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Jose Navarro and I had some e-mail dialogue back and forth about the "one painting" question. I'll reconstruct some of this dialogue below.

Jose: Paul Gauguin in his book Escritos de un salvaje wrote:

Winter 1886

A day of December, in Lepic street of Paris, pedestrians hurried more than normal. Among them a chilly man dressed in a strange vest. He is wrapped in a leather goat coat and a fur hat, possibly in rabbit. He had a red bristled beard. Like a herdsman.

...His eyes are light blue, so childish, so alive, and so intelligent. Possibly he is a poor beggar; but he is not a herdsman, he is a painter. His name, Vincent van Gogh.

He entered in a shop of bargain, cheap canvas. Poor artist! You have given a part of your soul to your painting and now you have to sell it.

It is a little still life, some rose shrimps on a rose paper. (JH 1169?)

Can you give me some money for this canvas to help me to pay my rent?

Your paintings are not very cheerful, but it is said that you are intelligent and I want to help you. Here you have five francs.

Vincent took the coin, said thanks you and went away. Near his home, a poor woman, just had gone out a hospital, smiled sadly to the painter asking for some help. Van Gogh, who was a good reader, remembered La fille Elise (a novel by Edmond de Goncourt) and the five francs coin passed to her hands. Quickly, like ashamed of his charity, he hurried away with his empty stomach.

David: It's an interesting story, but we have to take it with a grain of salt I think.  First of all, the provenance of the work Still Life with Mussels and Shrimps isn't consistent with this story.  According to the De la Faille catalogue raisonne, this work went straight to Theo.  It was never sold or traded to anyone.  Also, we have to consider the source.  Gauguin was well known for his exaggerations or his outright lies.  Generally I'm careful about any historical "fact" that is credited to Paul Gauguin.
Jose: To be more sure about Gauguinīs reference, it would be necessary to pass the question to J.H. Hulsker or to the V.G. Museum in Amsterdam.

As a negative aspect we know that Gauguin was a man that use to tell things with a very subjective manner. He wrote the story 17 years after it happened and 13 years after V.G.īs death. To speak about someone dissapeared makes us to speak well of him.

As positive aspects we have:

A.  Gauguin met Theo and Vincent in 1886.
B.  Iīm sure that Gauguin knew the works of Vincent and probably saw the shrimps (JH 1169) painted in autumn 1886, or any other similar.
C.  In July 1886 Theo and Vincent moved to rue Lepic.
D.  The physical aspect of Vincent is according with his normal eccentric appearance.
E.  The fact agree with Van Gogh humanist behaviour.
F.  It is well known the influence of books in V.Gīs behaviour.

This means that there are coincidence of time, place and circumstances.Gauguin knew Vincent quite well.

But I believe it is not true that:

A.  He had to pay his rent, because he lived at Theoīs home. I have read that his home at Lepic Street was enough big to have his study there.
B.  He had his stomach empty, because living at Theoīs home it is not logical to be hungry.

What could be real and unreal in the story? My opinion is:

REAL: A painting sold to a very low price.

UNREAL:The woman, the rent and the empty stomach. Probably introduced to make more attractive the story.

REASONS to rewrite the story? Many: his own character, making him to use in writings the same technics he used in paintings; to give himself importance in an indirectly manner, speaking of another painter bad dressed, whose canvas had little value, and so so...

Complicated. Sorry but I cannot give you any security that the story is completely true, but Gauguin is a witness of those times, and so, I canīt either refuse his opinions.

Only professional people or institutions, and not an amateur like me, can answer your doubts.

I donīt know any letter of Vincent about this fact, but it is not strange because during his stay in Paris he only wrote 7 letters in 12 months, while during January and February 1886 for instance, he wrote 17 letters before arriving to Paris.
David: Jose raises some good points and, like him, I'm a humble amateur, but I do feel that the opinions of an amateur can be just as valuable as those of the credited scholars.  I think that there's a good chance that the work in Gauguin's story isn't Still Life with Mussels and Shrimps (given the provenance), but what other work could it be?  The timing of the story and the date of the painting seem right and there's no other work in Van Gogh's oeuvre that includes shrimps.  Could the work have been sold, as told in Gauguin's story, and then somehow returned to Theo?

Whatever the case, this raises some interesting questions about the story of Van Gogh selling one painting in his lifetime.

Jose: That makes me think why he painted, at least, a couple of canvas of Alexander Reid. This man was a dealer in paintings. Why he sat (posed) for Van gogh? Did he only offerred himself as a free model, or did he sit to have his own portrait? After sitting, is it not normal him to buy the canvas? He knew that the artist needed money.

Iīm sure that the idea that Vincent only sold one painting in his life is a myth. I believe he could have sold more, at low price, of course, and sometimes at the cost of the materials, and probably sometimes at less price when the need were important. Or probably he could have changed canvas for food or any other thing.

And he had not to tell a word to Theo about that for many reasons, for instance, for the fear that Theo would send him less money, or Theo could have thought he was misspending money.

You know that when he was in The Hague, C.M asked Vincent to make for him twelve small pen drawings, views from The Hague.He got some money for it. Nobody have this in consideration, itīs more newsmonger to say the topic of only one canvas sold.

So the Gauguin story is not for me uncredible, could it be Pere Tanguy the cheap dealer who bought his shrimp canvas? It is not necessary to be F 256, it could be another similar. Today we give a great value to everything made by Vincent, but in that time he was nobody. His canvas had no value. Someone could have or buy a Van Gogh, and destroy it without any pain. Remember a canvas of Dr. Rey (?) who was used instead of a broken window glass.Or the canvas sold by Ravoux.

Vincent is today what he is, because of Theo and Jo. If they would have not had faith in his works, Vincent would have disappeared.
David: Again, Jose raises some excellent points.   Why would Reid sit for Van Gogh, but not buy a canvas?  Ironically, the Portrait of the Art Dealer Alexander Reid would eventually end up back in the possession of the Reid family, but only long after Vincent's death.

You could argue the point back and forth and still not come up with a definitive answer.  I do, however, feel that there is enough evidence to cast doubt on the story that Van Gogh sold only one work in his lifetime.  Jose is right--Vincent may have sold canvases just for the cost of the materials it took to paint them, but it seems highly unlikely that of the more than 2,300 hundred paintings and sketches Van Gogh produced in his lifetime, he was only able to sell one.  There's no question at all that Van Gogh was misunderstood and unappreciated in his lifetime, but I would maintain that the story of selling only one work is apocryphal.

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