Van Gogh was commercially unsuccessful during his lifetime, living in relative obscurity, mostly as an outsider. A Dutchman relocating to Provencal France in the mid-1800s was bound to attract some mild hostility, and being an emotional and secluded artist surely didn’t ease his entrance into that society. During his time in France, his productivity was broken by bouts of emotional turmoil. At 37, his prolific, tumultuous, decade-long career ended when he committed suicide. The tragedy that was his life captured the public’s imagination and defined what it meant to be an artist. As an eccentric, be became an icon for the fitful genius, embodying the public’s new idea of the artist. Even the information page on the National Gallery’s website plays up his “tortured genius” persona by using his Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 (below). This painting depicts van Gogh after he’s cut off part of his own ear. When I think about van Gogh, it’s this story, this ear-chopping display of madness, that comes to mind first. How often is it that the artists’ image outweighs the art itself?
After investigating contemporary culture, I realized that we’re familiar with this idea because it’s a defining feature of pop artists. Actors tend to feel this imbalance most acutely, because people know them more by their celebrity than by their roles. Lindsay Lohan hasn’t done a good movie since she was a child, but the public is still clued into her every move. Capote and Wilde and even Warhol were, in many ways, more active socialites than artists. The Ziggy Stardust persona is the first association for many when David Bowie comes to mind. Tracey Emin’s public antics are more recognized than her artwork by the general public. But van Gogh is different, and maybe because he was the first in this progression of emphasis from art to artist persona. Van Gogh, with the lack of commercial success during his life but vast posthumous fame, is more of a Nick Drake than a Lady Gaga figure. He sold only one painting during his lifetime. It’s possible that post-van Gogh, artists recognized eccentricity as an acceptable method to fame and subsequent commercial success. Now it’s a well-trodden path to popularity and commercial success. From this vantage point, it seems like van Gogh’s presence before and after death marks a turning point in the way the public conceived of the artist, and the routes available to the artist for commercial success.
I’m not sure of any posthumously successful eccentrics prior to van Gogh, though there almost certainly were. If you know of any artists that fit the bill, holler at me!
laissez les bon temps rouler,