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Barbra Streisand writes in her autobiography, which was published this week, that her favourite artists are Modigliani and Van Gogh. In My Name Is Barbra the singer and actor recalls discovering a Van Gogh self-portrait in the home of Hollywood producer William Goetz and his wife Edith.
Streisand recalls that “I had never seen a home like this, with paintings by Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Picasso and Modigliani hanging on the walls”. She then adds: “There was a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh that particularly fascinated me, because it was unfinished (Later, I think the whole thing was determined to be a fake.) But this was the first time I realised that some people could actually buy a great painting and have it in their home. That was amazing to me.” Although not dating the encounter, it took place in around 1963.
We cannot blame Streisand’s connoisseurship, since the painting had been widely accepted as authentic. Inscribed by the artist with the words “étude à la bougie” (candlelight study), it purports to be a nighttime picture.
The depiction is similar (with the head reversed) to an authentic Van Gogh self-portrait which is now at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, but with a most curious lower quarter. This area is mainly blank, as if the painting was left unfinished, and it incorporates the outline of a Japanese motif.
With today’s knowledge of Van Gogh’s work, it seems a most obvious fake. The function of the Japanese motif, apparently overlaid on the coat, is quite unclear. Few artists would finish most of a portrait, leaving just the lower part of the clothing unpainted in this way.
This curious painting emerged in 1948, after being discovered in a Parisian café, and was said to have come from an anonymous French private collection. Goetz bought it a year later for $50,000, a very substantial sum at the time. The painting is still believed to remain with the Goetz heirs, now universally dismissed as a fake.
Fast forward 57 years from 1964, and Streisand’s dreams came true when she bought herself a Van Gogh: Peasant Woman with Child on her Lap (March-April 1885). She acquired it at Christie’s in 2020, paying $4,470,000.
What may come as a surprise is that this tender mother-and-child image had earlier been owned by the soft-porn baron Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse magazine.
Although Streisand talked of lending her Van Gogh to a museum, she is believed to keep it in her own “home”. She remains entranced by the artist’s work: “It’s so visceral, with those thick, swirling brushstrokes that can barely contain the artist’s emotions,” she says in the autobiography.
Other Van Gogh news
Van Gogh’s Yellow House, which he shared with Gauguin in Arles in 1888, has inspired an arts centre in Afghanistan. George Gittoes, who set it up with his wife Hellen Rose, says that it remains “the only art school and studio space” in Jalalabad. The Afghan Yellow House has survived war and is accepted under current Taliban rule. It is now fundraising, by selling paintings by Gittoes, to build a safer venue just outside the city centre.