Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed, and Loss

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9780140254877: Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed, and Loss

At a star-studded auction in 1990, a painting was sold for the record-breaking price of $82.5 million. That painting, Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet, has seemed to countless admirers to portray our times as "something bright in spite of its inevitable griefs."

This fascinating book reconstructs the painting's journey and becomes a rich story of modernist art and the forces behind the art market. Masterfully evoked are the lives of the thirteen extraordinary people who owned the painting and shaped its history: avant-garde European collectors, pioneering dealers in Paris and Berlin, a brilliant medievalist who acquired it for one of Germany's great museums, and a member of the Nazi elite who sold it after it had been confiscated as a work of "degenerate art." Remarkable and riveting, The Portrait of Dr. Gachet illuminates, in dramatic detail, the dynamics of the art market and of culture in our time.

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Only a few weeks before his 1890 suicide, Vincent van Gogh painted a portrait of Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a local physician the painter had been fruitlessly consulting about his depression. Upon his death, the painting, like much of van Gogh's work, went to his brother, Theo. A few years later, Theo's widow sold it for 300 francs (worth, then, $58). In 1990, a wealthy Japanese businessman paid $82.5 million at a Christie's auction for it and promptly hid it away in a Tokyo warehouse, where it presumably remains to this day.

Cynthia Saltzman traces the painting's provenance through a century of art collecting and cultural politics. Along the way, the portrait passes through--among others--the hands of early modernist collectors, the Nazi regime (where it was shown as part of an exhibit of "degenerate" art), and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to a detailed account of the circumstances of each change of possession (it slipped out of the Nazis' hands, for example, when Herman Goerring needed a quick transfusion of hard currency), Saltzman provides a sensitive appraisal of the changing critical reputation of van Gogh and of the fluctuating market for "masterpieces" on canvas. Portrait of Dr. Gachet is an art history which never loses sight of the fact that art history is always a subset of a larger history.

About the Author:

A former reporter for Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, Cynthia Saltzman earned degrees in art history at Harvard and Berkeley. She currently resides with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

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