New exhibit shows van Gogh's Jewish connection

An exhibition in Finland spotlights the great Dutch artist

Vincent van Gogh’s Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890; Ateneum, the National Art Gallery of Finland, the Antell Collection. (photo credit: COURTESY ALTENEUM)
Vincent van Gogh’s Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890; Ateneum, the National Art Gallery of Finland, the Antell Collection.
(photo credit: COURTESY ALTENEUM)
From September 2020 until the end of January 2021, the Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki marked its 55th anniversary with a unique “Becoming Van Gogh” exhibition. The many visitors were delighted to see a very special painting, Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, one of the very last artworks of Vincent van Gogh.
The story of this painting’s purchase by the Finnish National Gallery is quite amazing. The painting’s owner was trying very hard to sell it, and she eventually got lucky only due to her well-established family’s connections. At the time of the acquisition, among the members of the board of Ateneum, the national art gallery, only one who lived in Paris knew van Gogh’s name. In general, the artist was regarded, according to the documents, as “that obscure Dutch madman.”
The painting was sold to Ateneum by Fanny Flodin, the wife of well-known French art personality Julien Leclerq, who was friendly with van Gogh and got some artworks from him. After the sudden death of 35-year-old Leclerq from TB in 1901, Fanny returned to Helsinki to live there with their small daughter.  She needed money to live on. In Paris, she managed to sell all but one of van Gogh’s works from her husband’s collection.
This is the one that eventually came to the Ateneum, becoming the  very first van Gogh painting acquired for public collection worldwide. The Finnish National Gallery paid Flodin-Leclerq 2,500 marks for the big oil canvas, equivalent to more than 11,000 Euro today.  
Ateneum was very kind to loan this bright, wonderful work to the Becoming van Gogh exhibition.
The Didrichsen Art Museum is based on the unique collection of modern art assembled by legendary patrons of art, Gunnar and Marie-Louise Didrichsens. Their son Peter led the museum for many years and currently his wife, Maria, is leading it. The Didrichsen family are also known as dedicated supporters of Israel, and they have contributed to worthy humanitarian causes in and for the Jewish state over many years.
Julien Leclerq, whose first name was Joseph, played a pivotal role in van Gogh’s posthumous fame. He wrote van Gogh’s obituary, the only one that still remains. Together with his wife Fanny, he organized the pioneering exhibition of post-Impressionists, including van Gogh, to go on a Scandinavian tour in 1898.
He also organized the first important personal exhibition of van Gogh, an exhibition which really became a destiny-changing event for the artist.
It is known that van Gogh did not enjoy appreciation during his lifetime, except for one positive review, and reportedly sold only one painting. But the first ever positive – and quite providential – review of his art that van Gogh received was from a colleague and acquaintance – a Dutch artist of Jewish origin named Joseph Jacob Isaacson (1859-1942) – just nine months prior to his death.
Isaacson, a well-educated person who specialized in Jewish mysticism, realized the merits of Vincent’s art and wrote about it in an arts magazine titled The Portfolio.
“Who is there that conveys, in form and color, the magnificent, dynamic energy the 19th century is against becoming aware of?” he wrote. “I know one man, a lone pioneer, struggling on his own in the depths of darkest night. His name, Vincent, will go down to posterity. There will be more to be said about this heroic Dutchman in the future.”
Isaacson’s own destiny was as terrible as the destiny of all Jews of Europe who witnessed humanity’s surrender to Nazism. Isaacson, who was 82, and his wife were murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, upon their arrival.
In 1901, the loyal Joseph Julien Leclerq organized a very special exhibition in Paris where for the first time, 65 works of Van Gogh were shown. Without that exhibition, the world may not have known about Vincent van Gogh.
It was organized at Bernheim-Jeune Galleries. The Bernheim-Jeune family was of Jewish origin and their contribution to the development of modern art is quite substantial. However, the history of the family and its business under the Nazi occupation is painful and tragic. Still, their role in laying ground for initial understanding and appreciation of van Gogh was crucial to his recognition as a major artistic genius.
A man who came from Berlin in 1901 to see that largely unknown artist with a strangely sounding name at the Bernheim-Jeune Galleries in Paris was Paul Cassirer, who went on to make van Gogh a famous and desirable artist, first in Europe and then in the USA.
Cassirer would have never been able to do it with two key factors: the article that he read about van Gogh and which was the sole reason for his journey to Paris to see that exhibition, and the exhibition itself, at which Cassirer was smitten by van Gogh’s works to the depth of his soul.
The article that has prompted Cassirer’s initial interest in Van Gogh was published in 1900, shortly before the exhibition in Paris. It was written by Julius Meier-Graefe, a great German Jewish art historian who lived mostly in Paris. Meier-Graefe understood van Gogh as no one else had before him, and it is largely thanks to him that the reading public in Germany were made aware of his deep and brilliant appreciation.
After publishing his first large essay on why van Gogh is a great artist, the one read by Paul Cassirer, Meier-Graefe expanded it first into a tiny book, then worked on it more and more, until his books on van Gogh published between 1910 and 1929 became recognized as classic works.
It is worth noting that Meier-Graefe, who lived until 1935, was instrumental with his wife in establishing an artistic community of German Jewish refugees in Paris, providing hospitality to many of them.
Cassirer did not live to see the Nazis seizing power in Germany. He died a decade earlier than Meier-Graefe, in 1926, and his death, in a weird way, was quite similar to that of his beloved artist, van Gogh. Cassirer took his own life, apparently as the result of tormented relations with his wife. Like van Gogh, he did not die immediately, but suffered for two days, before succumbing to his self-inflicted wounds.
Although it is still not certain how van Gogh died, his artist friend Émile Bernard, said that on July 29, 1890 he “left his easel against a haystack and went behind the château and fired a revolver shot at himself.”
Seventy-one years after van Gogh’s death, in 1961, a rather special statue of his was unveiled in Auvers-des-Oise, the first one of several memorials to van Gogh in France. It was also special because its creator was the famous Jewish sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1988-1967)  who, although born in Vitebsk, lived and worked in Paris most of his life, from 1910 onward.
Zadkine was fascinated by van Gogh. He created at least five van Gogh’s sculptures, including the one dramatic double-monument to both Vincent and his younger brother Theo, an art dealer, in the Dutch town of Zundert. It was placed next to the small church which had been memorable and quite important for both brothers, near to the place where they both were born. The special monument to the van Gogh brothers was unveiled in May 1964 by the Queen of the Netherlands, Juliana.
Over the years, there were more Jews who contributes to van Gogh’s worldwide fame: collectors, writers, filmmakers and art historians. Among them were writer Irwing Stone (Tannebaum), who authored the popular Lust for Life novel in the mid-1930s, followed by the even more popular film with the same name produced in Hollywood 20 years later by the great producer, John Houseman, and starring Izzy Danilovich from a Belarus shtetl who the world now knows as Kirk Douglas playing Vincent.
A very important contribution to our knowledge and perception of van Gogh was made by American Jewish art historian Meyer Shapiro from Columbia University. From the 1950s onward, he was the first to introduce into the art history the method known nowadays as interdisciplinary studies. Shapiro’s thinking and understanding of van Gogh painted a place for the artist on the palate of modern culture.
Of course, there are many more people, most of them not Jewish,  from different walks of life and occupations who helped build our understanding of van Gogh.  
Theo and his wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, performed a fundamental service by preservinmg Vincent’s art and his letters.
But the initial, principal boost that led to van Gogh’s professional and public appreciation followed by his unparalleled global fame, was primarily a result of the efforts of three Jewish men: gallerist  Alexandre Bernheim-Neuve, art historian Julius Meier-Graefe and art dealer Paul Cassirer.  
All of them did not just like van Gogh, but loving him deeply in an all-consuming way. Why did that happen?
I think it is the paradoxicality of these great Jewish men’s brilliant minds that allowed them to grasp the genius of Vincent van Gogh. They were so right. There was not and will never be an artist like van Gogh. And our deep gratititude should go to all three of them and to Josef Julien Leclercq – the first person to see and unravel the magnetism of van Gogh’s mysteries. ■
The writer is the co-founder and president of The Rogatchi Foundation, and the author of ‘Vincent: Etudes on Van Gogh special Outreach to Humanity project.’ The Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki, Finland is the one of four international laureates of The Rogatchi Foundation Culture for Humanity annual Award 2020