PORTRAIT OF DR. GACHET by Cynthia Saltzman


The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece, Modernism, Money, Politics, Collectors, Dealers, Taste, Greed, and Loss
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 Saltzman, a onetime reporter for Forbes and the Wall Street Journal (and a former Kirkus contributor), chronicles the peripatetic fate of one of van Gogh's last paintings, from his brother Theo's unsellable stock to a record-breaking auction at Christie's in 1990. In papers found after his suicide, van Gogh had written to Gauguin, ``I have a portrait of Dr. Gachet with the heartbroken expression of our time,'' 100 years before its spectacular sale for $82.5 million at the peak of the go-go '80s bubble art market. Saltzman draws the story of van Gogh's reputation and the painting's ownership from a detailed collage of biography, art criticism, history, and current events. Dr. Ferdinand Gachet, the portrait's subject, was an elderly doctor in the isolated village of Auvers who served as van Gogh's last recourse for his undiagnosed mental illness. The painting's itinerary after van Gogh's suicide is almost epic. First it went to his art-dealer brother, Theo, in Paris, then to Theo's widow, who took it to Holland. She had to try several dealers before placing it outside the circle of avant-garde connoisseurs. The portrait found its first institutional owner in Frankfurt's Stadel art museum, purchased by the prescient director Georg Swarzenski, who had to endure its confiscation in 1937 by the Nazi government and its exhibition as ``degenerate art.'' It then fell into the hands of Hermann Goring, who liquidated it for foreign currency in 1938. Eventually passing into the hands of a collector who emigrated to America, it was often displayed in American museums, until a combination of new tax laws and soaring art prices brought it to the auction block. To become the sequestered property of a bankrupt Japanese businessman. An intriguing map of the painting's wanderings, but what this journalistic account fails to convey is insight into the works significance and of the emotional investment of those who tried to save or possess this refugee artwork. (illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-670-86223-1
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1998