In search of the legendary “Portrait of Dr Gachet”
The last great portrait by Vincent van Gogh disappeared from the public eye three decades ago. The podcast series FINDING VAN GOGH traces the painting’s eventful history – to get to the bottom of the question: where is the masterpiece now?
When the Städel exhibition MAKING VAN GOGH opened its doors in October 2019, it featured some 120 works of art and – notably – an empty picture frame. This was the frame that originally held the “Portrait of Dr Gachet”, Vincent van Gogh’s last major likeness. The painting was once a highlight of the Städel collection – that is, until the Nazis confiscated it in 1937, declaring it a work of so-called ‘degenerate art’.
The “Portrait of Dr Gachet” shows the neurologist who treated Van Gogh. The expression and pose reveal the physician’s world-weariness and profound sense of melancholy. The artist painted the masterpiece just weeks before taking his own life. Today the painting occupies an iconic place not just in the history of art, but also in the history of the art market.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr Gachet, 1890, oil on canvas, private collection, photo: Bridgeman Images
The empty picture frame of Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr Gachet” in the storage room of the Städel Museum, 2001, photo: Holde Schneider
In 1990, exactly 100 years after its execution, the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” sold at auction for a record sum of $82.5 million. Its new owner purportedly expressed the wish that it be cremated with his body after his death. This statement turned out to be the stuff of legend: the painting wasn’t destroyed along with its owner’s remains after all. Nevertheless, it has vanished from public view and was last seen at that historic, record-breaking auction in 1990.
FINDING VAN GOGH is a 5-part podcast series – the first podcast to be released by the Städel Museum. In it, the journalist Johannes Nichelmann attempts to establish the whereabouts of the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” and traces its remarkable history. He meets with contemporary witnesses, art experts, and Van Gogh enthusiasts in Germany, France, London, New York, and Switzerland. They tell of the painting’s genesis and its history under National Socialism, and provide first-hand insights into the workings of today’s global art market.
“Its story holds a mirror up to some of the political and social situations in the places that it was: first in France, in Germany and then in the United States. Then it was in Japan. And now wherever it is. Where it’s hidden. Disappeared“Cynthia Saltzman in FINDING VAN GOGH
Johannes Nichelmann (*1989) has been working as a free-lance reporter, author and moderator for public broadcasting, radio and television since 2008. He leads the way through the story of FINDING VAN GOGH.
Photo: Niklas Vogt
Cynthia Saltzman is an art historian and journalist working in New York. Her book “The Portrait of Dr Gachet” (1998) is the first ever to study the painting’s history in depth. Her research was an important source for the podcast.
Alexander Eiling (*1974) is the head of the Städel Museum’s collection of modern art and the curator of the exhibition MAKING VAN GOGH. He would have liked to show the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” in the exhibition.
Dominique Janssens (*1948), a native of Belgium, used to work as a manager for an international food giant. In 1984, he purchased the house where Van Gogh spent the last months of his life – the Auberge Ravoux in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise. With his Institut Van Gogh he is working to keep the artist’s memory alive.
Andreas Hansert (*1958) is a historian and sociologist. He works as a free-lance author and has carried out research and published texts on such topics as the cultural history of the Frankfurt bourgeoisie and local Nazi history.
Anna Huber (*1982) is an art historian and works in the Städel’s museum education department. For the podcast, she immersed herself in the history of the Gachet portrait.
Konstanze Crüwell (*1942) is a journalist and author. The former editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried out in-depth research on the biography of former Städel director Georg Swarzenski and published a book about him in 2015.
Photo: Wonge Bergmann
Iris Schmeisser (*1972) is a provenance researcher and the head of the Städel Museum’s historical archive. Her work focusses on the history of artworks and their changes of ownership, especially during the Nazi era.
Ewald Rathke (*1926) is an art historian and art dealer. He was the director of the Frankfurt Kunstverein from 1961 and 1970 and has owned an art dealership in this city for nearly 50 years. In the early 60s, he saw the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” in the New York apartment of its then owner, Lola Kramarsky.
Gottfried Boehm (*1942) is an art historian, philosopher and professor emeritus of the University of Basel. He is considered one of the most influential art and image theorists in the German-speaking part of Europe.
Christopher Burge worked for Christie’s from 1970 to 2012 and was considered one of its top auctioneers. He auctioned off eight of what, at that time, were the world’s ten most expensive artworks. In 1990 he also directed the auction in New York where the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” broke all the records.
Dirk Boll (*1970), originally from Germany, is now based in London and president of Christie’s in Europe, Middle East, Russia and Africa.
Photo: Christie’s Images Limited 2019
Stefan Koldehoff (*1967) is a journalist and expert on the art market and Van Gogh. He has been researching the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” and its history extensively for three decades.
Giovanna Bertazzoni is with Christie’s London, where she heads the international department of Impressionist and modern art. An Italian by birth, she has been working for the auction house since 1998.
Photo: Christie’s Images Limited 2019
David Nash (*1942) worked for the auction house Sotheby’s for altogether 35 years, most recently as the director of the international Impressionist and modern art department. He is one of the most eminent art dealers in the U.S. Today, he and his wife run a gallery in New York.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) moves to Auvers-sur-Oise, his last place of residence, in the spring of 1890 to obtain help with his physical and mental afflictions from the physician Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. The doctor inspires his last likeness, the “Portrait of Dr Gachet”. A few weeks later, Van Gogh takes his own life in a wheat field in Auvers.
Picture: Jacobus Marinus Wilhelmus de Louw, Vincent van Gogh at age 19, 1873, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Theo van Gogh (1857–1891) is Vincent’s brother and closest confidant. The two are in extremely close contact; they write each other hundreds of letters. Theo is an art dealer in Paris. He supports his older brother financially and receives his unsaleable paintings in return. Theo dies just a few months after Vincent.
Picture: Ernest Ladrey, Theo van Gogh, ca. 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet (1828–1909) inspires Van Gogh’s last portrait, the “Portrait of Dr Gachet”. The general practitioner has obtained his doctorate with a thesis on melancholy and is also active in the area of alternative medicine. Among other things, he markets a so-called “Elixir of Dr Gachet”. He has a practice in Paris but spends most of his time in the little town of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh seeks his help in 1990. Himself an amateur painter and art enthusiast, Gachet is personally acquainted with many artists, among them Gustave Courbet and Paul Cézanne.
Picture: Anonymous, Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, ca. 1890, Van Gogh Museum (Tralbaut archive)
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925) is the wife of Vincent’s brother Theo. When her husband dies, she inherits both brothers’ estates, which encompass paintings, drawings and letters by Van Gogh. In the years that follow, she organizes numerous exhibitions of her brother-in-law’s work and publishes the correspondence between Vincent and Theo. She thus lays the foundation for Van Gogh’s posthumous success.
Picture: Woodbury & Page, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Alice Ruben Faber (1866–1939) is one of the first owners of the “Portrait of Dr Gachet”. She is an artist, collector and art patron who lives in Copenhagen. The photograph that presumably shows her lying in bed pregnant with the unframed portrait on the night table beside her is the first known reproduction of Van Gogh’s likeness.
Picture: Anonymous, Alice Ruben Faber with Van Gogh's “Portrait of Dr Gachet”, 1897
Georg Swarzenski (1876–1957) becomes the director of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt am Main in 1906, at the age of 30. Shortly thereafter, he also takes charge of the newly founded Städtische Galerie with the aim of assembling a collection of modern art for the museum. Swarzenski acquires primarily French art from Monet to Van Gogh, but also works by German avant-garde artists such as Max Beckmann and Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner. In 1911 he succeeds in purchasing the “Portrait of Dr Gachet”, which becomes a centrepiece of the Städel collection.
A holder of two doctorates, the art historian and lawyer Swarzenski contributes decisively to shaping the museum and Frankfurt’s culture in the 1910s and ’20s. In 1928 he is appointed director general of all the city’s municipal museums. When the National Socialists come to power in 1933, Swarzenski is dismissed from this post on account of his Jewish heritage but manages to hold onto his position as director of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut – a private foundation – for another few years. In 1937 he is dismissed from this office as well and flees to the U.S. with his family.
Picture: Anonymous, Georg Swarzenski, undated
Alfred Wolters (1884–1973) is Georg Swarzenski’s assistant and close confidant from 1912 onwards. When Swarzenski becomes the director general of Frankfurt’s municipal museums, Wolters – at Swarzenski’s request – takes charge of the Städtische Galerie, the collection of modern (at the time contemporary) art at the Städel. As the director of a municipal art collection, he is subject to the directives of the city’s mayor and department of culture. During the Nazi period, he is compelled to direct the gallery – which he and Swarzenski have together built up for more than 20 years – under new conditions and in that context repeatedly comes into conflict with the authorities.
Picture: Anonymous, Alfred Wolters, 1928
Benno Reifenberg (1892–1970) is the chief editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung’s culture section from 1924 to 1930. In 1932 he takes over the politics section and remains in that position until the Nazis prohibit the newspaper in 1943. When the Reich propaganda ministry has the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” confiscated from the Städel in 1937, Reifenberg writes an anonymous commentary about the painting. The newspaper text is one of the few public articles to take issue with National Socialist art policy.
Picture: Anonymous, Benno Reifenberg, 1943, DLA Marbach, www.dla-marbach.de
Franz Koenigs (1881–1941) purchases the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” in 1938 after Hermann Göring – who had taken possession of it – sold it abroad to obtain foreign currency. The banker, a native of Cologne, has lived in Amsterdam since 1920 and owns a large art collection. Soon, however, the painting makes its way from Koenigs’s holdings into those of his banker friend Siegfried Kamarsky, likewise a resident of Amsterdam.
Picture: Marianne Breslauer, Franz Koenigs, 1937, in: Cynthia Saltzman, Bildnis des Dr. Gachet, Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig, 2003, p. 371
Siegfried and Lola Kramarsky (1893–1961 and 1896–1991) get married in Hamburg in 1921. At the banking house Lisser & Rosenkrantz, Siegfried rises to become a partner, and in 1923 he is appointed the director of the Amsterdam branch. Through their friendship with Franz Koenigs, the Kramarskys expand their art collection. It is also by way of Koenigs that they come into possession of the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” in 1938. After the Nazis occupy the Netherlands that same year, the Kramarskys flee to New York by way of Canada with their three children.
The “Portrait of Dr Gachet” remains in the private holdings of Lola Kramarsky (a widow since 1961) until 1990. In the previous three decades, it has repeatedly been on view in exhibitions; in 1984 the family places it on permanent loan to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Picture: Anonymous, Siegfried (left) and Lola (far right) Kramarsky with Chaim Weizmann and his wife Vera on an Atlantic crossing on board the Rex in January 1940, in: Cynthia Saltzman, Bildnis des Dr. Gachet, Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig, 2003, p. 371
Ryoei Saito (1916–1996), a Japanese paper industrialist, purchases the Portrait of Dr Gachet in 1990 for 82.5 million dollars; a few days later he buys a similarly expensive painting by Renoir, “Bal au moulin de la Galette” (1876). Saito keeps the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” in a storehouse in Tokyo, probably taking it out only once to show it to business partners. With his alleged wish to take the Gachet with him to his grave, Saito contributes to the formation of the legend around the likeness. By the time of his death in 1996, his company Dai Showa has gone bankrupt and the painting has gone to his creditors.
Picture: Ryoei Saito, 1990, photo: Kurita KAKU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Wolfgang Flöttl (b. 1955) makes his career in the 1980s and ’90s as an investment banker. For the Austrian BAWAG he handles business deals in the Caribbean for which he ultimately has to answer in court and is made personally liable. At this point in time, it comes out that he has purchased the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” from Japan in 1997 with a loan from Sotheby’s auction house. In 1998, on behalf of the BAWAG, it is sold for 100 million dollars to a buyer who has remained anonymous to this day.
Picture: Wolfgang Flöttl at the Criminal Court in Vienna following the proclamation of the sentence in the BAWAG trial, 2012, photo: Helmut Fohringer / APA
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An exhibition about the emergence of the “van Gogh legend” in Germany around 1900: in addition to altogether more than 120 artworks, the empty frame of the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” was on display.
If you can’t come to the exhibition MAKING VAN GOGH – or want to acquaint yourself with it before your visit: with our Digitorial ® you’ll learn more about how van Gogh’s fame spread in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century.
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FINDING VAN GOGH is a podcast series by the Städel Museum in collaboration with Johannes Nichelmann and Jakob Schmidt.
Authors and producers Johannes Nichelmann and Jakob Schmidt
Idea Sarah Omar
Project management Sarah Omar, supervised by Pamela Rohde
Commissioning editors Sarah Omar with Anna Huber
Scholarly support Alexander Eiling, Iris Schmeisser and Chantal Eschenfelder
Translation Anna Borrero and Benjamin Yates
Film trailer Jakob Schmidt (director and cinematographer)
Media partners Monopol Magazin für Kunst und Leben, Lage der Nation - der wöchentliche Politik-Podcast aus Berlin
We would like to thank our interviewees, especially Cynthia Saltzman, who – in her book “The Portrait of Dr Gachet” of 1998 – reconstructed the history of the painting for the first time, and who spent a great deal of time with us in New York talking about her research. We also extend our warm thanks to the curators, Alexander Eiling and Felix Krämer, who arranged for the production of this podcast in conjunction with the exhibition MAKING VAN GOGH.
Protagonists (in order of appearance):
und David Nash
With the voices of:
We would moreover like to thank all the many persons who supported us with their thoughts, expertise and energy.
From the Städel Museum:
Franziska von Plocki
We also thank:
and Vincent van Gogh.
FINDING VAN GOGH is a 2019 production.