Curators at the Metropolitan tell a wonderful story about efforts to attract visitors to an exhibition devoted to the Romantic painter Théodore Chassériau, a celebrated figure in mid-nineteenth-century France, but today not exactly a household name. After a long, unproductive meeting with the marketing department, an exasperated staff member finally burst out, “Why don’t we just call it ‘Van Gogh’”? She had a point. The Dutch-born Post-Impressionist’s name is immediately recognized, even by people who aren’t certain whether it’s “van Go,” “van Gog,” or “van Guh-hch” and who might have trouble identifying any of his paintings unless they had sunflowers in them. The story of van Gogh’s short, troubled life, or at least a version of it that emphasizes his isolation, lack of sales, and instability—and that sliced ear—is so well known that it has become...


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