Affordability: it’s not a word that springs to mind when you’re talking about Vincent van Gogh. But for “bargain” shoppers, happy news is afoot.
Four relatively reasonably priced works by the Dutch Post-Impressionist are heading to auction at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale on February 4 in London—and each could potentially be snapped up for under $1 million.
The three drawings and one oil painting date from Van Gogh’s years as an emerging artist, in the early 1880s, while the peripatetic artist was living in The Hague (from 1881 to 1883) and subsequently at his parents’ home in village of Nuenen (1883 to 1885). Each is typical of his subject matter at the time: laborers the artist would have encountered in his local surroundings.
Considering that paintings by the artist have sold for tens of millions of dollars—the most expensive work by the artist sold at auction is his Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), which went for $82.5 million at Christie’s New York in 1990—the lighter price tag might seem something of a surprise.
But lacking the artist’s recognizable Expressionist style and the much-desired riotous color of works like Starry Night, pictures from Van Gogh’s earlier periods rarely reach the same fevered level of demand—leading some to speculate that these works heading to Sotheby’s are more likely to appeal to die-hard enthusiasts, rather than those simply looking to add a trophy to their collection.
Still, they are intriguing. Purchased by a private collector from New York’s Avanti Gallery in 1994, the four works—first flagged publicly by The Art Newspaper—have remained unseen by the public for over 25 years.
“Van Gogh’s Nuenen works mark a key period in his artistic development and the origin of some of his major themes. They reveal his remarkable aptitude for capturing human expression and feeling,” said Thomas Boyd-Bowman, head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sales in London. “Although they don’t attract the same prices as his later Arles period paintings, they are collected widely and in recent years have been the subject of fierce competition between bidders,” he continued, citing Sotheby’s November 2019 sale of Van Gogh’s 1883 painting Paysan Brûlant De Mauvaises Herbes for $3.1 million, far outstripping its high estimate of $800,000.
If you’re interested in what a humble six-figure budget can buy you, learn more about the works below.
Orphan Man (1882)
Estimate: £400,000–500,000 ($528,000–660,000)
Poised to be the most affordable work in the sale, this oddly titled work shows a profile portrait of Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland, who was one of Van Gogh’s most frequent models. A resident at the Dutch Reformed Almshouse for Men and Women (the Dutch word for almsman is “orphan”), Zuyderland and other residents from the home would pose for the artist in exchange for a small fee. Zuyderland was a particular favorite of the artist: Van Gogh was captivated by his striking, bright-white whiskers and Zuyderland would later serve as the model for Van Gogh’s famed At Eternity’s Gate (1890).
Study of a Blacksmith (1882)
Estimate: £450,000–550,000 ($600,000–727,000)
The earliest of the works coming to auction is Study of a Blacksmith, made between February and March of 1882. The strong influence of the French Barbizon school of artists—and particularly Jean-François Millet—can be seen clearly here in Van Gogh’s interest in peasants, laborers, and everyday people. But rather than placing his subjects in some long-gone idyllic past, Van Gogh situated his in contemporary times. Here, a blacksmith stands, hammer in hand, with a introspective look on his face, foreshadowing Van Gogh’s later, even more psychologically charged portraits.
Peasant Digging Up Potatoes (1885)
Estimate: £450,000–550,000 ($600,000–727,000)
Made in the summer of 1885, Peasant Digging Up Potatoes is the latest of Van Gogh’s works in the sale. Having left The Hague in the fall of 1883, the artist spent three months in the Dutch province of Drenthe, before returning, unceremoniously, to his parent’s home in the village of Nuenen. Despite a cool reception by his parents (whom he hadn’t seen since 1881), he set about immersing himself in the local community and striving to improve his skills as a draughtsman. Here, the rhythmic twists of the peasant’s clothing hints at Van Gogh’s increasingly expressionistic style.
Peasant Woman Seated (1885)
Estimate £900,000–1.2 million ($1.2–1.6 million)
Peasant Woman Seated—the star of the four lots, and the one expected the fetch the highest sum—is the only painting in the group. Though Van Gogh often made studies of peasants’ hands and heads, he rarely, as in this case, depicted the full figure. Like his masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, which he painted in April of 1885, here the figure is presented in profile, with a darkened silhouette against a monochrome background and her eyes averted—a technique the artist used to create a sense of isolated introspection. The work might exceed its estimate, as it is one of very few oil paintings from the period, and forms part of a series of pictures, some of which now belong to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
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