‘It’s to my astonishment that I can already see the bottom of my purse; it’s true that I had my month’s rent to pay. You must clearly know that if I deduct food and lodging, all the rest of my money still runs away on canvases. In short, they turn out rather expensive, without counting the trouble they cause. However, I dare hope that one day the money we spend will come back in part, and if I had more money I would spend even more trying to find good rich colorations.’111 Vincent wrote this to Theo from Arles in July 1888, when painting was going really well. He would never have been able to develop so independently as an artist without the years of financial support he had had from Theo. Vincent received money, and he hoped that one day that investment would be repaid. Neither of them would live to see that day.
Van Gogh earned his own living, with sporadic assistance from his parents, from 1869, when he went to work at Goupil’s, until June 1880. He had not been very successful in his chosen professions up until then. He had first worked for seven years as a junior for the art dealers Goupil & Cie, then as an assistant teacher in England, and in 1877 he gave up his job in a bookshop in Dordrecht in order to go to Amsterdam and prepare for the entrance examination that would enable him to study theology. He abandoned that idea a year later, and his subsequent temporary engagement as an evangelist in the Borinage in Belgium was not renewed.
His decision to become an artist was largely due to Theo. ‘I remember very well that when you spoke to me back then about my becoming a painter, I though it very inappropriate and wouldn’t hear of it.’112 That it was Theo who persuaded his brother to become an artist must have had a great influence on their subsequent relationship, for he must have felt that he was obliged to support Vincent in his endeavours, financially as well. Theo proved to be an extraordinarily generous patron in the last ten years of Vincent’s life. His unremitting support was a driving force behind Van Gogh’s development as an artist that cannot be overstated.

3.1 The total amount that Vincent received

The picture that many people have of the poor painter Vincent van Gogh needs to be qualified, because it is estimated that Theo gave Vincent a total of around 17,500 francs, which was equivalent to roughly 8,225 guilders at the time.
This sum, which is based on information in the letters, the family correspondence and Theo’s account book,113 was made up of the following amounts.
  • 1880: 220 francs (170 from his father and 50 from Theo)
  • 1881: 200 (95 guilders from his father) and probably 100 francs a month from Theo, from April = 1,000 francs
  • 1882: average 150 x 12 = 1,800 francs
  • 1883: average 150 x 12 = 1,800 and 70 from his father = 1,870 francs
  • 1884: average 150 x 12 = 1,800 plus extras of approximately 100 = 1,900 francs
  • 1885: average 100 x 8 = 800 (to August) and approximately 150 x 4 = 600 = 1,400 francs
  • 1886: approximately 1,200 francs
  • 1887: approximately 1,200 francs
  • 1888: 2,300 + 300 (‘borrowed’ from Theo) + 300 (November and December) = 2,900 francs
  • 1889: the first five months in Arles: 150 x 5 = 750 francs
  • 1889-90: hospitalized in Saint-Rémy (May 1889) until July 1890 (Auvers-sur-Oise), total of 3,310.
This total of around 17,500 francs can only be an estimate, since not all the payments are documented. For example, we know hardly anything about the Paris period. The brothers lived together from March 1886 to February 1888, so there were no extra expenses for rent. Theo would have had to pay for Vincent’s living expenses and for his drawing and painting materials. We have assumed that Theo spent an average of around 100 francs a month on Vincent.
Nor is it possible to discover what extra sums Vincent received over and above his remittance: ‘Suppose that you don’t feel you’re in a position to give me the extra I received in spring and summer in other years, and which, by the way, I can’t do without’.114 Theo probably gave him those extra amounts during his regular visits to Holland.
Vincent was aware that Theo had made quite a large investment in him over the years, for in July 1888 he made a very realistic estimate of the total he had received: ‘It’s only cost you, let’s say, around fifteen thousand francs that you’ve advanced me’.115 So Vincent regarded the money he had recived as an advance, and he must have thought that at some stage he would find buyers for his work.

3.2 Theo’s income

The question is: how much of a financial burden was Vincent on Theo? The contract between Boussod et Valadon and Theo, which was drawn up on 22 August 1890 but backdated to take effect from 1 January 1882, shows that he had a basic salary of 4,000 francs a year. This was supplemented with a bonus of 7.5% of the net profit of the branch he managed.116 In 1889-1890, in any event, he received his basic salary in more or less monthly instalments of 333.35 francs, which he recorded in his account book under the heading ‘Income and expenditure’.
The annual profit-sharing was arrived at after the inventory was drawn up in January the following year, and was made available between April and June. It emerges from the accounts receivable that he received a respectable share of the profits amounting to 7,242 francs in 1882, 8,226 in 1883, 6,943 in 1884, 9,840 in 1886, 7,467 in 1887, 9,619 in 1888, 6,881 in 1889 and 8,247 in 1890.117 The average of these bonuses is 8,058 francs, and with his basic salary on top he earned around 12,000 francs a year, of which Vincent received an average of 1,750 francs. This means that Theo spent roughly 14.5% of his income on his brother.
However, Theo did not just support himself and Vincent from the average of 1,000 francs a month that he earned. He also sent money home to his parents, and thus contributed to the upbringing of his sister Willemien and his brother Cor. And when he fell in love with Marie in 1883, he also started supporting her.118 Later money also had to be spent on his wife Jo and the infant Vincent Willem.
Theo continued supporting his elder brother generously. In October 1888 he wrote: ‘You talk about money that you owe me and that you wish to pay back to me. I know nothing of that. What I’d like to see you achieve would be that you never had that concern. I must work to earn money. Since the two of us don’t have much of it, we mustn’t overburden ourselves, but taking that into consideration we can hold out for some time yet, even without selling this or that. If you feel the need to do a great deal of work for yourself, good, say so, and I think we’ll be able to manage anyway’, and he warm-heartedly reassured him in April 1889: ‘you’ve given it [money] back to me several times over, both by your work and by a brotherly affection which is worth more than all the money I’ll ever possess’.119 The agreement was that Theo could deal in Vincent’s work as he saw fit,120 and after a while he also became convinced of its remarkable quality and value, but for him the most important thing was the ‘brotherly affection’.

3.3 Vincent’s income and expenditure

As already mentioned, Van Gogh was able to support himself in the early years of his working life. In 1873 his salary was 50 guilders a month, or roughly 100 francs. By way of comparison, Theo, who was four years younger, was paid 38 guilders a month in 1874.121 Both brothers were soon making over part of their salaries to their parents. When Theo was given a rise and a bonus of 15 guilders on 1 January 1876 he made a contribution to Willemien’s education.122
Vincent never had well-paid jobs. When he was appointed as an evangelist in January 1879, with responsibility for Bible readings, educating children and visiting the sick, he was only paid 50 Belgian francs a month, and his rent alone came to 30 francs.123
The first time in the correspondence that Theo’s financial contribution to Vincent’s support is mentioned is in June 1880. ‘I learned at Etten that you had sent fifty francs for me; well, I accepted them. Certainly reluctantly, certainly with a rather melancholy feeling, but I’m in some sort of impasse or mess; what else can one do? And so it’s to thank you for it that I’m writing to you.’124 His parents also contributed to his upkeep on more than one occasion. That same month they sent him a parcel of clothes and 60 francs.125 His father paid him 60 Belgian francs a month when he went to live in Brussels in October 1880, of which 50 francs went on his lodgings.126
In 1881, Theo’s income went up when he was put in charge of the Goupil branch on the boulevard Montmartre. The Reverend Van Gogh was delighted, partly because Theo could make a bigger financial contribution to the family. ‘It is really very kind of you to want to pay part of Vincent’s expenses,’ he wrote. He went on to work out what he himself had paid so far, and thought that he could carry on until March, and asked Theo: ‘Would it be convenient for you to take care of it then or should I do it? Tell me frankly.’127 It turns out that Vincent became aware of Theo’s role in this in April 1881: ‘I heard from Pa that you’ve already been sending me money without my knowing it, and in doing so are effectively helping me to get along. For this accept my heartfelt thanks.’128 As he wrote shortly afterwards: ‘I damned well hate having to give Pa an account of every penny.’129
The remittances became structural in 1882, and they depended on where Vincent was living. Sometimes it was 100 francs a month, sometimes 150. The latter was equivalent to around 75 guilders, for the exchange rate in the period 1880-1888 was on average around 47 or 48 guilders for 100 francs.130 This was a perfectly reasonable sum. In 1870 a factory worker in Tilburg, who earned more than a weaver, could support a family of seven on approximately 8 guilders a week. Such a family would spend around 5.50 guilders a week on food and drink.131 It is worth comparing the following payments and expenses that Vincent had. In 1882, Uncle Cor commissioned 12 pen drawings from him for 2.50 guilders each, and Vincent paid his model, Sien, 1 guilder a day. At the time, a good seamstress earned 6 guilders a week, and a labourer around 10 guilders. The poor relief gave mothers a maximum allowance of 1.50 guilders a week, plus bread.132 Van Gogh paid 14 guilders a month in rent in The Hague in 1883.
From June 1882 Theo sent money three times a month on or around the 1st, 10th and 20th. For Vincent these remittances were ‘most welcome’,133 and he preferred having them spread out because that reduced the chance that he would run out of money too soon. With the exception of the years when he was living with Theo in Paris, and in Saint-Rémy, when Theo paid 100 francs a month directly to the asylum, this monthly spacing of the payments was usually the fixed pattern. These remittances and the confirmation of their receipt were of great importance for the continuity of the correspondence between the brothers. Vincent’s request ‘Write to me soon’ was often a euphemism for ‘Send me money quickly.’134
In Arles the sums went up considerably. There Vincent received a total of 2,300 francs between his arrival on 20 February 1888 and Gauguin’s at the end of October.135 Theo believed in his brother’s work, and must have been convinced of the force of the drawings and paintings he received from the south of France, as well as of Vincent’s plans for the Yellow House, for in addition to living expenses he also paid for much of the paint and canvas that Vincent needed. It can be assumed that the agreement between the brothers was that Vincent would receive 50 francs a week, for he writes: ‘If I count 50 francs for myself for last week’, and speaks of ‘the 50 francs for the week.’136 The five remittances of 100 francs during Gauguin’s stay in Arles were due to his presence there, and that Theo had earlier sent 100 francs instead of 50 can be explained by the fact that Vincent had written to say that his funds were low, or even that he was completely broke. The reason why Van Gogh was often short of money was not that he received so little but that he generally spent it too enthusiastically.
Theo sent a total of 2,900 francs between the end of February and the end of December 1888, of which 400 francs were for Gauguin. Vincent probably paid out about the same amount for furnishing the Yellow House.137 This means that in the first ten months of the year he had between 220 and 260 francs a month at his disposal. If one compares that with the 135 francs a month that his friend the postman, Joseph Roulin, had to feed the five mouths of his family, then one can only conclude that Van Gogh was not badly off at all.138
The letters provide a partial picture of his pattern of expenditure, From 1 May 1888 he spent 30 francs a month for his hotel and 15 francs a month to rent the Yellow House, which he used as a studio. He ate for 1.50 francs a day in a restaurant. This means that until the end of September he had outgoings of roughly 90 francs a month for bed and board (excluding drinks). That fell to 60 francs when he went to live in the Yellow House. The cleaning woman was at first paid 4 francs a month, which rose to 20 francs when Gauguin was staying there. This means that Vincent had 100 francs over for the rest of the month (130 when he moved out of the hotel). He preferred to order his paints and canvas from Paris, through Theo, who therefore had to pay the bills. Vincent occasionally laid in materials himself. For example, in Arles he bought canvas and stretchers (the latter costing 1.50 or 1 franc each, depending on the size) and frames (roughly 5 francs each).139 Between December 1888 and May 1889 he paid 21.50 francs a month for the Yellow House, because he had rented an additional two rooms.
Coffee, tobacco and alcohol were among the daily expenses, and Van Gogh went to the brothel regularly. The prostitutes cost 2 francs each, and a little later he mentioned the sum of 3 francs.140 He also bought clothes from time to time, among them a black velvet jacket for 20 francs, a suit for 35 francs, and six pairs of socks for 4 francs.141 He also had gas installed in the Yellow House so that he could carry on working at night, and this set him back 25 francs.142 It was a life of expenditure, because he was selling nothing. In October 1888 Theo did manage to sell Gauguin’s Breton women chatting for 600 francs, but that was of no help to Vincent. He drew up a detailed list of his expenses for Theo.143
During Vincent’s incarceration in Saint-Rémy, which lasted from May 1889 to May 1890, and his stay in Auvers-sur-Oise from May to the end of July 1890, the ‘Vincent’s account’ in the account book lists a total of 3,310 francs. His period in the asylum cost 100 francs a month.144 It emerges from an unpublished document in which Theo itemized his income and expenditure for 1889 that he reserved 250 francs a month for his brother. That same year he also gave his mother 1,000 francs and Willemien and Lies 678 francs.145 Vincent felt guilty about Theo’s expenses: ‘The money that painting costs, that crushes me under a feeling of debt and of cowardice, and it would be good for that to stop if possible’, he lamented in May 1889.146
In March 1890 there was a ray of hope when Theo sold Vincent’s painting The red vineyard (F 495 / JH 1626) to Anna Boch for 400 francs.147 However, this was just a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of materials in the period June 1889-July 1890. ‘Vincent’s account’ lists 901.80 francs for materials supplied by the firm of Tasset & L’Hôte, and 381.25 francs for Tanguy. In the period June 1889-July 1890, Theo listed the following entries for Tasset & L’Hôte and for Tanguy under ‘Vincent’s account’:148
6 June 1889
12 September 1889
October 1889
15 January 1890
July 1890
901.80 francs
7 September 1889
7 October 1889
7 January 1890
3 February 1890
16 March 1890
7 April 1890
12 May 1890
June 1890
381.25 francs
Financially speaking, Van Gogh had considerable room for manoeuvre during his career as an artist. The historical myth about his poverty, and the idea that no one supported him, can thus be consigned to the realm of fable. That he was often hard up was due entirely to his ceaseless passion for work, which meant that he often got through his drawing and painting materials almost as soon as they arrived, to his great need for models, who had to be paid for posing, and to his need to get properly settled in new locations. On top of that there were the impulse buys, like the 21 volumes of The Graphic that he bought in The Hague, and furniture for the Yellow House, which included no fewer than 12 chairs.149