In his youth M. Van Gogh had a fiery complexion and bright copper hair. When he was a child, his mother, in an unprecedented moment of levity, described him to her husband as a cross between a summer sunset and a fire engine. Paterfamilias Van Gogh, who feared that his son’s colouring was a sign of bad things to come, was not amused. However, by the time M. Van Gogh reached sixty the fire had gone out. His hair and beard were snow white, his skin a muddy brown, although in some lights there was an undertint of orange. Age did not affect his eyes. They were the same ice blue as they had been when he was a baby.
If M. Van Gogh had lived the average life span he would have died obscure and penniless. Outside of his intimate circle no one would have known his name and none but a few artists, poor and penniless themselves, would have seen and appreciated his paintings. But by some happenstance he was ‘discovered’ in his fifties and his paintings now sold for amounts which would once have financed he and all the many friends of his youth for a decade. When he reached eighty no one was more surprised than he. He thought for sure that his drinking (he stopped at the age of seventy-five), his mental illness (diagnosed by many psychiatrists as chronic and untreatable) and the years of grinding poverty which accompanied the making of his great paintings, would kill him before he was out of his fifties but they didn’t. He lived on and on until by the age of eighty-five he dwelt in a large house with servants and had so much money in the bank the manager came by three times a year to give him a personal briefing on his account.
At the back of the house was a large yard, much of it filled with flowerbeds. The day after he bought the house he engaged a contractor to build a lean to studio off a blank spot on the back wall. The contractor had visions of a fine palace of a studio but M. Van Gogh stopped him in his tracks. He wanted no fine palaces. He didn’t mind them if they belonged to someone else and he was on a brief visit, but he did not want to own or build one himself. He wanted only the most humble of materials. He wanted a potbellied stove burning both wood and coal. He wanted modest windows with storms for the winter, of course, but he wanted them smallish so that a man could walk up to them and look out with satisfaction yet not so commanding they demanded he look out. When the contractor gave him the price he was astonished. He made a joke about Louis XIV and the extravagance of his royal court but the contractor was not amused. When M. Van Gogh asked around about the price he was told it was reasonable and he had the man go ahead.
As soon as the studio was built (quickly for the building market was depressed and the contractor had his pick of workmen), he spent most of his waking hours there. Summers he spent much of the days outside on a small patio. He joked with his bank manager - a surprisingly humorous man for one following such a profession - usually they were as dour as his dear old father - that the house was for the servants and except for sleeping and eating he never went into it. He allowed the oldest maid, a second cousin who came to live with him some years before, being destitute and homeless, to clean the studio once a month. That was on the day he climbed into the motorcar for his trip to the sea some ten miles away.
If it was summer he sat on the beach all day, had supper at the hotel and came home. During the winter he walked, one hand on the chauffeur’s elbow, the other on his cane. The chauffeur carried with him a load of blankets and when they reached a certain bench he wrapped his employer in a wool cocoon and M. Van Gogh sat for some hours looking out to sea. It always occurred to him on these occasions that he could have saved himself all the trials and tribulations of being an artist by having become a sailor. He thought of sailors as artists who destained the vulgar claptrap of paint and canvas for the much purer art of simply seeing. Although he knew this to be untrue, in fact to be the worst kind of sentimental nonsense, still, every time he sat on his bench the thought went through his head and for a brief moment he enjoyed it as a child would enjoy the intense taste of his favourite candy.
Sometimes Denise, the second cousin, was still in the studio when he came back. This annoyed M. Van Gogh, for it meant he had to sit patiently listening to his relative’s complaints. Her complaints were complex, involved and legion. So as to kill two birds with one stone he ordered tea brought out on a tray and sat munching cookies while Denise walked the winding road of her illnesses and petty disputes with the other servants. Her monologues were much the same every month and M. Van Gogh sometimes wondered if she were not becoming senile. Other than an occasional hmmm and nodding his head, he made no comment. He had learned years before that interruptions were considered rude and comments were not appreciated. If Denise was still full steam ahead after an hour he unobtrusively removed a pre-measured packet of laudanum from an inside pocket and spilt the contents into his tea. He had learned exactly when to do this so that just as Denise’s voice became like a dentist drill cutting its way through a nerve, the effects of the drug cut in and saved him from excruciating misery. Denise was a good twenty years younger than himself and capable of talking well into the night but after two hours at the most, he pleaded his age and rang for the man servant who helped him to his bedroom.
To be aged and famous, unless one is an egoist, is a burden. Curators and sycophants in the employ of the men who will profit from an increase in the value of your work, spread about them a misty fog of hagiography. Supposedly at the centre of this misty fog is an electrical Prometheus, fire crackling the air around a nimbus of his creative tensions, waiting patiently for the chosen few who will be given the benefit of his steely gaze or even the sacrament of his god like touch. In truth, of course, there is an old man bundled against the chills of old age, in a chair in the corner. At ninety M. Van Gogh succeeded in putting an end to this nonsense by hiring two gardeners who came running at the sounding of a buzzer in their shed and garden. These two men, polite church goers but inexorable in the defence of M. Van Gogh’s privacy, showed all visitors who brushed past the butler to the door and out into the street. Sometimes, in the case of the truly zealous and pressing, they threw them down the front steps and shouted unchurch-like phrases after, for they had found from experience that physical fear was the best guard against repeat performances. Six months of this and the word got round so that now only the occasional unwelcome visitor showed up at the door. Most were given the gardener treatment but on the rare odd day M. Van Gogh would allow them to be ushered into his presence as a kind of tribute to the bad old days. They were mostly art students, feverish and consumed with ecstatic visions. M. Van Gogh spoke with them briefly about the prices of canvas, tubes of paint, brushes, etcetera, gave them a crisp one hundred dollar bill and sent them on their way.
Fame and reputation also brought many invitations, some social which he refused and some professional, which he mostly refused. In his seventies and eighties he had been foolishly moved by the arguments of Highly Responsible persons that a great painter in his dotage had debts to pay to what they called the ‘Great Tradition’. He sat on committees. He went to high profile openings of public expositions. He attended the Royal Family’s Arts Night where he was given a place beside the Prince who during the meal told him many off colour jokes, some mildly amusing but most plain silly. He also acted as the painting judge for this annual event, the successful painting being unveiled after the dinner by the Prince who took advantage of the occasion to tell a few more of his smutty jokes and make a few asides (referred to by his friends as the Royal Person’s zingers) in the same spirit of scatological snickering. All this reminded M. Van Gogh of a relative of the Prince from two centuries before who was famous for caressing the bottoms of duchesses in public and who often, during a reception, suddenly plunged his face into the cleavage of a well endowed young woman. One of the disadvantages of being Royal is that everyone knows your business and the business of your ancestors for even their most banal habits are written up in history books. If you are common, two generations succeeds in wiping the slate clean and the dead can go to their final rest in the fields of oblivion.
At ninety, along with hiring his two gardeners, M. Van Gogh dropped all these ‘Great Tradition’ duties excepting one, the Royal’s Arts Night. The Highly Responsible Persons were in high dudgeon for some months but he paid them no attention. They were, after all, the type of people whose artistic activity consists of eating stale sandwiches, gossiping and discussing fashionable topics under the delusion that their opinions, which they received from the newspapers and sifted with insect –like delicacy until they found a happy mix of the bland and the popular, were of great import. He did not cast all these people from his door for he liked some of them a great deal and set three nights a year to have them for dinner where everyone, including himself, for he was one of them, at least part time, if he was honest with himself, could have a jolly gabfest. But he turned aside all their blandishments about his withdrawal as the talk of the devil. He had a few paintings to finish before he died and the younger ones would have to take his place on the committees.
The Royal Arts Night coming up was special. The Prince was celebrating his thirtieth year hosting the event and, as well, M. Van Gogh celebrated his one hundredth birthday two days before. The media was agog with delight over such a momentous occasion filled with celebrity and significance. M. Van Gogh heard about the media frenzy from friends, most particularly from the young woman student who he paid to give him a weekly summary of arts and political news. He had never read newspapers for he found them hard going. After an hour he felt like a child who had just eaten three cones of cotton candy – regretful and nauseous. M. Legrand, the young woman, however, gave him brief summaries which he could ask her to expand if he so chose. Her summations were masterful and done up with a sly irony unusual in such a young person. They were also enjoyable to listen to for M. Legrand was beautiful and her voice a combination of morning birds singing and grave delicate rhythms of the sea. Although congress with a woman was a matter of memory for him now, he still loved to listen to their melodious voices and even to some of the non melodious voices of the middle aged women who had once been his lovers.
This connection with M. Legrand and the coming Royal Arts Night had recently become somewhat of a delicate matter to him. M. Legrand was a student, an impoverished one, but as well as being a student in the studio of X, an old enemy of M. Van Gogh (from X’s side for M. Van Gogh had never been able to see the use of cultivating enemies), she was an accomplished painter with her own individual style which M. Van Gogh thought showed considerable promise. She had entered a painting in the Royal competition where the winning entry would be unveiled by the potty mouthed Prince on that special night. Her painting was superb, the kind of painting done by the highly talented early in their career which art critics discount because of the painter's youth but in truth are fully mature works granted by a combination of the muse and the energies of youth. M. Van Gogh was the judge of the competition, of course. But if he chose M. Legrand’s entry there would be many who would accuse him of furthering a protégé’s career at the cost of true judgment, or even a mistress’s career, for there were many who claimed the meetings between he and M. Legrand, an hour every week in the library, were, as well as being media summaries, sexual in nature. Of course they were but not in the way these people meant.
M. Legrand herself was the soul of discretion. She never mentioned her entry and indeed, in all of their meetings, some one hundred or so, she had never mentioned the fact that she was a painter. M. Van Gogh disliked talking of painting. He thought it better to look at paintings rather than talk about them. But he paid her so handsomely that it was obvious that, as well as paying her for her services, he was subsidizing her studies. Not that they spoke of this. Every week in the envelope given her by the butler as she left the house there was a generous amount above the agreed upon payment.
That year there were four hundred and fifty-five entries. The Prince’s agents placed them on easels and spread them around the grand hall for M. Van Gogh to look at. And look he did for he was the most conscientious of judges. He thought it his sacred duty to gaze at each one with the intense but kindly eye the painters themselves might turn upon it in an unguarded moment of self appreciation. This took him a month, visiting the grand hall every day, for at one hundred years of age M. Van Gogh, although surprisingly vigorous both physically and intellectually, no longer had the energy of early old age. He had two hours in the hall at his best, viewing and taking notes and then he went home. With four days left, after reviewing his notes, he chose twenty paintings which he then spent these last days looking at over and over again. M. Legrand’s was one of these paintings.
The day before the Gala, after listening to M. Legrand’s media summary without interrupting (he was tired and longed for his afternoon nap) he asked her,
“Are you going to the Art’s Night?”
“Well, I have received an invitation,” said M. Legrand, “but no.”
“And why not?”
“Clothes,” replied M. Legrand.
M. Van Gogh felt suddenly ashamed. How could he have missed such an obvious thing? He, a man who had spent forty years wearing rags and patches? He thought of apologizing but then thought better of it. Instead he rose, excused himself for a moment and left the room. He came back a few moments later and said,
“That will be all for today, M. Legrand. Thank you and I will see you tomorrow evening.”
M. Legrand left the room with her usual liquid grace and M. Van Gogh took the elevator upstairs to his bedroom to have his nap. When M. Legrand arrived at the room she rented near X’s studio she found the envelope contained far more than usual. She went out right away to a second hand shop and bought herself the necessities. The dress had to be altered but this for her was a pleasure – she loved working with needle and thread as much as she loved painting.
The Prince, of course, was delighted that the winner of that year’s prize was a beautiful young woman. Usually the winners were grizzled old veterans of the trenches of art, their eyes filled with a strange combination of obsequiousness and paranoid aggression. How much more pleasant to gaze upon this young woman in full bloom, her eyes filled with a smiling clarity, dressed in a stunning classical gown perhaps given her by an older lover, a man of wealth and influence not unlike the Prince himself. So impressed was he that he did not make his usual jokes, perhaps fearing that they would put him in a bad light before this young woman of refined sensibilities. His sycophants were disappointed that they were given no ‘zingers’ to pass around at the after event parties but they solved this problem by recycling some from years before.
A week later when M. Legrand finished her summary, M. Van Gogh asked,
“Has he sent you a message?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“I thought he would,” said M. Van Gogh. “He’s not a man to hesitate or delay. Have you decided?”
“No. I vacillate. I have a lover, a painter my own age. But he is as penniless as I.”
“I can look after this for you if you like. I don’t mean the Prince. You will deal with him as you like. I mean the money. Don’t answer in words. I know it is painful. If you are willing then simply nod.”
M. Legrand hesitated for a few seconds and then nodded.
“Fine, then,” said M. Van Gogh. “But there is one condition. The money will be deposited in your account. Leave the number with Jacob. The condition is that you are not to tell your lover you have capital. Tell him I give you a monthly income out of respect for your talent. Surely he will not look upon a hundred year old man as competition. I ask this because in a long life I have seen many women besotted by men who spent their money. You need it for something more long lasting than individual human beings – your painting. People change their feelings and they die but for as long as you can pick up a brush you have the painting. When I die you will be released from your promise, a release obviously not far in the future.”
M. Legrand looked at him for a long time but said nothing.
“You agree, then?” asked M. Van Gogh.
M.Legrand nodded. And so it was done.
One year later, at the Royal Arts Night, M. Van Gogh was approached by the Prince after dinner. They stood in a small alcove off from the main hall, the Prince’s escort of dear ole pals attending at a distance, in respect, perhaps, for such an historic and august meeting between the embodied traditions of art and power.
“That young woman who won the prize last year,” said the Prince, “I forget her name…”
“M. Legrand, your Excellency,” said M. Van Gogh.
“Yes, M. Legrand. She seems quite a queer bird. I sent her a note and she didn’t reply.”
“Ahh,” said M. Van Gogh.
“I thought perhaps the first note had gone astray so I sent another. Three others in fact but still no reply.”
“Perhaps, your Excellency, you will allow my vast age to excuse my boldness, but what was in the notes you sent her?”
“Well….,” replied the Prince, “I asked her for a private meeting, a dinner tete a tete.”
“She’s very religious your Excellency and has a fiancé. So you can see why it would be impossible for her to reply. If you really want to see her I would suggest you invite her to a social occasion along with her fiancé. If you did that I’m sure you would get a reply.”
“Religious, eh? Well, we could all use a little more of that couldn’t we? Tempest Fugit and all.”
“No doubt your Excellency.”
But the Prince didn’t send another note. Other than the gala he never invited artists to social occasions. They were like glaciers, exuding chilly disapproval and looking down their noses at those not kissed by the holy god of art. Too bad that such a beauty was lost to him but there are plenty of others who were not, weren't there? Lots of other fish in the sea and all that.