Van Gogh–Acknowledgment, Support, and Protection


RT has finished his brisk stroll through  Van Gogh: The Life, by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, The book plunges its readers into the fine detail of Vincent Van Gogh’s life while keeping an eye on the larger issues at play in Van Gogh’s philosophy and work. It is those larger issues that have drawn RT back to the keyboard to discuss what happened to this extraordinary man.

To begin with, Naifeh and White’s book offers a different conclusion to Van Gogh’s story than many people may be familiar with: it makes a plausible case that Van Gogh may not have died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Other than exonerating VG from the charge of suicide, what difference might this make in the understanding of his life?

It seems that the three things that were missing in the artist’s life are 1) acknowledgment; 2) support; and 3) protection.

Acknowledgment. Van Gogh’s artistic gift and, later, genius were never acknowledged during his life. He was a member of the unofficial Post-Impressionist group (whose members included Paul Gauguin and George Seurat), but his work was never shown at any major exhibit or salon during his lifetime. He sold just one painting before his death: The Red Vineyard (purchased in 1890, the year of VG’s death, for roughly $1,000, current value). Until near the end of his life, both the public and his family (with the exception of his brother, Theo) refused to acknowledge his status as a practicing and gifted artist (and this despite an enormous output of work–a lifetime total of 2,100 artworks, of which 860 were oil paintings). In January 1890 (VG died in July), a major (and enthusiastic) review of VG’s work did appear in the Mercure de France.

Support. Van Gogh’s financial support during his prime years as an artist was provided by his brother Theo, The stipend he received was enough to cover basic expenses and the costs of his art supplies (an expensive item). Until the year of his death, he earned no money from his art, and there were no public or charitable funds available to support his work.

Protection. Most of Van Gogh’s last ten years was spent alone (though there were significant interludes with Theo and others). He was often harassed and heckled by boys, who would shout insults, throw stones, and destroy his art supplies as he worked. Many of the communities in which he lived regarded him with suspicion and hostility. Partly, VG’s quarrelsome and abrasive nature drove people away, and his descent into self-loathing despair (signaled by his mutilation of one of his ears) resulted in his commitment to an asylum, but surely his status as a near-vagabond without official sanction or place in society contributed to the feelings behind his ostracism.

Without question, things have improved for practicing artists today. Around the world, college-level training and MFA programs have proliferated. There are many sources of funding for artists available from government at all levels and a large number of foundations. Major museums around the world display the work of the great artists throughout history (including of course Van Gogh) and help educate the public about art and the struggle that artists endure as they create their work. Success as an artist carries not only considerable monetary reward with it, but also the prestige of creating beauty in the world.

But RT has to wonder.

In many places, not least the United States, there is little practical support for artists or writers. Art is often seen as a cop-out, an excuse for failing to undertake the burdens of earning a living via a regular job and paycheck. People openly wonder if such a thing as art or even beauty exists–and point to the beginning efforts of young artists as evidence for their claims. Even older artists with decades of experience have trouble selling their work. How, after all, does one establish a standard for enduring art?

This is not true everywhere, however. RT points out the work of Art Council England, which between 2011 and 2015 will award £1.4 billion in public money and £1 billion in National Lottery funds to support working artists in England. In contrast, since its founding in 1965, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts has awarded about $4 billion.

What needs to be done to help working artists and writers?

1) An increase in art funding for practicing artists and writers, generally. This strengthens local communities not only economically, but by encouraging the spread of culture and beauty in areas lacking local resources.

2) The creation of a funding mechanism/organization outside the control of Congress. The politicalization of the grants process will be diminished if grant decisions are made by local councils of artists and citizens (with appropriate financial oversight).

3) The creation of a national Independent Artists/Scholars Network. Such a network would administer tests and peer-reviews of scholars’ and artists’ work independently of government, higher education, and grant-making organizations. The IAN would aim to be self-funded by artists and writers and would be almost completely under their supervision.

From RT’s perspective, such changes are desperately needed. To his knowledge, no organization, at least in the United States, aims to acknowledge, support, and protect artists and writers throughout their careers and lives.



PaintingBridge at Arles (Pont de Langlois); Vincent Van Gogh (March 1888). WikiCmns; Public Domain.


  1. September 12, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Your three-point charter for art and artists is admirable. I do hope there is a groundswell of opinion for public funding of the arts but free of political intrusion.

    in Britain we are lucky to still have the Arts Councils of the constituent countries funding endeavours across the arts (as a musician I’ve received grants for attending summer music schools from the Arts Council of Wales), but with the present coalition government intent on selling off what remains of the ‘family silver’ — the Royal Mail is about to be privatised — who knows how long the arts will be supported from the public purse?

    There’s also the vexed question of much of the Arts Councils’ monies coming from the National Lottery, largely played by individuals from lower income groups — is this an ethical use of their limited income?

  2. September 18, 2013 at 12:14 am

    cg: thanks for your thoughtful note on this. i’ve long wanted to set up an independent association of artists–one that owns a house, a gallery, and a printing press. most members would be selected in, but some members would be selected via a lottery. things would be self-financed, and members would contribute to the common treasury/have a financial share in the community (sounds like there’s another post in this plan).

    i’m against lotteries on principle. West Virginia has legalized gambling, and i’ve met a few gambling addicts–for these people, gambling’s a scourge like any other addiction. Even for the folks who buy lotto tickets, it’s money that could be saved or used to pay down debt.

    maybe there’s a calling in this to help start an artists’ cooperative… RT

  3. September 20, 2013 at 10:22 pm

    Interesting – thank you for this! One question: if the gun-shot wound was not self-inflicted, does that mean he was murdered?

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