I posted several weeks ago about my reasons for portraying Van Gogh as a lefthander in my novel. My choice was based solely on Van Gogh's personality profile, backed up by my amateur's knowledge of the theories of handedness. (And, admittedly, some personal projection, as I myself am lefthanded.) What a pleasant surprise then to receive an email from Svend Hendriksen, a Danish gentleman currently living in Greenland, who has looked into the question of Van Gogh's handedness with considerable attention. Svend tells me I'm right: Van Gogh was undoubtedly a lefthander! And the evidence can be found in the paintings themselves. Svend calls my attention most particularly to an 1888 self-portrait by Van Gogh. (That's it over there). Notice that Van Gogh holds his palette in his right hand, indicating that he paints with his left. Now many would (and do) look at the portrait and say that since Van Gogh must have employed a mirror while painting the picture, what we see is a mirror (that is, reversed) image of the man. Thus, they conclude, he painted with his right hand. And Svend reports that the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam does describe Van Gogh as being righthanded. However, Svend points out that the button on Van Gogh's coat is on the same side as the palette he holds, and on men's coats of the period this button would have always been situated on the right side. In other words, this evidence suggests that Van Gogh in real life, not just in the portrait, held the palette with his right hand. It's perfectly possible that for the sake of his painting he corrected the reversed image to show the world how he really worked: with his left. From what I know of Van Gogh generally, it is not hard to imagine him being stubborn on this point.
Svend has passed along a number of other interesting tidbits about Van Gogh, for instance that photographs of the man's paint box reveal that he kept it quite full. As Svend says, it's "a huge volume for a poor man's palette." Well, certainly paint was dear, an expense that Van Gogh avoided for years by concentrating solely on his drawing. But when he began painting he sacrificed almost everything else--food included--to keep himself supplied. And looking at his effusive, glorious pictures, especially from the Paris and Arles periods, it certainly looks as if he operated with a full box. Svend's comments make intuitive sense.
Svend, by the way, was not trained as an art historian but as an explosives engineer. He served for years in the Danish army. Yet he now brings his mechnical know-how to the study of paintings. His story reminds me of a phenomenon that I find profound: There is something about Van Gogh--his story, his paintings, his personality--that draws people to him like a magnet. Not only professional art historians but informed amateur sleuths and everyday idlers alike. For instance, the man who owns the house at which I stay when I visit Arles, a science teacher and devoted amateur astronomer, has done considerable work studying Van Gogh's use of constellations in his night paintings. He has even advised academics from America on the matter. Amazing how this Dutch painter, who struggled so and was so little known in his lifetime, has attacted and keeps attracting such a broad, enthusiastic audience. Perhaps this simply proves that Van Gogh knew exactly what he was doing all along: painting not for his time but the future. Indeed.