Van Gogh is often seen as the epitome of the tortured artist – misunderstood, rejected in his lifetime, and only slowly building up a posthumous reputation after his early, self-inflicted death.
This supposed obscurity has been shown to be a myth before. But that legendary image still clings to Van Gogh, helping to make him one of the world’s most popular, iconic artists.
Now Dutch journalist Sander Brink has unearthed the first mention of Van Gogh in a piece of fiction. It throws up some fascinating insights and surprises.
Because Van Gogh’s first appearance is startlingly early – 1903, in a novel called De Winkeljuffrouw uit Oiseau d’Or – Chapeaux pour dames et enfants. (translation: “The Shopgirl in Oiseau d’Or – hats for ladies and children”)
The novelist, Cornélie Noordwal, far from being some kind of avant-garde writer at the cutting edge of modern art, was a hugely popular writer of mainstream (arguably middlebrow) bestsellers, romances and childrens’ books.
Van Gogh’s fleeting mention in De Winkeljuffrouw will thus have formed the first exposure thousands of readers ever had to the artist…
What interests me first is the relative standings of Van Gogh and Noordwal.
In 1903, Noordwal was a famous, rich, successful writer (albeit one many critics despised), whereas Van Gogh, thirteen years dead, was only just beginning his phoenix-like rise from obscurity.
In the 110 years since, of course, their positions have radically reversed. Like most middlebrow blockbusters of bygone ages, Noordwal, for all her merits, has lapsed into relative obscurity, while Van Gogh has become the elemental incarnation of genius, whose works sell for hundreds of millions.
The second thing which interests me is the nature of Van Gogh’s fictional début. Because he is sketched in terms remarkably close to his alienated, self-dramatising self-image (as expressed in his own letters), which has driven another core aspect of the Van Gogh myth.
In the novel, Jan, a poet, is writing to Nora, his beloved, and he mentions Van Gogh as being similar to her:
Of course you won’t know who that was. He was a man who was nothing but soul, like you, and his life was violently troubled by it; he painted and drew things, considered laughable and insane by laymen, and yet showed himself more of an artist than a mass of famous painters who create impeccable landscapes and pictures.
(translation, by Freddie Oomkens, from the Dutch quoted in Sander Bink’s piece of 3rd July 2013)
The third interesting thing is that this figure of Van Gogh already seems fairly close to being a stock character, a Romantic literary archetype of a sort popular in the period. Think of the Les poètes maudites (1884), or D.H. Lawrence, or Leonard Bast in Howards End (1910), or a host of others.
It may sound fanciful, but it is almost as if literature, by means of this dainty little novel, were co-opting Van Gogh to join this gallery of characters whose noble sensitivity ejects them from society…
The final interesting thing, one which also intrigues Sander Bink, is the part played by letter-writing in this story.
Van Gogh’s letters had been published well before 1903 – indeed Albert Aurier’s famously influential article about him (Les Isolés, published in 1890) was heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s letters. Noordwal, who lived in Paris (she died there in 1928), may well have read the article, which appeared in Mercure de France, a magazine popular among lovers of modern art, as well as extracts of the letters which appeared in Holland and France throughout the 1890s.
All in all, a fascinating insight into how consistently, and from its earliest days, Van Gogh’s iconic international image was shaped by literature, as shown in his very first (so far!) fictional entrance.