Sam Meekings is back in his home city of Chichester to talk about his new book – the story behind the iconic Van Gogh image, Portrait of Dr Gachet (1890).
“There are lots of books and movies and stories about Van Gogh, but I struggled to find any real hard and concrete information about the man in this particular painting. I just thought that he had such an interesting and enigmatic expression. It was one of the last paintings that Van Gogh made. Van Gogh said ‘I have to paint this man because he wears the melancholy expression of our life time.’
“Van Gogh is a pretty melancholic and depressive guy. I wondered what he saw in this man’s face that made him see him as the expression of his times. I did a bit of research and it turned out that Dr Gachet had a strange and unusual life. He studied to be a doctor and he ended up working in some of the first asylums in Paris, but he resigned quite controversially from his position because he was appalled at the barbaric way the patients were treated in the first asylums.
“And then suddenly at the end of the 1860s, start of the 1870s, there was the Franco-Prussian War and he seems to have suddenly thought he needed to do something and enlisted as an army medic. He became a doctor again and went to the front. He was also in Paris for the siege of Paris where the people were so starving that they ended up breaking into Paris zoo and killing all the animals. He was there for the Paris commune and when the government retook the city soon after he saw a lot of his friends being executed, but was forced to work for the government troops that had retaken the city. After that, he resigned from any kind of public life and went to live in a village outside Paris where he set up a refuge for artists. A lot of artists visited him, and that’s how Van Gogh got to hear about him.
“The book is the story of his life but what was interesting for me was the story of the painting after his life. I have added his life and his afterlife.”
The painting was bought by a flamboyant Austrian aristocrat; it was confiscated by the Nazis as degenerate art; and it was smuggled to America. It was then sold in about 1990, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold. It was bought by a Japanese magnate who later had to declare himself bankrupt.
“And since then the painting has disappeared. Only a few people know where it is. It may have been privately sold. The best guess is that it could be somewhere like where I am, Qatar or maybe Dubai, bought by some very rich sheikh. The best guess is that it was sold and is being kept in a temperature-controlled crate as an investment.”
Which goes against everything Van Gogh hoped for.
“Van Gogh said that the melancholic expression summed up the times. He wanted the painting to be seen.”
Sam, who attended Bishop Luffa school in Chichester, has lived abroad for around ten years now: “I spent quite a few years in China. I just wanted to do something new after finishing university. I just thought I would travel around, but I went to China and lived and worked there for a few years. And then I thought I would try something new again. I got a job offer in Qatar and have been there for three or four years now. I work in an American university there.”
Sam will be speaking about The Afterlives of Dr Gachet at Waterstones in Chichester on Friday, July 13 at 6pm. Tickets £4 (£3 redeemable against purchase of the book).