The Metropolitan Museum of Art has quietly purchased a set of nearly half of Van Gogh’s prints in one purchase, we can report this exclusively. They come from a Minnesota collector who acquired the three lithographs and an engraving in the early 2000s.
The lithographs are very rare and only between four and eight copies of each survive, most of them in European museums. None of the three lithographs are represented in any other American museum. In total, Van Gogh printed only ten subjects, so the Met acquired nearly half of them all at once.
The Met’s acquisition was arranged by Christie’s, acting on behalf of the Minnesota owner. The New York Museum keeps the name of the seller confidential, at its request. The prints will be unveiled in a showcase during the summer.
Van Gogh’s first prints were made in November 1882, while he was living in The Hague. These include At the door of eternity, which is part of the group acquired by the Met. This is a particularly interesting lithograph, since on another copy of the print the artist added the title in English in pencil.
Vincent probably intended to use At the door of eternity in his quest to look for work in the publications The Illustrated London News Where The graphic. The location of the inscribed copy may surprise you: it is at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran.
The newly acquired example from the Met has pinhole damage in the corners. Van Gogh casually pinned works to the walls of his lodgings, so this impression could well have been pinned inside the small apartment in The Hague he shared with his lover Sien Hoornik.
Four years later, Van Gogh gave this example of the print to his Australian friend, the Impressionist artist John Peter Russell. This was probably partly in exchange for Russell’s mighty power. Portrait of Van Gogh (1886).
Burn the weeds (July 1883), another of the Met’s acquisitions, was made the following year and depicts a rural scene on the outskirts of The Hague. Its subject matter and style reveal Van Gogh’s admiration for the mid-19th century French artist Jean-François Millet, famous for his images of peasant life. Vincent had included a preliminary sketch in a letter to his brother Theo.
Van Gogh had some difficulty making the lithograph and touched up the version of the Met print with ink to enhance detail. This is especially noticeable on the actual print (but less so in the reproductions) in the area around the man’s hooves.
The Met example was sold by Vincent’s nephew in 1930. After passing through several collections, it was sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 2003, for £252,000 to the Minnesota buyer.
Gardener near an apple tree (July 1883), was inspired by a drawing he made in the grounds of a hospice in The Hague. Vincent again included a preliminary sketch of the image in a letter to Theo. The print of the Met has also been touched up in ink.
Van Gogh gave the copy of the lithograph that ended up at the Met to another artist friend, Anton van Rappard. Like the Met At the door of eternity, this example eventually belonged to the Lausanne-based American businessman Samuel Josefowitz in the 1990s.
The engraved Portrait of Dr. Gachet (June 1890) depicts the doctor who kept an eye on Van Gogh in the last weeks of his life, in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, just north of Paris. Vincent also produced a masterful painting Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which disappeared into a mysterious private collection. It was Dr. Gachet who cared for Van Gogh after he committed suicide until his death two days later.
Doctor Gachet’s son would later recall how Van Gogh produced the etching: “After lunching outdoors in the courtyard, once the men’s pipes had been lit, Vincent was handed an etching needle and a varnished copper; he enthusiastically took his new friend as his subject.
Although Van Gogh had never etched before, under the direction of the doctor, in less than half an hour he completed a portrait of his host smoking in the garden. The two men then rushed upstairs to Gachet’s studio, where they printed a few copies. Dr. Gachet inscribed the artist’s name in ink on the lower left of the Met example.
Engraving is much more common than lithographs, with about 70 known prints. Last fall, two copies sold at auction, for 330,000 SF ($362,000) with buyer’s premium at Kornfeld, Bern and $161,000 to Swann, New York (prices vary greatly depending on the print).
As for the anonymous seller at the Met, he could also have been the proud owner of an important draft letter from The yellow house (September 1888). This was acquired by an anonymous Minnesota buyer from Christie’s in 2003 for £845,000 (they sold it a decade later, still at Christies, for $5.5 million). The four Met prints had been acquired by an anonymous buyer in Minnesota in 1999-2004, so the seller may well have also been the owner of The yellow house, although this remains speculation.
When Vincent set out in 1882 to create his first lithographs, he did so with the intention of making his art accessible to ordinary people. He wrote to his brother Theo that his idea was to attract workers “from the people for the people”. Vincent decided that “the price of the prints should not exceed 10 or at most 15 cents”.
There is no evidence that Vincent managed to sell any of his prints, but if he did, the set of four acquired by the Met would have brought him less than a dollar. Although the price paid by the Met is not disclosed, their prints are now worth several million dollars.
Martin Bailey is the author of Van Gogh finale: Auvers and the artist’s rise to fame (Francis Lincoln, 2021, available in UK and U.S). He is a leading Van Gogh scholar and investigative journalist for The arts journal. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY exhibition: Van Gogh and Great Britain (March 27-August 11, 2019).
Bailey has written a number of other bestselling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in UK and U.S), Southern Studio: Van Gogh in Provence (Frances Lincoln 2016, available in UK and U.S) and Starry Night: Van Gogh in the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and U.S). whiskey cream Living with Vincent van Gogh: the houses and landscapes that shaped the artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and U.S) provides insight into the artist’s life. The Illustrated Letters of Provence by Van Gogh has been re-released (Batsford 2021, available in UK and U.S).
• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please direct any questions about authenticating possible Van Goghs to the Van Gogh Museum.
Read more on the Martin’s Adventures with Van Gogh blog here