Van Gogh's little brother goes on show

John Lichfield
Tuesday 28 September 1999 23:02

AN ART exhibition opens in Paris today devoted to a man who never painted a single canvas.

Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent, has an undisputed place in the history of modern art. Without the modest allowance Theo gave to his impecunious older brother, many of the best-loved canvases of the late 19th century might never have been painted.

The exhibition, which opens to the public today at the Museed'Orsay after transferring from Amsterdam, is the first to try to tell the wider story of the "other" van Gogh. The thesis is that Theo did much more for art than just providing his sibling with expenses and materials.

The exhibition says that, as a successful art dealer and collector in Paris from 1878 to 1891, Theo van Gogh played a big role in promoting Impressionists and post-impressionists. He single-handedly revived the popularity of Monet; he was one of only a few early supporters of Pissarro; and he dealt with and encouraged Degas, Gauguin, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec and others.

The exhibition includes 50 canvases bought and sold by Theo, including a dozen relatively unknown Monets sold by Theo to American collectors in the 1880s and now returned temporarily to Europe.

This view of Theo is disputed by some art historians, who see him as a minor player at best. If he was such a talented critic, they say, why did he do so little to sell or promote his brother's work, which he regarded with a mixture of embarrassment and admiration? The exhibition frustratingly passes over this controversy and others. Theo, a loving family man, died at 33, the year after his brother died from a self-inflicted wound in 1890. The exhibition suggests Theo's health had been broken by overwork and a sense of guilt about Vincent. It fails to mention that the art dealer tried to kill his wife and baby son and barely touches on the fact that he was diagnosed just before his death as having advanced dementia, caused by syphilis.

Theo emerges as a man who could recognise great art, even if it was unconventional, but also as a man who liked handsome profits. For all his support of Monet, Degas, and others, he is recorded as selling on their paintings within a day at profits of up to 400 per cent.

But we have his employer's word for the fact that Theo van Gogh's tastes were ahead of his time. Theo's boss described him as a "crazy man from elsewhere, like his brother". He had "disgraced" the gallery by filling it with canvases by "frightful" painters such as "the landscape artist, Monet".

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