van Gogh, Almond Blossom (detail), 1890
It is hard to pinpoint when exactly Vincent van Gogh crossed over from being a mere titan of modern art to a general symptom of our culture—a painter whose name adorns bottles of vodka and whose supposedly liberating madness is regarded with worshipful reverence. Twenty-five years ago, his paintings ushered in the era of stratospheric prices for leading Modernists, with the sale of "Sunflowers" for $39.7 million and "Irises" for $52.9 million—at the time, three- and fourfold increases over the previous world record for any work of art. Not long after that, Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito set a new mark again by paying $82.5 million for "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" and then suggested that he might have it cremated and buried with him.
But despite continual invocation in exhibitions, movies and books, little of the legend of mad Vincent withstands serious scrutiny. If anything characterizes Van Gogh's intensely felt landscapes and portraits, the critic Robert Hughes long ago observed, it is lucidity, not lunacy.
Read the rest at The Wall Street Journal. Thanks, Arts & Letters Daily.