Van Gogh’s Masterpiece of a Prostitute Goes Up for Auction at Christie’s

Christie’s to Sell Van Gogh’s Antwerp Period Portrait of a Woman
Christie’s will be selling one of Vincent Van Gogh’s finest paintings from his Antwerp period, a portrait of a woman he encountered in a cabaret. While she was a dancer, it is believed that she worked as a prostitute as well. The portrait, entitled “Portrait de femme: buste, profil gauche,” is part of a collection assembled in the 1980s by an anonymous American, and is expected to sell for tens of millions of dollars.

Van Gogh’s Time in Antwerp
When Van Gogh moved to Antwerp for the winter of 1885-86, he was immediately drawn to the lively nightlife enjoyed by the sailors. He had the idea that he could earn more money from painting prostitutes than pimping them, but it turned out quite differently. Vincent had to pay the women to model and was then unable to sell the resulting pictures. Just after Christmas in 1885, he used his brother’s 50-franc allowance to paint a life-size head of an attractive model. The resulting portrait of the woman he encountered in the cabaret reveals Van Gogh’s attempt to capture her soul rather than focusing on superficial details.

The Model and the Painting’s History
Van Gogh’s sitter was a girl from a café chantant, who seems to have been a dancer but likely supplemented her income with more private business. Her loose, hanging hair in the portrait suggests intimacy, and it was then quite normal for artists to pay prostitutes for modeling. The portrait being sold by Christie’s was last auctioned in 1945 and was in the collection of the New York watch company owner Alfred Wyler and his art dealer wife Marguerite before going to the anonymous American owner. The portrait was lent to an exhibition of works of “friends” of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1992, suggesting a collector with close links to the city. The other portrait, given to the woman with the red bow, remains a mystery and is lost. Two other Van Gogh paintings of young Antwerp women survive and are now at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam—both entitled portraits of “a prostitute.”