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  • Joshua Britton

My Vlaminck

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

When visiting an art museum, I most look forward to seeing a Van Gogh. Generally, it is known ahead of time if there is a Van Gogh; he’s such a big deal that it’s going to be advertised on the front page of any museum’s website and be featured on every flier and poster advertisement as well. Paul Gauguin also excites me, though his work is not as uncommon as Van Gogh’s. After the two of them, I like the Americans the most—Winslow Homer and Thomas Hart Benton, as well as American impressionists Hassam, Benson, and Twachtman.

But after a recent visit to the Saint Louis Art Museum, which featured work by all of these artists, the painting that most thrilled me was one by Maurice de Vlaminck. My father and stepmother had impulsively bought a Vlaminck, a pastel drawing, at an antique shop in Upstate New York. My stepmother was never particularly fond of it, and it was only ever hung in out-of-the-way spaces in the house. I found it attractive and, after so many years of gazing at it, the Vlaminck was gifted to me. My wife and I have hung it prominently ever since.

I had never heard of Vlaminck before. He lived a long time, 1876-1958, long enough to overlap with my parents’ lives, which may not seem like anything, but I remember being slightly blown away in college when I first learned that Miles Davis lived for several years after I was born, that he and I had lived in the same world for a time.

I also learned that Vlaminck was championed by Henri Matisse, as they were both participants in the heyday of Fauvism in the first decade of the 20th century; Fauvism, of which the term was also new to me, was “classified as an extreme development of Van Gogh’s post-impressionism fused with the pointillism of Seurat…other key influences were Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin” (no wonder I liked him).

Le Havre, Grand Quai by Maurice de Vlaminck, 1906

Vlaminck was an interesting person, not at all like the modern stereotype of the sensitive struggling artist. He was an amateur boxer, pornographic novelist (interestingly, his books were not illustrated by him but by fellow Fauvist Andre Derian), and brothel frequenter. Overall, he sounds like he was a prick.

The painting in St. Louis was next to two Van Goghs, and in the same room as Cezanne, Kirchner, and Matisse. Le Havre, Grand Quai, 1906, is a first-rate example of Fauvism, according to the description next to it, and represented what many critics disliked about Fauvism at the time, namely the use of unmixed oil paint straight from the tube—“artificial colors.”

As for the Vlaminck hanging in my living room, which is not in the Fauve style but produced perhaps ten or twenty years later—I don’t know what it’s called. Notice I haven’t referred to it as a print. It was bought despite my stepmother’s indifference because she and my father suspected it may have been an original. An original Vlaminck oil painting is not worth millions like a Monet or Van Gogh would demand, but would still demand hundreds of thousands of dollars. My Vlaminck, alas, is not a painting, but a pastel drawing, and would sell for far less, if original, perhaps ten or twenty thousand dollars.

Still, the thought was cool! One afternoon I spent some time scrolling through five hundred or so images of Vlamincks on the internet, trying to find mine, to no avail. Five hundred would have been a fraction of his output. On the other hand, while it’s likely that every existing Van Gogh has been documented and reproduced as a poster or postcard, it’s likely that even fewer than the first five hundred Vlaminck images I came across would have been reprinted at some point. And of the few Vlamincks that were sold as prints, wouldn’t they be among his more popular, and therefore be among the first to show up in a search? Furthermore, given his second-tier status, it’s very possible that there are many Vlamincks not accounted for on the internet.

So, I don’t know. What I do know is that I like the picture either way. I could seek out an art connoisseur who may burst my bubble within two seconds. And I’ve thought about it. In the meantime, it’s fun to imagine I have an original Vlaminck.

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