National Geographic : 1997 Oct
distinguish as many as ten million different colors and tones; an infinite number of combi nations is possible. Perhaps someone armed with powerful computers will one day decipher van Gogh's color concoctions. They are in stantly accessible yet maddeningly complex. VINCENT OFTEN could not eat or sleep. To at tain the high yellow note that I attained last summer, I really had to be pretty well keyed up. After working all night on a self-portrait, he was r • unhappy with it and traded I1 it for five Japanese prints. i The Arles shop owner sold it to a cleric, and its history disappears-until 1946, when Reeves Lewen thal, a young American art dealer, got a flat tire on the outskirts of Paris. Lewenthal entered a bistro to call a mechanic. The bistro was dark and grimy with paintings on its walls. Lewenthal recognized one as a van Gogh. Some art historians still believe this painting- SE.L .F TRAIT WIT "Study by Candlelight"-is genuine, but by the 1970s most regarded it as a fake. The persistence of such stories helps ex plain Vincent's popularity. Find a van Gogh and get rich quick. A new one turns up about every decade. So do forgeries. Annet Tellegen, one of the world's leading experts on van Gogh, says that about one in fifteen currently accepted van Goghs-including some of the most famous-are forgeries. Because owners have invested so much money and prestige, they have little interest in learning the truth. A COMBINATION of fake and real greets me as I enter the Place du Forum, just north of the open square that was a center of Arlesian life under Roman rule-from the first century B.C. through the fifth A.D There it is! The subject of his "Cafe Terrace at Night." Restored in 1980, its tables have silk sunflowers. It is called the Cafe van Gogh. Next door is Snack Bar Le Tambourin, the name of Vincent's favorite cafe in Paris. A cup of coffee costs two dollars. My hotel room overlooks the terrace cafe. Sounds drift in as I continue Vincent's letters. I am angry at Theo, whose records show that he sold one of Vincent's self-portraits to a buyer in London. Theo never told Vincent, and no one knows how much the buyer paid. At 1:30 a.m. I go looking for what Vincent portrayed in "The Night Cafe," completed sev eral blocks away near the railroad station. In contrast to the happy glow of "Cafe Terrace at Night," it uses the conflict between colors VANGOGHMUSEUM to capture lonely people ! awake in the middle of the S night. I have tried to ex press the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The only open caf I find is a McDonald's with plastic sunflowers and a tile replica of van Gogh's "The Night Cafe." After I return to my room, Theo suddenly walks onstage. Vincent for unknown reasons saved 36 of his letters, beginning in Arles. They convey a deep sensitivity H STRAW HAT, 1887 I had not expected: "The sympathy an artist feels for certain lines and for certain colors will cause his soul to be reflected in them." "It is such a pleasure for me to look at your pictures. They make the rooms so gay, and there is such an intensity of truth." "You have repaid me many times over, by your work as well as by your friendship, which is of greater value than all the money I shall ever possess." Theo's words could not touch Vincent's loneliness. Often whole days pass without my speaking to anyone. "We regarded him as crazy," Jeanne Calment tells me. "He lit candles in the brim of his hat as he painted outside at night. People called him fada, touched by fairies." Calment, born in 1875, and the world's old est person whose birth is documented, smiles and thrusts out her breasts. This, she says, is how she flirted with Vincent when she was 14. He had come into her cousin's store. "I was very pretty, but he wanted only to discuss painting," she says-still annoyed. How I'd like to settle down and have a home! NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, OCTOBER 1997 !