything all right?"
"Oui, I just got back from having a bite. Wanted to be here with plenty of time. And, to have some wine and fruit available," pointing to the table.
"Excellent. Very civilized. Now, I should tell you, just in passing, my landlord can be a little, uh, meddlesome. Is it a bit stuffy in here?" Theo walks to the window, raises it and sees Marie coming up the street. He waves at her.
She sees him, waves, smiles broadly and yells towards the second story window, "Theo! Mon cher amour!"
Theo turns to Signac and explains Marie’s role will be to handle the landlord, just in case. As Marie is entering the building, she can’t help but notice someone in a carriage is staring at her.
Vincent’s body was quietly sitting in the carriage, but his mind was leaping over dogs and vegetable carts as he tried to determine if it would be a shorter distance to rescue his hat and coat from his current location or from the restaurant to which they were headed when he heard Marie call out to Theo. A beautiful woman calling out Theo’s name wasn’t unusual, but the additional “Mon cher amour” and the affection with which it was said immediately caused a raised eyebrow. Theo always had heaps of friends, especially artists, models and other dealers because, after all, he was the manager of one of the largest art firms in the world. But, as much cajoling, flirting and unconscionable emotional bribery the artists, models and other dealers must have tried on Theo, it struck Vincent as altogether too familiar, the way Marie smiled when she greeted her, "Mon cher amour." Altogether, too familiar, indeed!
"More secrets, Theo?" Vincent jumps out of the carriage and follows Marie up the stairs.
Back in Theo’s apartment Theo is attempting to put Signac at ease. "Purely precautionary. Just wanted to let you know we have planned for every contingency".
Marie knocks on the door and enters. Giving Theo a kiss, she greets Signac, "Paul Signac, I presume? Monsieur, I am enthralled by this painting and want to know everything about it."
"I would be pleased to tell you everything there is to know. Perhaps later we can…"
Before Signac can finish, a loud voice calls out from just in front of the landlord’s door, "Theo, mon cher amour! Is this why I have to wait in the carriage, to keep me away from your mon cher amour, that I know nothing about?"
Theo’s general, overall sense of things going splendidly suddenly changes, "Oh, no…"
Vincent shouts again, now in front of the door, “I demand to know what is…"
Marie opens the door. In a heartbeat, Vincent’s demeanor changes from indignant, brotherly rage to complete bewilderment. As if in church he addresses the huge painting, "Holy Mary, Mother of God..."
Theo quickly drags Vincent inside and closes the door at the same time putting his finger to his lips, whispering, "Shush!"
There is dead silence for about the time it takes someone to put on their shoes. Then the steadily increasing sound of the aforementioned shoes coming up the hallway to Theo’s door. The sound stops.
Everyone looks at each other. After a couple of seconds, a knock at the door.
Again, Theo’s finger goes to his lips.
After a few more seconds of silence, a louder knock causes everyone to jump. "Come on. I know you’re there. I saw the door close." The banging is even louder on the door.
Theo inhales, preparing himself for the confrontation with the landlord, hoping he can talk his way out of the predicament. Opening the door slightly, "Yes, sorry, Monsieur Deupree, I was in the middle of something."
"Monsieur van Gogh, what is going on here?"
"Sir, nothing is going on, just having a visit from my brother and,"winking at Signac, "…my sister."
"It’s a very loving family you have, Monsieur." Seeing Marie’s face through the door, "I know this one spends the night here at least four times during the week. And, who is this?" Seeing Vincent, answering the question himself, "Her jealous husband?"
Vincent wants no part of this, feels his voice raising, "I, sir, am Theo’s brother and have every right to be here."
Dupree pushes open the door. Looking at Signac, "And, who is this? Another brother?"
Theo, speaks louder as one of his neighbors begins banging on the wall, "Sir, it is midday. I have every right to have guests."
Dupree points at the "Grand Jatte" painting, "And, what is this? New wallpaper?"
Signac is genuinely offended, "That, Monsieur, is a new work of art the likes of which the world has never seen before!"
There is more banging on the wall.
"What’s new about this? It’s size? You charge by the square metre now?"
Signac is too indignant to speak.
Theo responds in the loudest voice he can, over the now-constant banging on the wall, "Now see here, sir. This is art of the most innovative order."
Before Theo can continue, the landlord connects the dots, so to speak, and yells out the most appropriate question, "Answer me this, Monsieur van Gogh, what is this piece of pox prattle doing here? Are you conducting business in your apartment, Monsieur van Gogh?"
As everyone is speechless and minds are racing to explain the large painting and accompanying crowd, the sound of the door to the adjoining apartment is heard slamming followed by footsteps, again, coming toward the door. A woman’s voice shouts.
"What in God’s name is going on here?" She comes in through the open door. "What’s going on?" She recognizes Marie as Theo’s semi-permanent guest. "And who is this, some common… trollop?"
Marie, mouth agape, is not so upset that someone would call her a trollop, but would never, under any circumstances, allow herself to be referred to as a "common" anything.
Vincent has been calmly examining the painting while removing Theo’s top hat and coat. He matter-of-factly responds to the question of who Marie is with what he thinks Theo would want him to say, without incriminating himself, "She’s Theo’s sister."
Everyone starts yelling, all at the same time.
Marie, to the neighbor, "Trollop? What right do you have to call me a COMMON
trollop? You don’t even know me! I suggest you have a sherry and go to bed when the sun goes down like most good, Christian people."
The neighbor, to everyone, "Sister? Not the way they carry on in here at night!"
The landlord, loudly, "Theo, you must explain what this woman and man here are doing, spending the night, and this painting!" To the neighbor, "I’ll take care of this!" Back to Theo, "You know you are expressly forbidden to conduct business. Tell me! What is going on!"
Theo, to the neighbor, shouting, "Madame, you cannot call her a trollop! I have the highest of intentions, something you probably have never been associated with and probably never will, with that attitude."
Signac, shouting loudly, "Please. We must be calm." To the neighbor, "The noise that is keeping you awake at night. Have you tried earplugs? I have a very important meeting and must have ABSOLUTE QUIET!"
Neighbor, to Dupree, screaming at the top of her lungs, " You’ll take care of it? This has been going on for months, ever since I moved in. I’m surprised you can’t hear it. It’s the most animalistic caterwauling I’ve ever heard, it is!"
Marie, gasping, letting her have it as loudly as possible, "What? How dare you! I may be a mistress, but I’m not a common trollop and the way I make love is none of your business, you old biddy!"
Dupree, his bass voice booming with authority, at the same time as Marie, "No business! This is most serious! Not to mention you’re keeping your neighbor from the quiet enjoyment of her apartment by your incessant and carnal noises night after night after night, er, not that I’ve heard them myself."
Theo, almost hoarse, to the neighbor, as Signac is trying to restore order, still yelling, "Madame, I do not like what you’re insinuating. My intentions are of the highest order and under no circumstances would I be ever thinking what you are suggesting with my own sister. It's absolutely out of the question!"
Signac, most seriously and loudly, to Dupree "No Business! NO BUSINESS! No money is changing hands! Just a very sensitive meeting, that deserves every opportunity… To make sure we are able to get the message across to Monsieur Feneon. We must work this out! It is imperative that we work this out because of the extreme importance of this meeting."
The neighbor, still screaming, in a high, shrill voice, "Oh, Theo! Oh, Theo! Oh, Theo! Over and over again! And grunting, like some wild boar!" To Marie, then Theo, "Is that you or him?" To Marie, "An old biddy? I’ll have you know I’ve been married", holding up her right hand with four fingers skyward, "Four times and each and every husband was satisfied in every way, but did I keep the neighbors up with Oh, Theo! Oh, Theo! Oh, Theo?"
Theo, to Dupree, still yelling, "And, you sir, to suggest that I am conducting business is ridiculous!"
Dupree, to Theo, "Mind you, haven’t heard the noises myself, always sleep on my good ear.” With a slight smile, “…was married 14 years." Again, shouting, "But, you must tell me what is going on here!"
Signac’s and the neighbor’s voices are the loudest of everyone while the neighbor is doing her last ‘Oh, Theo! Oh, Theo! Oh, Theo?’, Signac screams as loud as he possibly can, "AND ABOVE ALL, WE NEED, ABSOLUTE QUIET!"
All is silent except the neighbor who begins grunting her impression of a wild boar.
Vincent, during the melee, was the only one not yelling, calmly trying to assure Mr. Dupree that at least one of the van Goghs had some sense. "Sir, I am Theo’s brother. I would add, someone who would never have placed my mistress, my brother, or my client in such a position." He was about to say more, but his attention was diverted forward to the doorway where someone looking quite perplexed was staring back, his lower legs unseen, with his body leaning at a 45 degree angle, showing only his top half, ready to take cover any moment if shots were to be fired.
The neighbor’s loud, guttural sound more akin to a pig being drug off to slaughter than experiencing joy, was the stranger’s cue.
As the stranger’s eyes moved nervously from side to side he queried, "Didn’t anyone get the note?"
Signac immediately recognizes the person and greets him, smiling, "Ah, Monsieur Feneon. You’re early!" He extends his hand and starts walking toward Feneon as the melee starts again.
Before they can shake hands, the same, small boy who brought the note from Vincent appears in the doorway and yells, "Message for Monsieur Paul Signac."
Everyone watches as Signac accepts the note and reads aloud, "Monsieur Signac, I will be an hour early. Sorry for any inconvenience. Regards, Felix Feneon."
Signac starts to reach into his pocket for a coin when Theo, recognizing the boy, yells something unintelligible and runs toward him. The child, knowing he’s in big trouble, quick-as-a-flash, is gone.
As the argument is starting to heat up for the third time, Signac asks Feneon to stay in the hallway for a moment. Signac brings his wallet out of his coat, pulls out a handful of cash and holds it in his hand, straight over his head. He walks through the unruly crowd, goes to Dupree and, as calmly as he can, explains, "Monsieur, this is not a business transaction. I am merely demonstrating a new concept in painting to this gentleman in a quiet, peaceful environment so he may have some time to reflect on the importance of this discovery. I’m sure Monsieur van Gogh had no intention of hiding the fact that his brother is going to be staying here, it is simply a matter that he only found out about it today, so he has had no opportunity, until now, of advising you of the situation. How much extra should the rent be? 50 francs? It’s a very small room. How about 60 francs?"
He holds up 3 bills in front of Dupree’s face which, after about a second’s deliberation, are whisked out of his hand, into the landlord’s pocket. Signac continues. "As for the girl, I’d say she is performing a valuable service for you, at absolutely no charge."
Dupree raises his eyebrows. Signac continues.
"How much would you pay a security service to check on the building in the middle of the night?” Turning to Marie, “Marie, when you arrive in the wee hours of the morning, would you report anything unusual you come across, like an open door, a robbery in progress, smoke, fire?"
Marie, in actuality, would report smoke or fire straightaway, but open doors and robberies, would probably require further investigation, as to whether she knew the robber and exactly what they were doing and if there were anything in it for her, but for current purposes, her answer is, "Of course!"
"There you are. Have you, or any of your tenants been robbed in the middle of the night since Theo moved in?"
Dupree, agrees reluctantly, "Well, no."
"There you have it! You should be paying Marie for security duty!"
The landlord walks out, but stops in front of Theo, points at him and says, "No business!"
Signac then turns his attention to the neighbor, "Madame, I know for a fact there is a novelty shop on Boulevard Clichy which sells an excellent set of earplugs. Perhaps I can treat you to a pair." Handing her a 10 franc note,
"And, you’re going to be meeting another fine, Dutch gentleman, who has just moved here from…", looking at Vincent questioningly.
Vincent spurts, "Antwerp."
Signac continues, "Antwerp! Belgium! Land of praline truffles! You know, I would wager Monsieur van Gogh would be happy to bring you some of those most delectable morsels as an offering of good will, a good neighborly gesture of good will, don’t you think?"
Both Theo and Vincent nod their head in agreement.
The neighbor considering the bribe, starts walking out the door after the landlord, stopping at the doorway, in a determined tone, to Theo, "Dark Chocolate!” Looking at them all, then back at Theo, “Nuts!"
Signac, rubbing his hands together, "Finally, we can get down to business!"
Theo’s face distorts, cringing at the totally inappropriate comment.
"Uh, metaphorically speaking," assures Signac.
Vincent to Theo, "Brother, your friend is a great peacemaker, is he a diplomat? Or, more likely, with all the money, a politician?"
"No, he is Paul Signac, one of the great new, scientific painters with Georges Seurat. Even Pissarro is painting like this now."
"One of the oldest of the Impressionists. Come let me show you the technique."
As Theo and Vincent are studying the gigantic painting up close, Signac and Feneon are getting the view from the hallway. Signac asks the critic, "And, what color is the grass, there?" And, another question, pointing to another spot, "What would you say about the grass there?"
"Well, of course, the color, in both cases, is green."
"And, the intensity, here?"
"Most intense. Brilliant. It obviously has been put on with freshly ground pigment to arrive at such a bright shade of green."
Signac smiles, "Yes, one would think, based on years of experience and knowledge of how colors and pigments are constructed." Escorting the critic to the painting, "Come, let me show you. There, what do you think of this? Here, there is no green at all, only points of yellow and blue. And, here, there is only the most basic of green present. But, points of the complimentary color, red-orange, react with your mind to intensify the green. In both cases that green that you see from the hall doesn’t come from a pigment on the canvas. It comes from your mind!"
"Very interesting, very, interesting. An important discovery… But, I’m not sure it has much to do with art. Art is about history and subject matter and having the talent to create a good likeness and composition. How can it be art if you have to be in a certain place to see it correctly? Looking at it from this distance, I wouldn’t say it’s art, just spots on a canvas."
Marie, who’s been listening, feels compelled to jump into the discussion, "Monsieur, have you ever seen anything like this?"
"Are we talking about this painting, or you?"
"The painting. The painting!"
"It is undoubtedly something of interest, but how does it fit into the scheme of things? Certainly not a traditional painting. And, not a technique used by any of the Impressionists…"
Marie is quick to recognize the obvious, "Maybe it’s something
b e y o n d Impressionism…", stretching the word ‘beyond’ several times its normal length.
Signac, picking up on Marie’s lead, "Hmm… Beyond Impressionism…"
Feneon’s mind was racing ahead to the words he could use to describe the technique. (As is the case with most critics, the opinion he had on something was, many times, based on the cleverness with which he could come up with a description, either pro or con, as much as it was on whether he actually liked something or not.)
Theo is listening intently to what is going on. He adds, "Beyond Impressionism, maybe Post Impressionism." Looking at the painting, "Yes, most interesting. Most of the critics and appraisers today haven’t even acknowledged the Impressionists and here, in front of us, is a bona fide example of the next great advance in art. An example of the freshness and vitality, of the pace with which the modern world is advancing."
Signac continues, "Before the masses have been able to comprehend and accept the current concepts, we’re off to the next."
"Oui, oui!" Marie puts her left arm around Feneon’s shoulder and with her right, arcs across the wall as if reading a giant billboard. "I can see it now! Monsieur Felix Feneon, art critic extraordinaire, discovers the next generation of modern art. As sure as the dots are points of color, they point to the future!"
Feneon is soaking it up, getting more and more excited over what he might say in his critique.
Signac senses a convert in the making, "Then you think it is a leap forward? …that all paintings will be like this in the future?"
Feneon, coming back to earth, "Eh, no… But, it is a worthy project and could make a good review. I must leave now for a political meeting, the reason I had to come early. Would any of you be interested in coming along to the meeting, to help with the struggle of the modern worker against the bourgeois? We will talk more about this painting." Looking at Vincent and Theo, "What about you two?" Looking at Vincent, "You, in particular, by your clothes, you look as if you would have some grievances against the corrupt system of landowners and their political lackeys. Together, we may be able to stem the tide of economic subordination of the masses! What say you?"
Vincent is immediately repelled by someone so political. In Vincent’s days as a missionary for the Dutch Reform Church he had prevented more than one strike in the Borinage region, saving lives, stressing the importance of recognizing the oneness of humanity, to do everything he could to break down the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Theo simply thinks it would be bad for business.
The brothers look at each other and shake their heads no in unison.
Looking at them with eyes of a zealot, "Not now, eh? A time will come when everyone will be with us. All right then. Paul, come. Walk with me. Let’s see if we can work out something for both of us." He puts his arm around Signac and leads him out the door.
Vincent is the first to speak, "What just happened here?"
Theo, "I’m not sure. The discovery of a new art movement? Another conversion to socialism? Or…" grabbing Marie by the waist, "The birth of the world’s greatest saleswoman?" They embrace while Vincent waits for an explanation.
Clearing his throat, Theo gives a formal introduction. "Vincent, may I present to you Marie-Clementine Valadon! This is the very same Marie I have written to you about, over the last three years.
"Marie! I thought you left Theo last year, once and for all."
"I have left Theo, once and for all, many times. He will always have a special place in my heart."
Theo, smiling, "As long as she has no other place to go. Vincent, it is complicated. We are old friends now, who love each other in spite of all we have been through."
At first Vincent is pleased to see his brother so happy, but the feeling is quickly overpowered by the fact that Theo has been hiding the truth from him, for years.
Theo senses a heated discussion, one he has been avoiding for what seems like forever. "Vincent, you have every right to be upset, but, I promise I will tell you absolutely everything tonight. But, now, please… give us just a bit of time to celebrate our good fortune. We have to meet Dries at the Dutch Club. You remember Dries, yes?”
“Yes, of course, I’ll try to meet you there, but I may not be able to make it back in time. Something else I have to do first.” Vincent leaves as quickly as he can, headed back to the Louvre to retrieve his cowhide jacket and dead-cat hat.
Vincent was born into a family with deep traditions, not the least of which were their names. Within five generations there were five Vincents and four Theodoruses. Being the eldest of six children, Vincent, dutifully tried to please his parents, but as time went on what started as a difficult task became impossible.
Most of the van Gogh family were in one of two professions, selling art or the ministry. Three of Vincent’s uncles were art dealers, uncle Cent being the most successful. It was Cent’s company for which Vincent started working in 1869. By all accounts he did well in his first job until he had the misfortune of mistaking a young girl’s kindness for love and became hopelessly lost in misery when she revealed she was secretly engaged to someone else. This, together with his growing belief that he was selling art from the “periwig and pigtail” era, a belief which he readily passed on to customers, led to his departure from the art business in 1876.
Vincent’s father, Theodorus (Dorus), was a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, as was his grandfather, Vincent. Again, he tried to be a good son and follow the family tradition. He studied for several months, but was never able to reach an adequate understanding of Latin, even after employing a special tutor. As Vincent could read and write four other languages his failure was not from lack of intelligence. For the life of him, he could not see how learning Latin had anything to do with studying the Bible or saving people’s souls. Vincent dropped out of training, but, with his father’s help, was offered a job as a missionary in the Borinage mining region of Belgium. It was a bottom-of-the-barrel ministry that most would have regarded as somewhere they were sent for punishment, but Vincent jumped at the opportunity.
Vincent became a devout follower of Christ in the most humble way, readily giving away all of his material possessions. Throwing caution to the wind, he traveled deep within the coal mines to administer the word of God. He became so successful they called him “The Christ of the Coal Mines”. Among some of his beneficial acts, he tore the shirt off his back to make bandages for fire victims, comforted those suffering from typhoid, and convinced alcoholics to stop drinking. He did everything he thought a true follower of Christ should do. Unfortunately, as he became obsessed with living as cheaply as possible, his diet suffered to the point where he was eating only bread, potato peelings and coffee. Also, he didn’t wear shoes very often and allowed his clothes to get in such bad condition that some of the underprivileged miners gave him their hand-me-downs.
The church saw Vincent as an embarrassment and after repeated attempts to get him to take better care of himself, finally gave up and stopped sending financial support. Still, Vincent stayed, helping the miners where he could, but, it was about this time, he started thinking seriously about changing careers, yet again, to build on something he’d been doing most of his life. Drawing. After visiting a high-ranking church official who commented positively on his art work (but negatively on him ever becoming a pastor) Vincent bought a sketch book and a drawing manual. Over the next year, the decision was made. At the age of 28, with no formal training, whatsoever, he decided to become an artist. He realised there would be many skills to master and he would have to progress rapidly to become successful and create a serious body of work.
In October, 1880, he left the Borinage and moved back to live with his mother, father, and younger siblings who were still at home. By this time his father had no doubt; Vincent was never going to amount to much of anything, having failed, again, so miserably.
Vincent stayed with his parents for about a year, drawing as much as he could in a converted laundry at the back of the house, until, once again, he mistook kindness for love, with the same tragic result, absolute rejection. Only this time, it was worse, for the object of his affection was his recently widowed cousin, Kee Voss, and his horrendously bad judgement was on display for the whole family to see. Vincent’s confusion over finding a wife by himself should not have been totally unexpected, though, as Vincent’s father wasn’t successful in finding his own mate, either. Dorus and his well-to-do brother, the art dealer Cent, married sisters.
It was immediately after Kee’s rejection that Vincent moved to The Hague and, shortly thereafter, invited a former prostitute named Christien (Sien) de Groot to live with him. In the bargain he also gained two children (the youngest of which could possibly have been his child) and a mother-in-law in what would become the only family unit he ever called his own. While not able to support them financially, he was an excellent husband and father, producing some very sensitive drawings of domestic life during this period. It was also during this time that Vincent had his first instructions in painting, by his cousin, Anton Mauve, in 1882. Unfortunately, the lessons were cut short when Vincent’s family found out about the situation with Sien. They were furious because he told them the money they were giving him was going for a model, not to support living with a woman of questionable virtue. After talking with Mauve and other family members, it was agreed. Vincent had to choose between his art and the person he considered his wife and her children. To stay with Sien would mean he would lose all financial support. It was an agonizing position to be in, for which he would never forgive his family. After about a year with Sien and her family, he returned again to his father’s house.
It was a very difficult time for Vincent, as practically every discussion with Dorus ended in an argument. But Vincent had no choice. He had to live as economically as possible while learning his craft. There were at least two more tragic affairs during this period, one of which ended when the girl attempted suicide because her parents refused to let her marry Vincent.
The death of Dorus in 1885 seemed to affect Theo the most. Vincent had long since given up hope of having any sort of understanding between his father and himself. His latest try at formal education was at the Antwerp Academy in Belgium in 1885. He was allowed to attend some classes while they evaluated him for possible admission as a student. Vincent is now 32 years of age and his only ‘masterpiece’ is a group portrait of a peasant family at dinner which would have quickly faded into oblivion had it not been for events beginning to unfold in Paris.
By the time Vincent got back from retrieving his hat and coat from the Louvre, it was dark. Theo was waiting, as patiently as he could, reading from the light of a kerosene lamp, finally breaking the silence.
“You think you’ll ever change?” Theo was talking about Vincent’s choice of clothes, but could have just as easily been talking about any number of aspects of Vincent’s character or personality.
“Some things, no, I don’t suppose I ever will. It’s a perfectly warm coat and has stood me in good stead for several years. More than I can say for some people.”
“Vincent, you know what we did was for the best.” Trying to use logic, “You must see that by now.”
“I see you were the one controlling the purse strings, going along with our high and almighty father. When all along, you were doing exactly as I was doing...” Using the same words as his family, “…throwing your life away on a loose woman of the lower order, a person not worthy of a proper relationship.”
Theo sits and takes the full fury of Vincent’s wrath.
(speaking in Dutch) “How dare you manipulate my personal life? Telling me to leave my own family because you and father have some sort of moral superiority that makes you know what is right? And… And, that is bad enough in and of itself, but, you… you high and almighty… doing exactly the same thing with a loose woman of the lower class. You wrote that she was a foreigner, that she was educated, and led me to believe she was someone you thought ‘worthy’ of our family. You are a liar! And, the lack of compassion that you have toward me, your brother, to not have the trust to confide in me, something, that if father had known about would’ve made it easier to plead my case with Sien. Together we might have been able to make him see! Together we could have made a difference! God damn it, brother. Can’t you see what you did was wrong?”
Theo waits a few seconds before speaking, “May I explain? Superficially, yes, there are similarities, but I assure you, it’s not the same, at all.”
(Again, in Dutch) “Not the same? Two women... Both perceived to be of the lower class. Loose women of easy virtue, who have had to sell their bodies to make a living.”
Theo raising his voice, “Marie is not, and has never been a prostitute. She has been a victim in every sense of the word, mostly because I arranged for her to do modeling and wasn’t there to protect her. You know how vulnerable young women can be. It wasn’t her fault.”
“And, how many times has she left you to become someone else’s mistress?”
“The number of times is not important. The fact that each time they say they’ll take care of her and they don’t, is not her fault. She’s a highly spirited, emotionally complex woman who needs a lot of attention.”
Theo tries to ignore Vincent’s inference, “No man could have the slightest idea of the pressure Marie has, on a daily basis from everyone propositioning her.” He backs off a bit, “At the age of 15 she was famous. Practicing hours on end, becoming the best trapeze artist in all of Paris, at the Cirque de la Moliere. She could do a triple somersault, without a net! But she fell and broke her foot so badly, it was months before she could walk again. But the pain still continued. Two years later, she still had to have surgery, it was so bad.” Theo holds up his hand to keep Vincent from speaking, “She has such presence! I knew she could model. When she was performing, you couldn’t take your eyes from her. She could’ve been anything, given the opportunity, if she wanted… I went first to Manet, because…”
Vincent interrupts, “It is you! I knew it!”
Theo, again putting his hand up, “I went to Manet first because I’d seen him at the Moliere Circus and knew he was one of Marie’s fans. He agreed to help her make some money after the accident, so I introduced myself to Marie and just about a week after she got out of the hospital, we went to Manet’s studio. He was already working on The Bartender, but…” looking at Vincent, “you saw the study for it. It didn’t have any of the intrigue or … provocativeness that it has now. That was from Marie. When she’s bored she often gets that far away look. And, the pose, well, she had to lean forward to brace herself because of the foot. Of course, the trapeze is a reference to her.”
“And, why did he paint you?”
“Well, yes, he’d already worked out that he wanted a man propositioning her in the reflection and, well, I was helping her walk into his studio and waiting to take her back home, so he just did a quick sketch, and there I am. You’re the only one who’s seen the resemblance, though. I hardly ever wear that hat, anymore. And, as far as ‘one day everyone will know what the painting is about’, I have no idea what that is. He made us promise we would never tell anyone it was us. Who knows? He may have just been getting senile, you know he died the next year from that nervous disorder… A brilliant artist, though. We have a lot to thank him for…
Vincent, raising his voice again, speaking sarcastically, “It’s a fascinating story, brother, but how does that have anything to do with our situation with father, with you taking his side, while I was forced to give up my family. I had to give up my child!”
“I was the only father he ever knew!”
“But, was he actually your son? Can you be absolutely certain?”
Vincent answers reluctantly, “…no. But, ”
“Please let me continue. I need to make sure you have a complete understanding of the situation with Marie. I was there, with her, for every session with Manet to protect her, she was so vulnerable. There was to be another painting, of her on a horse. It would have been magnificent, but he couldn’t finish because his condition got worse and in a fit of anger, he tore it up. Anyway, from Manet, the next was Puvis de Chavannes. He was so old, I didn’t think there was anything to worry about, but he fell in love with her, promised her everything. You know she was the model for all 10 of the figures in ‘The Wood’? …but, in the end, he left. Then, Renoir, I really thought he would support her. Boissy, Utrillo… All captivated by her looks, but not able to have a lasting relationship… The ones who were married, we thought would, at least, take care of her. Now, you’ve seen her, how vigorous and full of life she is. Not much like Sien, really. Am I right?”
“Yes. Your point is made. I can see the difference... At least there isn’t a child involved.”
“There is a child! Tell me it isn’t yours.” Theo looks away. “Brother, what have you done?”
“She didn’t tell me she was pregnant! She was already living with Renoir when she started showing. If you look at City Dance, you can see she’s starting to show. He thought it was his, but when it was born Dec 26, he knew it couldn’t have been.”
“So, the child is yours?”
“It may be. She was with Puvis de Chavannes on and off right up to the operation on her foot when I stated caring for her. She’s never told me who she thinks the father is, or, even who the possibilities are.”
“Oh, Brother...” Vincent sighs heavily and shakes his head. “Why must life be so complicated? If you care for her, at all, why didn’t you take her in and raise the child as your own?” His voice raising as he gets angrier, “As any man would do? As I did with Sien? Have you no heart? Do you not feel the slightest amount of responsibility for her situation? Where is the child now? Do you even know if it’s still alive?”
“Yes, of course. Maurice lives with Marie’s mother. …she doesn’t mind taking care of him. Marie sees him whenever she can, when she’s not working or sleeping. She’s their only means of support, so she has to work.”
Vincent looks at Theo disgustedly.
Theo continues, “There was no space for a baby, I couldn’t have gotten any work done… Look, I work all day long, I must have peace and quiet to recover in the evening. There was just no way. And, besides, she never had any interest in moving in with me. And… And, how could I have asked her to move in with me, when we made you leave Sien?”
Vincent exhales through his nose, “Now, you’re blaming me? If you would have supported me, from the beginning, Mauve and all the rest wouldn’t have alienated against me, I would be a working artist now living with my family, you living with yours, not needing any financial support from you, at all!”
“You don’t know that. Look, we have to live with what we have done. There’s no more likelihood you could say that would have happened any more than you could say you would’ve found a buried treasure on one of your walks. We have to live with what we’ve done. The family was absolutely revolted with the way you treated Kee, then the whole business with Sien, there’s no way I could tell them about Marie.”
“Well, you’re right about one thing. We all have to live with what we’ve done, and I’d hate to live with what you’ve done! Because of you, I’ve lost the only family I’ve ever had and, God knows what’s to become of you, Marie, and that little child. You’re a sorry disgrace of a man.”
“Don’t you see? I did what I had to do! One of us has to be employed, to earn the money to finance your education, your career. The easiest way to do that was to get help from the family. But, to do that we had to do some things that may not have been the things that we would want to do, given a free choice. It’s one of the compromises we had to make, to get ahead in the world. Don’t you see that?”
Vincent pauses. “I understand you did what you thought you had to do. Now, I have to do what I have to do. I’ll sleep on the floor, over there, in the corner, during the daytime and be gone at night, so I can be gone whenever the woman comes over. I won’t be discussing my personal life with you any more. Since you won’t share your life with me, why should I share mine with you? I won’t paint here, it’s too small. It is my fault I came earlier than planned, so that’s the least I can do for you.”
“That all seems quite reasonable.” Theo’s voice sounds relieved, “I think you’re being very generous, considering your point of view.”
“And, one other thing…” Staring directly into Theo’s eyes, “I’ll never paint a portrait of you… You’re already in such a famous painting. And, whenever anyone asks why I never painted you, you can remember how you treated your brother.”
At the time, Theo thought he was getting off easy, but as time progressed and Vincent painted or drew about thirty self-portraits in Paris, the question was raised over and over, “Why didn’t Vincent ever paint a portrait of Theo?”