The Best Primary Source – Talk to the Artist!

Research into art

The Comparative Study and the Process Portfolio both involve some level of research into and review of artworks.

Inevitably, for many students a lot of this research is ‘second-hand’, e.g. looking for information on the Internet. There is nothing wrong with this (providing everything is correctly referenced and all sources are acknowledged!). Better still is to actually see the real thing, for example, by visiting an art gallery.

The horse’s mouse

However, for information gathering and the answers to specific questions there may be an even better option; for example, if you want to know the role, purpose and context of an artwork, why not just ask the artist?

For this to happen, of course the artist has to be alive, which reduces your pool of possible artist-interviews, but at the very least gives everything a real, immediate and contemporary feel.

Vincent (Willem) and me

Vincent Willem van Gogh. Source: Nationaal Archief, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, so of course no-one alive now can claim to have talked to him. A few months before he committed suicide, his brother’s wife gave birth to his nephew – Vincent Willem. Van Gogh was already hugely reliant on financial and emotional support from his brother Theo, and now became even more worried about this support.

How could he keep expecting Theo to support him now that Theo had a baby to feed etc? These concerns over the financial implications of this birth may well have contributed towards Vincent’s suicide, a few month later.

Where is this going, you are asking yourself.

Well, when I was a student – like you – I wrote to Vincent’s nephew (Vincent Willem) and asked if I could talk to him. Obviously, I could not talk to Vincent the artist about his art, but maybe I could talk to the nephew, Vincent Willem.

Happily, Vincent Willem agreed, and I was able to fly to Amsterdam and spend a few days asking him about his famous uncle. He would never have known him of course – but he knew a lot about him, about Theo’s relationship with Vincent, and about context – life in early 20th century Holland, and the way that the financial value of Vincent’s art grew between 1890 and the later 20th century.

The art market

In 1990 van Gogh’s ‘Portrait Of Dr Gachet’ sold for US$82.5 million, while in 2015 his ‘L’Allée des Alyscamps’ sold at a Sotheby’s for $66.3 million. This is roughly 6 times the price it drew in 2003 when the hammer fell at $11.8 million.

Prices and amounts Vincent could barely have dreamed of back in the 1880s…

Write to your artist!

Either way, if you are exploring recent or contemporary artworks, and if the artist responsible is still around, contact him or her.

You never know – maybe you will meet up or at least exchange emails, so you can get to know the artist’s intentions, struggles, processes, ideas about upcoming artworks, views of the art-market etc…

Artists frequently like to talk about their ideas and their art!

Go for it!

Further photos

https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/knowledge-and-research/research-projects/research-project-biography-of-vincent-willem-van-gogh

https://www.gettyimages.com.au/detail/news-photo/the-nephew-of-vincent-van-gogh-news-photo/166535132

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