31. Enter Vincent
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
In the middle of October 1886, while Gauguin was packing up his canvases and hitting friends up for train fare, Vincent van Gogh had moved to Montmartre. For a few weeks in October that year Vincent set up his easel at the corner of the rue Lepic and the rue Girardon, a block uphill from his apartment. The neighborhood people who had to step around him on the street probably recognized the Dutchman's red hair and awkward manner. On the opposite corner from van Gogh's easel was the Moulin de la Galette.
Renoir had painted the bar and dance hall a decade earlier and from a different perspective: well-turned-out couples dancing in the garden, dappled by sunlight, flirting cheerfully. Van Gogh painted from outside the cafe and the sun was not dappling; it wasn't even out. It was a grey Paris day and the people passing on the street gave off an air of isolation that brings Edward Hopper to mind.
Van Gogh had come to Paris from Antwerp to join his younger brother, Theo. Vincent was a mess. In 1886 he was 33 years old; he had never held a job for more than a few months; his adult life was a patchwork of poverty and misery in different cities. Theo, 29, was a manager at the art gallery Goupil and Company, a position that supported not only Theo but Vincent as well. Vincent moved in order to take advantage of the art world and his brother's connections, which were growing, expanding, and taking him up the art world ladder. Always on the edge of a breakthrough, Vincent was certain that this city, this time, this journey would be the one that brought success. Theo persuaded Fernand Cormon to accept his brother as a student. Vincent promised to take full advantage of the opportunity, to work hard and seriously and be patient with any critiques that the master offered. He joined the studio at some point in the spring, likely around the time that Cormon tossed Emile Bernard out.
Of course it only lasted a few months. Most of Cormon's students were, like Emile Bernard and Charles Laval, young sons of comfortable, polished French households. Vincent was in his 30s and his French was rough and accented. The younger artists had been, most of them, classically trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Vincent was almost entirely self-taught. Cormon stopped by the atelier a couple of times a week to give a master class; the rest of the time, two of his students stood in as informal masters. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a wealthy aristocrat, and Louis Anquetin, son of an affluent merchant family, were socially polished and carefully trained. Their French was elegant. They had money to spare, and their skill was already bringing them commissions. Vincent's French was awkward, his social skills were worse, and his paintings were mystifying. The other students mocked him when they didn't avoid him entirely.
Van Gogh made one friend at Cormon's, an Australian transplant named John Peter Russell (1858-1930). Russell's father had died and left him a fortune: Russell used it to fund a sailboat that he kept moored on the Seine, a horse and carriage, a comfortable apartment, and a studio on the impasse Hélène where he and his mistress, later wife, Marianna Mattiocco (1865-1908) kept a perpetual open house. Russell welcomed Vincent at least in part because of the family connection to Goupil, where Russell hoped to become a client. Knowing one brother could lead to a business connection with the other. Some time that year, he painted Vincent's portrait. The painting, in the style of academic society portraits that Cormon's students learned, shows a fierce, uncertain man in a dark suit and high collar. He holds a brush in paint-stained fingers as he casts a baleful stare over his shoulder.
Baleful, but also hesitant. Vincent does and doesn't want to be interrupted at his work. He's busy painting, yes, and wants you to know that--but deep in those eyes there's also a longing. He could set the brush down and talk to you, or he could go back to painting. He's not sure what he'll do.
Russell gave Vincent the portrait. Three years later, Vincent wrote Theo a long, rambling letter from the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where Theo had consigned him: "Take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me." Theo and his wife Jo Bonger took such care of the portrait that it now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
In red, over van Gogh's head, Russell painted: Vincent, in friendship. Or so the Van Gogh Museum tells us they can see under an x-ray, and there's no reason to think that they made it up. Someone painted over it at some point before it became an important document of a moment in Paris in 1886.
Vincent made a few paintings of the Moulin de la Galette in those months towards the end of 1886. One hangs today in the National Gallery (Berlin). Another version is in a private collection in Switzerland.
And last year a similar painting turned up in Australia. The news is sketchy at this stage; research is underway. The image is blurry. But it's the same scene, and some of the same people. The same heavy sky, the same flag caught in the wind.
In the fall of 1886, when Vincent was hanging out in Russell's studio, sitting for his portrait and making everyone slightly uncomfortable, he was also working on a series of paintings of the moulin up the street. He wrote to an acquaintance in London in September or October: "I have exchanged studies with several artists." Some of the paintings that Vincent received, like Russell's portrait, are now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum. Theo kept his brother's collection, nurtured and saved it, until Theo himself died; after that, his widow Jo took over the task. The artists with whom Vincent exchanged works, while they saw more success in their lifetimes, did not have a sister-in-law to watch over their collections. They dispersed here and there over the artists' lifetimes, for the most part unrecorded.
John Peter Russell and Marianna Mattiocco married. They built a house in Belle-Ile, in Brittany, and brought up five sons and a daughter. Monet came to stay and paint the coastline; Matisse came a few years later. Rodin dropped in regularly. There were long Sunday lunches on the terrace, with children and dogs and talk of color theory. Russell spent almost all of his adult life in France, but he returned to Sydney in 1921. He died there in 1930, at age 72.
Is this blurry image another version of van Gogh's Moulin de la Galette? Is it van Gogh's own, or is it a version that Russell painted? Or is it the work of some other artist who was experimenting with style and composition in van Gogh's style? Did Russell copy his friend's work, did they paint together one afternoon? We don't know. Perhaps the Van Gogh Museum has already sent someone to take a look. Or perhaps it's not worth their trouble; perhaps there's someone sitting at her desk in Amsterdam composing a carefully-worded essay explaining why this is all bunk.
This sad, dingy Moulin matters to us because it's additional evidence of the buzz of conversation and the dabbing of paint on canvases among artists of all sorts in 1880s Paris. It's evidence of Vincent schlepping his easel and paintbox up the street and getting in everyone's way. It's evidence of Vincent taking up a corner of the sofa in Russell's elegant studio, not quite knowing what to do with his hands. It's evidence, maybe, that Russell and Vincent exchanged work, and that years later, Russell rolled up this souvenir of a long-ago October and brought it across oceans.
When Russell died in Sydney in 1930, there was no one to remember the studio in the impasse Hélène. Marianna was gone, and the stories his children remembered were of other artists. Sydney was on the far side of the world from anyone who might have recalled that friendship with the odd Dutchman a lifetime ago. There was no one to retell the old man's tales. And so, maybe, this painting that had stayed in his collection for decades went off on its own. It was framed cheaply and hung in dark corners until, eventually, it found itself at a flea market.
The painting is evidence that the narrative isn't fixed, the story isn't over, and that the trail of Flowers and Fruit, like the Moulin de la Galette, may not be cold.