Van Gogh’s Madness Reconsidered

''Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1st version)'' 1890 ...
”Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1st version)” 1890

‘It is hard to pinpoint when exactly Vincent van Gogh crossed over from being a mere titan of modern art to a general symptom of our culture—a painter whose name adorns bottles of vodka and whose supposedly liberating madness is regarded with worshipful reverence. Twenty-five years ago, his paintings ushered in the era of stratospheric prices for leading Modernists, with the sale of “Sunflowers” for $39.7 million and “Irises” for $52.9 million—at the time, three- and fourfold increases over the previous world record for any work of art. Not long after that, Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito set a new mark again by paying $82.5 million for “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” and then suggested that he might have it cremated and buried with him.

But despite continual invocation in exhibitions, movies and books, little of the legend of mad Vincent withstands serious scrutiny. If anything characterizes Van Gogh’s intensely felt landscapes and portraits, the critic Robert Hughes long ago observed, it is lucidity, not lunacy. And the scrupulous recent biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, while continuing the tradition of viewing the artist’s work as an expression of his “fanatic” personality, nevertheless concludes that his untimely death by a gunshot wound was more likely an accident than a raving suicide. What is perhaps more surprising is that almost as many questions surround the art as the life. In the past two decades, museums around the world have quietly downgraded some 40 works formerly attributed to the artist, and doubts have been raised about even highly sought-after paintings like the record-breaking “Sunflowers.” ‘ (via WSJ.com).