The Jews Who Helped Vincent van Gogh Get into the Mainstream

October 27, 2021 | Matt Lebovic
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Even after Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890, his works were considered too avant garde for most of the art market. It was largely thanks to Jewish dealers and connoisseurs that his work reached its current fame. In an interview with Matt Lebovic, Charles Delheim—author of a recent book on Jews and modern art—explains this role:

The process of commercializing van Gogh started 120 years ago, when the German-Jewish art collector Paul Cassirer staged the first showing of the Dutch painter’s works in Berlin. After that exhibition, van Gogh’s legacy — and modern art, in general—became intertwined with the trajectory of European Jews.

Dellheim spoke about the “risk-taking” qualities of Cassirer and other Jews who helped van Gogh achieve posthumous fame. More than a century later, van Gogh paintings that were once owned by Jews still make headlines in connection to having been looted by Nazi Germany.

Among the modernist painters adored by Jewish collectors, van Gogh figured prominently. Within two decades of the artist’s death, a good deal of his paintings and drawings had been purchased by Jewish collectors. . . . For years, Cassirer had been imploring Johanna van Gogh—the widow of Vincent’s brother and sponsor, Theo—to permit him to show some of van Gogh’s paintings. A breakthrough came in 1901, when Cassirer was able to show five of van Gogh’s works in an annual “Berlin Secession” exhibition of modernist artists.

Beginning in the 1920s, [by contrast], racial propaganda branded Jews and modern art as “alien elements” to be eliminated. The post-World War I “stab-in-the-back” myth, for example, included the backstory of Jews “poisoning” Germany’s “racial community” with influences such as “degenerate” art and social movements.

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