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Art: Old Soldier’s View

3 minute read

One highlight of the Van Gogh exhibition at Manhattan’s Wildenstein Gallery last week was the portrait of a bluff, tough French colonial officer of Zouaves. The soldier had posed for some of Van Gogh’s most famed portraits and had even taken drawing lessons from the unhappy master. Last week the old soldier’s reminiscences were published for the first time.

The officer was Paul-Eugéne Milliet, a policeman’s son and professional soldier who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, retired soon after World War I. He died in bed during the Nazi occupation of Paris, but not before he had given his impressions of Van Gogh to a literary friend, who compiled them for the French Communist weekly, Les Lettres Françaises.

Milliet, in Aries in 1888 to rest up from a campaign in Indo-China, met Van Gogh in the town and posed for him now and then. In return, Van Gogh taught him a little about drawing and perspective. The artist was “an odd, good-natured man,” Milliet recalled. “He was a bit crazy, like someone who has lived a long time in the strong sun of the desert . . . We would frequently take beautiful walks around Aries and out to the country, where we’d both feel the urge to sketch. Sometimes he’d take his canvas and begin to paint. And that, well, that was no good. This fellow who had the taste and talent to draw became abnormal as soon as he touched a brush.”

Milliet’s most biting judgment: “He painted like a staff officer . . . He painted top lavishly and paid no attention to details . . . And his color . . . Extreme, abnormal, inadmissible. Sonic tones were too warm, too violent, not tame enough. You see, the artist should paint with love, not with passion. A canvas should be ‘caressed’; Van Gogh would rape it . . . At times he was a real brute, a tough guy.”*

The year 1888 was the time Van Gogh felt the first severe onslaught ofmental illness, and cut off his right ear in a mad fit of remorse. Milliet mentioned nothing of that, but did feel that his sketching companion suffered from “an exaggerated sensitivity. At times he would have almost feminine reactions to things. The consciousness of being a great artist. He had faith, faith in his own talent, a blind faith. He was proud. And he appeared to be in not too good health. But on the whole, a good friend, not at all a bad sort of fellow.”

*Van Gogh’s recorded reactions to Milliet were gentler. He found Milliet a restless model, complained in one letter that “if he would only pose better, he would please me very much and we would have a much better portrait than the one I am doing now. The subject is good, with his flat, pale face and his red cap against an emerald-green background.”

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