Leave Shakespeare & Van Gogh Alone – Part II

In Part I of this essay, I argued that although Shakespeare’s plays do comprise myriad precedent works, his biography and manner of production provide little guidance for a conversation about the role of modern copyright as it relates to derivative works and the need to build upon existing works.  And when it comes to skepticism about the incentive role of copyright, we encounter a lot of assumptions about the motivations of artists, including an insistence that they will always create no matter what their circumstances may be. This is often true to an extent, but in the context of mass, technological exploitation of works circumventing copyrights, the sentiment is entirely parasitical. Then, as if to aggravate the callousness of this notion, the copyright skeptic may cite an artist like Van Gogh as an archetype because he clearly produced masterworks despite a life of scorn, indigence, and madness.  But as with Shakespeare, Van Gogh is too far removed from the contemporary market to be a useful reference in a conversation about the future of copyright.  I think we should leave poor Vincent alone; he’s been through enough.

Upon his death by suicide* on July 27, 1890, the 37-year-old Vincent Van Gogh left to the world nearly 900 paintings, over 1,000 drawings, some 150 water colors, and over 100 sketches in the numerous letters he wrote, most famously to his art-dealer brother Theo.  This is an impressive body of work considering the fact that all of it was produced in barely a decade, and that the period between Van Gogh’s first masterwork—“The Potato Eaters”—and his death is less than half that time. In fact, the paintings I imagine most of us think of when we hear the name Van Gogh were all made in just the last two years of his life, with a reported 70 of these canvasses made in just the last few weeks.  At the risk of a corny reference to his most famous painting, Van Gogh’s productive period as an artist really was a shooting star moment in history.

In many ways, of course, Van Gogh is like every artist inasmuch as his passion to express emotion transcends mere technical facility. Among the reasons I believe he is so often cited as extraordinary, though, is that perhaps no other artist reveals quite so dramatic a contrast between a tragically lonely existence and such overwhelming posthumous fame and popularity. But this commonly understood narrative should not really serve as any indication of the mechanisms that drive most creators; Van Gogh is too extreme in more than one way, and society should not hope or expect to foster many artists quite like him.  Suffice to say that, based on his own writings, what drove Vincent as an artist was certainly a combination of forces—spiritual, delusional, and pragmatic—and there should be little doubt that, in his more lucid states, he desperately hoped his work would earn him a living.

1881 was the year Vincent truly began to take art seriously, and his letters to Theo from that year include multiple references to his expectation that he will very soon be an able enough draughtsman to begin earning his own income rather than continue to sustain himself on the money constantly borrowed from Theo, family elders, and myriad friends and colleagues.  These passages can be cringingly uncomfortable to read because they provide a glimpse of Vincent as a sometimes arrogant, black-sheep, dilettante, not only sustaining himself by the good graces of others, but also surprisingly capable of biting the hands that are feeding him.  The eldest son of a tightly knit family, Vincent’s occasionally naive sense about interpersonal relationships is exemplified when he tells Theo that he has fallen in love with their cousin Kee Vos.  Without diagnosing Vincent—as many have have presumed to do—his own writing about this unrequited love reveals that in his mind Kee’s rejection of him—and the family’s disapproval of the match—is evidence of a protracted courtship. His naïveté is heartbreaking, but it is clear that Vincent does hope his newly-found pursuit of art will lead to both financial stability and social status when he writes, “The elder persons will change their minds about this matter not when Kee changes her mind but when I become someone who earns at least 1,000 guilders a year.”

One may certainly muck about in the abundance of published speculation regarding Vincent’s mental condition as it relates to his incentive to paint, but I would argue that the more one examines the nature of what appears to have been a conspiracy of multiple neuroses, the less appropriate he becomes as an example of artists’ motivations in general. Certainly, Van Gogh is is not the only creator—or inventor for that matter—to manifest the genius/madness dichotomy; and even the most lucid, work-a-day, creator is apt to feel, or be made to feel, quite irrational at times for the pursuit of a distinctive vision. Nevertheless, Vincent seems to have walked a particularly narrow strand of gossamer between brilliantly innovative and functionally insane that most creative artists are fortunate enough not to experience.

To paint strong feelings solely by working directly from nature – glowing with passion – infernal fire of the soul – is incredibly taxing for the nervous system. Vincent is an example of that (myself partially so). – Edvard Munch

Regardless of the particular demons and angels that drove Van Gogh—or drive any artist—the incentive to create and distribute inherent in the foundation of the intellectual property right, especially in a market like the United States, does not reasonably anticipate such rare creatures, but rather the considerably larger population of creators, who lead comparatively ordered lives and for whom artistic or scholarly work is very much a job. And as if to punctuate just how uniquely unhelpful Van Gogh is in this regard, he happened to take his own life just at the moment when his work might have been about to pay off.

It is a frequently noted irony that only one of Vincent’s paintings ever sold during his lifetime, but it may not be widely recognized how achingly close this first sale might have been to a real break in his career.  “The Red Vineyard” was purchased at an exhibition in Brussels for the price of 400 francs by a Belgian woman named Anna Boch, who was herself an impressionist painter as well as—in collaboration with her brother Eugene—a collector and a patron of artists. Of course, it was Theo who had begun to represent Vincent’s paintings by this time, and on March 6, 1890, he recorded the receipt of the money from the Bochs for the sale of “The Red Vineyard.”  This was just less than five months before Vincent would inexplicably shoot himself during an otherwise typical outing to paint a landscape in Auvers-sur-Oise.

Two months after Vincent’s suicide, Theo himself died of syphilis, leaving his wife Johanna alone with their baby son (Vincent), but also in possession of nearly all of her brother-in-law’s works. Driven by both passion and necessity, Johanna taught herself to become an effective and shrewd art dealer, and it is she whom we have to thank for bringing Vincent’s work to the attention of the world.  According to Wouter van der Veen, co-author of a book about Johanna and this period, it would be a mistake to think that Johanna was starting from a place of total obscurity with regard to Vincent’s works.

By 1890, Van Gogh’s paintings had already gained the admiration of a number of close colleagues and fellow artists and were just beginning to attract some wider attention. Van der Veen reminds us that some of Vincent’s most famous canvasses were “not even dry” when the artist died and that it was normal—when information moved at 19th century speed—for it to take several years for an artist to become known, let alone valued in the market.  So, given the fact that nearly all of Vincent’s best works were painted in his final two years, any narrative that his incentive to work never anticipated a professional status really falls apart under examination of both his own writings and the circumstances of his time and place.

Naturally, it is easy to get lost in the intrigue of Vincent’s psychology, and its many dramatic—even violent—manifestations, both in life and in paint, and forget that at least some part of this complex, irascible man wanted very badly to make art his career. It would be an understatement to say there were myriad conflicting, complex, and even dark forces that drove Van Gogh to paint and to see the world the way he did, but the rational side of him did not lack for hope of some commercial and social acceptance, and in this one regard at least, he is no different from nearly all artists.  Beyond that, any conversation about creators working in the 21st century and the role of intellectual property rights in their works should probably never invoke figures so extreme and so remote from our times, let alone presume to really understand them.


*Although investigation since 2011 raises interesting questions as to whether or not Van Gogh was in fact murdered, that begs a whole conversation entirely separate from the focus of this essay. Whether by his own hand or not, his life was cut short just about two years into his prolific period as a painter.

© 2015, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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