Even amidst the brilliant constellation of Van Gogh’s œuvre, this is a painting whose star shines brightly. Maybe it is the way the artist painted the background, the thick brushstrokes ringing the sitter’s head like a saint’s nimbus. Maybe it is the studied contrasts of the composition: green against rust, the face’s iridescent sheen against the drab jacket. Maybe it is the distortions Van Gogh worked upon his features, casting himself as a shaven-pated Buddhist monk.
Whatever it is that accounts for the particular allure of “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin,” there is no denying that it is a hard painting to forget. In photographs, the background has a tendency to come out a tranquil seafoam; in person, however, it is electric, alive. And perhaps that energy above all else is why the painting caught the eye of Maurice Wertheim, class of 1906, who bequeathed the work to Harvard upon his death in 1951. If you go to the Harvard Art Museums today, you can see it—hanging in the first room to the right of the entrance, it pulls viewers to it like moths to a light.
From a purely technical standpoint, there is no doubt that the work is extremely accomplished. But what many of the visitors drawn in by its ineffable charm may not know is that the painting has a history with richness to match: a ruined friendship, a destroyed museum, a Nazi art auction. This is that story.
STUDIO OF THE SOUTH
At the top of the painting, just below the edge of the frame, is a faint series of squiggles that viewers standing far away might be hard-pressed to recognize as letters, if they notice them at all. Heavily abraded, they are the remains of what would once have been a prominent dedication: “à mon ami Paul.”
The friend in question, of course, is none other than Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh painted the work in 1888 and gave it to his fellow artist as part of a portrait exchange that also included Émile Bernard. Later that same year, Van Gogh would succeed in convincing Gauguin to join him in Arles. “Part of the idea was to go to the south. There was a different light, a very different climate,” explains Henri Zerner, a professor of modern art in the History of Art and Architecture Department. “And the exchange of portraits is part of Van Gogh’s idea of forming a sort of art colony, an art commune, basically.”
"Someday you will also see my self-portrait, which I am sending to Gauguin, because he will keep it, I hope," Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, in October of 1888.
Van Gogh wrote about the portrait several times in letters to his brother, Theo. One such letter, written in October of 1888, reads: “Someday you will also see my self-portrait, which I am sending to Gauguin, because he will keep it, I hope.” Before the year was out, however, their relationship imploded spectacularly. “Van Gogh was extremely emotional, obviously, and probably expected too much,” Zerner says. “And Gauguin…” Zerner shows me a letter written to him by John Rewald, a major scholar of impressionism and post-impressionism, in which the historian describes his growing disillusionment with the artist he had once so admired: “Gauguin was one of the heroes, if not the hero, of my childhood…. During my first visit to France at the age of 19, I passed all my days at the Louvre copying one of his paintings. But [Gauguin’s] writings, which I have collected for over 20 years, revealed to me little by little a fellow of often unsavory character.”
Likely as a result of their extreme personalities, the relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin deteriorated quickly. Several months after the self-portrait’s completion, Van Gogh was committed to a mental institution following the acute psychotic episode during which he sliced off a part of his own ear. After Van Gogh’s hospitalization, they never met again. “[Their friendship lasted] a matter of months, really,” Zerner says. “Van Gogh only lives for a year and a half after [their parting]. They didn’t have a chance to make it up.”
So who tried to remove the dedication on Van Gogh’s self-portrait? The question was the subject of a 1984 investigation published by the Harvard University Art Museums’ Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (now the Harvard Art Museums and the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, respectively). H. Travers Newton, one of the two authors of the study, could not be reached for comment; Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski, his co-author, is deceased. Representatives of the Harvard Art Museums declined multiple requests for comment on the study.
The investigation report lays out several possible theories regarding how the dedication came to be destroyed. Though Bernard, the third member of the painting exchange, would eventually fall out with Gauguin and may thus have had motive, the study argues that it is unlikely he would have had access to the portrait. Van Gogh himself is another candidate; the authors of the investigation cite worsening mental health and increasing bitterness towards the man for whom he painted it as possible reasons. Yet according to Jirat-Wasiutynski and Newton’s report, the most likely perpetrator is none other than Gauguin. In 1897, eager to raise funds for a trip to Tahiti, Gauguin hocked Van Gogh’s self-portrait to a Parisian art dealer. It’s possible, Jirat-Wasiutynski and Newton argue, that Gauguin effaced the dedication while preparing it for sale. Even so, it sold for only 300 francs. “A workman made maybe two francs a day, so it’s probably half a year’s salary for a capable workman,” Zerner says. “But by then, Monet would sell for considerably more than that…. I would think 10 times that.”
ON THE AUCTION BLOCK
After Gauguin sold the painting, Van Gogh’s self-portrait made its way to Berlin, where, according to the Harvard Art Museums’ records, it was purchased by Hugo von Tschudi in 1906. Von Tschudi had wanted to acquire the piece for the National Gallery in Berlin, where he worked. But things didn’t go as planned. “It took a long time before it ended up in a museum,” says Sarah Kianovsky, a curator of modern and contemporary art at the Harvard Art Museums. “At that time, you needed to get approval to acquire pieces, and he couldn’t because it was too avant-garde.”
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