The causes of popularity
Robert Genn

June 4, 2010

Dear Rodney,At dinner last night the textile artist Carole Sabiston posed a question to our 
party: "How do you account for the remarkable popularity and love for the work 
among average people of someone like Vincent van Gogh?" Her question was 
accompanied by her usual wink, as if there might be a reason not to love Vincent's 
paintings. We all blurted our off-the-top-of-the-head answers. After my 
wine-enriched blurt, I took her question to bed. More considered pillow punching 
spun some reasons why the work of any of us might become popular and loved:

A unique and recognizable style: In Vincent's case, thickly applied pure pigment 
was laid brick-like with a compulsive sincerity. His style, at first the butt of 
jokes and swift elimination from juried shows, stood out for its amateur crudeness 
and naiveté. After all the polished works of the Salon, Vincent's efforts couldn't 
be missed. In his novelty, Vincent was one of the artists to herald "the cult of 
the new." 

A range of subject matter within a style: Landscapes, florals, boats, dreams, 
visions, struggle, appreciation of nature and narrative angst. Something for 

An epic life story: Innocently, and by default, Vincent pioneered the benefits of 
poverty, failure, suffering and mental illness. Disorder, in the psychology of the 
new enlightenment, was now acceptable and could be packaged and sold. Vincent's 
life had filmic potential.

The presence of "early adopters": A band of contrarian dealers and critics who 
promoted Vincent to a new breed of entrepreneurial collector--those who would go 
on to found great collections and public museums. Vincent's work crossed the 
An early death ensuring a finite opus: It's good for a young artist to die. A 
small, interrupted supply of art insures rarity, dealer control and the potential 
for recognizable prints, posters, books, potholders, key-chains and mugs. Vincent 
was granted the sort of familiarity average people can get their heads around.

Best regards,


PS: "I do not know myself how I paint it. I sit down with a white board before the 
spot that strikes me. I look at what is before my eyes, and say to myself, that 
white board must become something." (Vincent van Gogh)

Esoterica: A Mugg's Jury. Imagine, if you will, a juried art show held in 
Muggsville, Saskatchewan, where a few of Vincent's middling (not the worst and not 
the best) originals were included. And imagine that not one of the Muggsville 
jurors had ever heard of Vincent or knew what his work looked like. Difficult, I 
know, in the age of mass media, unless you happen to be a recently landed Martian. 
Do you think Vincent's work would get into the Muggsville Salon? What do you think 
jurors might say? "Crude?" "Try again next year?" Do you think young Vincent might 
just pick up a few blue ribbons?