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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

33. Transactions

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

Vincent moved to Paris late in February 1886, and by early April he had found a local restaurant where he could eat cheaply. The Grand-Bouillon Restaurant du Chalet at 43, avenue de Clichy, catered to working men and laborers. The food was straightforward, plentiful, and cheap--prices were listed in sous, not in francs. Kidneys with mushrooms (rognons sauté champignons). Beef stew (ordinaire de boeuf portugaise). Cold chicken with mayonnaise (poulet froid mayonnaise). Sausages with spinach (saucissons epinards). For dessert, cheeses, or a rice pudding with kirsch (gâteau de riz au Kirsch). There's likely a brasserie on the avenue de Clichy today that serves a similar menu. Vincent and his brother Theo lived in the neighborhood. One April evening Vincent sketched on his menu and then took it away with him; now it belongs to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Meals at the Grand-Bouillon were a constant for Vincent as he settled in to life in the French capital. He visited exhibitions, explored the city, painted, and met other artists. Theo was promoted at his gallery, and charged with recruiting new artists: he started with Monet and Degas. Theo had worked for the well-respected Goupil and Company--now newly-rebranded as Boussod, Valadon, and Company--for years as a salesman. But in early 1887, he took over managing the Montmartre showroom. That storefront had a mezzanine level--and on that level, the company managers entrusted Theo van Gogh to exhibit new artists. He began with Monet and Degas.

When word spread among young artists that Theo van Gogh was now working with the avant-garde, they deluged the Dutchman with invitations, requests, pleas, and entreaties. Their work would be the next thing. They would be the next Delacroix. Camille Pissarro came. Armand Guillaumin, who had long been part of the Impressionist circle, sold Theo a few paintings. Artists visited Theo at work, but they also visited him at home, on the rue Lepic. There, both van Gogh brothers received them and talked paintings, galleries, exhibitions, critiques. Maybe they even adjourned for meals to the Grand Bouillon.

Emile Bernard came back from his summer in Brittany to find that Theo van Gogh was the dealer he needed to get to know, and it didn't take him long to realize that the best way to earn Theo's trust and respect was by befriending his brother. Bernard was 19. Vincent was 34. Bernard was charming where Vincent was awkward, confident where Vincent was insecure. The famille Bernard had taken a house by the Seine in Asnières, and Emile had a studio in the garden. Vincent could take the train out and paint for a day with his new friend; Emile could listen to Vincent, ask questions, and make sure that his work was part of the conversation between the brothers back on the rue Lepic.

Conversations led to plans. By early in the fall of 1887, Vincent and Emile were casting about for a place where they could show their work. They would invite others to join them: Vincent had a grand vision of a new group of artists, artists of the "petit boulevard,"as opposed to the artists of the "grand boulevard," those whose works was shown in the larger, more fashionable, more lucrative galleries. And their work would appeal, at least in Vincent's vision, to those who lived their lives on the petits boulevards, the side streets. It would be art for working people.

And where better to exhibit that art than at Vincent's local brasserie? Theo couldn't possibly offer these untried, untested artists space in his coveted mezzanine gallery. Vincent solved the problem by going to the patron of the Grand-Bouillon, Lucien Martin. The restaurant was large, with high ceilings and empty walls. The artists could show whatever they wanted, as much of it as they wanted. Vincent and Bernard invited others to participate. Most declined, perhaps because while they were desperate to show, they weren't quite desperate enough to show at a restaurant where laborers took their daily tête de veau. Louis Anquetin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who knew both Vincent and Bernard from the atelier Cormon, agreed to join in. Guillaumin may have put in a couple of works to be a good sport, since Theo was working with him at the gallery. If cultivating their relationship with Theo van Gogh came at the price of a few specks of gravy on their canvases, so be it.

Vincent persuaded Lucien Martin to host the exhibition on his restaurant walls. He even painted Martin's portrait as a token of his gratitude, showing the restaurant owner in his sturdy work clothes and cap. The walls would be full, full of paintings, Vincent promised--and when everyone had brought their work for the hanging, and there was still space, Vincent went back to the apartment in the rue Lepic and brought more of his own work. He hung perhaps 100 paintings on the high walls of the restaurant, working in the mornings and mid-afternoons, between meal services. The show opened at the end of November.

And almost no one from the art world came. There is not one review of the exhibition. There are no lists of works. Bernard sold one painting and Anquetin sold a sketch. Almost as soon as the paintings were hung, friction began between Vincent and Lucien Martin. Martin thought the room needed more decoration, maybe some coats-of-arms from different regions of France, something bright, cheerful, and accessible. Vincent was incensed to find that this man of the people had such regressive taste in art. Martin responded that the garish colors were putting his customers off their cervelles au beurre noir (brains with black butter).

As the disagreement was coming to a head, one day another painter stopped in for lunch. He had just come back to Paris from a long trip, was living with a friend on the Left Bank, and heard about this show across the river in lower Montmartre from his friend Guillaumin. Vincent regaled him with conversation about light and color and brushstrokes, and the stranger listened and looked. When they finished their lunch they made the tour of the room, Vincent showing his favorites. They ended by agreeing to exchange works of their own: Vincent would swap some sunflowers (his first; they were an effort, just a token of more work to come, and of more conversations to be had with his new colleague) for a painting from the stranger's travels that showed an Afro-Caribbean woman and child by a river. The stranger was Paul Gauguin.

Gauguin stopped in to Theo's office to pick up Vincent's painting and have a chat within a day or two. The chat was a success: later in December 1887, Theo organized an exhibition at his gallery of works by Pissarro, Guillaumin--and Gauguin.


A note on the sources:

Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh's 2012 Vincent Van Gogh provided the bones of much of this post, particularly their fabulous footnotes--published on their very own website. The website doesn't link to specific pages, so if you are keenly interested, check out Chapter 29: Catch and Release, which tells the tale of Vincent finding his way in Paris.

The Van Gogh Museum holds the menu from the Grand-Bouillon on which Vincent doodled. Their social media managers posted an image of the menu on Facebook on December 23, 2017; that's the version of the image that I use here, and that I used to learn about what Lucien Martin and his kitchen were serving.

The Wildenstein-Plattner Institute's 2002 Gauguin Catalogue raisonné is one of the bookmarks on my browser; that it's digitized is an enormous gift. The chronology at the end of volume 2, and the entry on the painting that Gauguin left at the framer's for Van Gogh to retrieve, were particularly useful.

The 1887 Annuaire-almanach du commerce de l'industrie published by Firmin-Didot and Bottin provided useful context for locations. The framer in the rue Fontaine where Gauguin left his painting for Van Gogh to pick up was a few doors away from the Académie Julian.

The map of the 17th arrondissement provided useful context, and the almanac also helped me situate the Grand-Bouillon as a neighborhood fixture. It was used as the mailing address for a community music group called the Harmonie de Batignolles; the restaurant also operated as a branch of the shoemaker's cooperative association. Imagine what the cobblers and the amateur clarinetists made of all those paintings.

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