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Van Gogh’s tragic life may add to his appeal

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Vincent van Gogh killed himself more than a century ago, a poor, insane Dutch artist who at 37 had sold only one painting.

Now people the world over cannot get enough of him.Some of his tremendous popularity may come from the resemblance of van Gogh's tragic life to the popular image of a great painter starving in a garret, said Philip Conisbee, curator of an exhibit of 72 van Goghs at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 17, 1999.

"He's the neglected genius," Conisbee said.

Few doubt that Van Gogh was a great painter; some say he was the greatest Dutch painter since Rembrandt even though he did much of his most popular work in France. He was poor, but his brother Theo, a moderately successful art dealer, supported him during his most productive years.

Dutch Ambassador Joris M. Vos said van Gogh's emotional appeal to the viewer makes him different from painters whose work requires more study to be appreciated.

"And then there are those steamy novels about his life," Vos added.

He was referring to Irving Stone's "Lust for Life," a popular biographical fiction that inspired other successful books and films. Van Gogh lived for a time with one prostitute and frequented others.

Van Gogh suffered from mental illness, including delusions. He frightened away painter Paul Gaugin, with whom he had hoped to found an art colony, by threatening him with a razor. His disease led him to cut off one of his earlobes - not the whole ear, as popular myth has it. He committed himself to an asylum but later committed suicide.

Camille Pissarro, an older painter, once said he had long felt that Vincent "would either go mad or leave all of us far behind. But I didn't know that he would do both."

Today, van Gogh is among the world's most popular artists. In fact, the 72 paintings were lent to Washington because the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is undergoing a long-needed expansion. Built in 1973 to accommodate 60,000 visitors a year, last year it had 1 million.

Questions have been raised in recent months about the authenticity of some paintings accepted as van Gogh's work, including his famous "The Sunflowers." That painting is not in the show, and none of the 72 is in question.

"Their provenance is impeccable, for they passed from Vincent to his brother Theo, to his wife and son, who established the . . . Van Gogh Museum," said gallery director Earl A. Powell III.

Washingtonians seemed in little doubt. Thousands ringed the gallery on the hot August Sunday when it began distributing free advance passes to "Van Gogh's Van Goghs," and others bought out 200,000 more advance tickets from a commercial agency that charged a small handling fee.

All of the passes were gone in just 12 days, more than three weeks before the exhibit opened, and "entrepreneurs" began reselling some of them for $35 to $125.

More crowds are expected to gather each day before dawn in hopes of getting 600 same-day passes, on a first-come, first-served basis. The exhibit then moves to Los Angeles, opening there on Jan. 17 and running through April 4, before the paintings return to Amsterdam next spring.