A madman, a failure, a suicide, dead at 37 — and yet, today, one of the most famous artists of all time. Van Gogh did not sell a single painting before his death in 1890. Now, his work is among the most expensive art ever to be sold at auction. And, as the photos below demonstrate, he had a doppelgänger in Kirk Douglas.
Douglas was born Issur Danielovitc in 1916; his parents were immigrants from modern day Belarus. His father, a Russian horse trader, became a ragman. Before WWII, Douglas was known as Izzy Demsky (a surname his brother, an earlier immigrant to the US, had adopted). But on entry to the U.S. Navy in 1941, Izzy Demsky became Kirk.
Douglas was already a box office star when he was cast as Van Gogh. His 1949 film, Champion, had been his breakthrough role. But when it came to Lust for Life, Douglas was committed to conveying Van Gogh as the quintessential tortured artist. Douglas taught himself to paint, and remained in character even when at home. As his wife, Anne Buydens, said:
“When he was doing Lust for Life, he came home in that red beard of Van Gogh’s, wearing those big boots, stomping around the house—it was frightening.”
Douglas’ performance was almost universally praised and won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination — and all critics commented on his uncanny resemblance to Van Gogh. And yet against a budget of more than $3 million, the production was not a huge hit, losing nearly three-quarters-of-a-million dollars.
Incidentally, when Van Gogh severed his own ear, he was treated by one Doctor Ray. Van Gogh gave Doctor Ray a painting — Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey — but the doctor didn’t like it. He used the painting to repair his chicken coop, and later gave it away. Today, Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey is worth more than $50 million.