Zero point zero one percent
It was inevitable that archetypical tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh would make an appearance in this series.
But let’s leave aside the drama - the failed attempts at joining the priesthood, the unrequited loves, the self-mutilation - and just focus on the numbers.
We don’t know exactly how many works Van Gogh sold during his lifetime. The apocryphal story that he literally only sold one painting has been challenged, but the true answer is still “one painting, plus probably a couple other pieces.”
There’s mention of a self portrait being picked up by some London art dealers. He sold a few drawings to his uncle.
The painting we know he sold, “The Red Vineyard,” was bought by his friend’s sister. It earned him a cool 400 Belgian francs, worth a few months’ worth of living expenses at the time.
Compare that to the value of his art after his lifetime.
The highest-priced Van Gogh purchase to date was “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” which brought in more than $150 million (in today’s money - all dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation).
His next two most valuable works brought in about $110 million each.
If we just consider his five most commercially successful paintings, we’re looking at $573 million dollars worth of art. And Van Gogh left behind almost 900 paintings in total.
That’s just paintings! We’re not even taking into account the hundreds of five star reviews of iPhone cases based on his work.
All this means that during his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh only realized approximately one thousandth of one percent of the value of his work.
I hope you’re able to escape the personal miseries that Van Gogh experienced - the syphilis, the poverty, the time spent in institutions. But it’s unlikely you’ll completely escape the pain of being undervalued.
People just don’t always know the worth of something when they see it. True for one of the most influential painters in Western art, true for you.
Once you’ve secured the essentials for survival, income becomes a poor measure of success. You might instead consider Vincent’s own criteria:
My only anxiety is, how can I be of use in the world?