In anticipation of "Loving Vincent," Daily Film writers revisited past cinematic depictions of the artist's life. You can read the other piece in the series here and the review of "Loving Vincent" here.
Vincent Van Gogh has been labeled as the mad hatter of post-impressionism. The one-eared psychopath was most certainly talented. However, Vincent was virtually unrecognized in his time and supported almost completely by his art dealer brother, Theo. In Robert Altman’s (“M*A*S*H”) 1990 film, “Vincent and Theo”, Tim Roth (“Selma”) plays the brilliant but disturbed Vincent alongside Paul Rhys (“Da Vinci's Demons”) as his brother, Theo. Altman’s biopic highlights the key points of Vincent’s life, like his famous ear-removal and his time spent with fellow artist Paul Gauguin in Provence, France. The film makes sure, however, as evident from its title, to focus more on the relationship between Vincent and Theo.
The film opens with documentary footage of a 1987 Christie’s auction of one of Vincent’s sunflower paintings. As the footage fades, the auctioneer’s voice remains, only now the camera is focused in on Vincent’s ratty, one-room farm house. Vincent smokes his famous pipe and declares God is everywhere but the church. Meanwhile, Theo is disgusted by Vincent’s living conditions and doubts his abilities to get anywhere as a painter. The scene ends on Vincent’s dirt covered face, his painting is sold for $39.9 million dollars. Vincent had no success in his lifetime, he did not even believe in himself, leading to his suicide in 1890 at the young age of 37. Yet, now we regard him one of the most influential figures in Western art, making his biography one of the most tragic.
Roth’s Vincent is obsessive and passionate, often consuming toxin-rich paint like candy. Rhys’s Theo is a lover of art and women, often identified as the timid gallery-owner with the crazy brother. While both Vincent and Theo have fully developed characters of their own, the film’s most poignant scenes are the ones they share. Theo takes care of Vincent, like a parent tends to a quick tempered toddler, yet Vincent also cares for Theo, reminding him to sell the art he loves as opposed to art that rich people will buy. While the two could not be more different, their lusts for love, art and sex drive them both to a certain kind of madness.