Larry Ellison, who set up the Oracle computer software company, is currently lending two of his Van Gogh paintings for display. Most private owners of such valuable works hide them behind closed doors or only lend anonymously. Refreshingly, Ellison is being more open.
Money is certainly no constraint when it comes to his collecting. Ellison is the seventh richest person in the world, according to Forbes, and is now worth around $127bn. Oracle is the second largest software company after Microsoft.
The exhibition Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources, now at the Columbus Museum of Art (until 6 February 2022) and then at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art next year, includes two loans from Ellison. Both Van Gogh landscapes were painted within a few weeks of each other and depict the same area just north-west of Paris.
Road to the Outskirts of Paris (May-June 1887) depicts a labourer with a spade walking along a track by fenced-off blossoming chestnut trees. It has been suggested that the man in the painting may have originally been accompanied by a female companion, who was then painted out by the artist. The picture dates from a short period when Van Gogh was experimenting with the Neo-Impressionist technique of painting with pointillist dots and small marks.
What even Ellison may not know about his own painting is the part played by Road to the Outskirts of Paris on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. At that time the painting was owned by Ruth Carter, the wife of a Fort Worth newspaper baron, J. Lee Johnson III.
A small group of wealthy collectors in the Fort Worth area had come up with a most unusual idea: they would each lend a single work of art to decorate the hotel suite occupied by JFK during the night of 21-22 November 1963, while on a visit to Texas. Along with Ruth Carter's Van Gogh, they included works by Monet, Eakins, Picasso and Moore which were hung in suite 850 of the Hotel Texas.
JFK and Jackie had arrived at the hotel at midnight, after a long evening event. When the president awoke in the morning, his wife pointed to a Van Gogh landscape in the master bedroom, hanging above the bed. On a coffee table there was a special catalogue that had been produced recording the art in his suite. The first name on the list of lenders was Ruth Carter Johnson, recorded as Mrs J. Lee Johnson III.
“She must be in the phone book,” JFK apparently said to Jackie. The president got through to Ruth, to thank her for the Van Gogh that he was enjoying while having his morning coffee.
Jackie then came on the line, saying that “they’re going to have a dreadful time getting me out of here with all these wonderful works of art”. It would be JFK’s last telephone call. The couple did manage to leave, setting off for nearby Dallas. Two hours after leaving the Hotel Texas the president was assassinated.
Ruth passed Road to the Outskirts of Paris to her daughter and after going through another collector it was offered at Christie’s in 2008, estimated at $13m-$16m. It surprisingly failed to sell at auction, but Ellison acquired it privately at some point after that. As for Ruth Carter Stevenson (after her remarriage), she is remembered for giving her father’s collection to establish the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.
The other Ellison painting in the current Columbus Museum of Art exhibition is Bridge across the Seine at Asnières (summer 1887). Asnières lies just outside Paris, to the north-west, and Van Gogh looked back over the river towards the town of Clichy and the capital beyond. The perspective of the bridge is reminiscent of Japanese prints, which were then much admired by avant-garde artists in Paris.
Bridge across the Seine at Asnières had been bought in 1962 by Dominique de Menil, the co-founder of Houston’s Menil Collection, who owned it until around 1990. In 1999 it was sold at Sotheby’s, going for $3.3m. It went to another Texan collection and was acquired by Ellison a few years ago.
Ellison also owns Farmhouse among Olive Trees (November-December 1889). It had been requested for the current Van Gogh and the Olive Groves exhibition, but in the end it was not available. Perhaps Ellison did not want to have three of his Van Goghs out on loan at the same time. The exhibition is now on at the Dallas Museum of Art (until 6 February 2022), before it moves to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam next year.
There is also a fourth Van Gogh in the Ellison collection, The Reaper (September 1889). Painted in the asylum just outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, this is Van Gogh’s interpretation in colour of a black-and-white print (1853) after a work by Jean-François Millet.
The Reaper sold at Christie’s in 2017, when it went for £24.3m, presumably going to Ellison after that. He lent it to the exhibition Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modern Art which was at the Van Gogh Museum and the Saint Louis Art Museum (2019-20).
Ellison first became interested in Van Gogh in the 1960s, while studying in Chicago. He would do his homework in the library of the Art Institute of Chicago. Taking a break from his books, he often wandered through the Impressionist galleries, where he encountered Van Gogh’s painting of The Bedroom (September 1889).
Among Ellison’s later interests was the art of Japan, which was also much admired by Van Gogh. In 2004, after Ellison had become highly successful, he built a Japanese-style residence in Woodside, outside of San Francisco. Nine years later he lent 66 items from his collection to San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, exhibited in the show In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection.
In 2020 Ellison established his main residence on the Hawaiian island Lanai, which he had bought eight years earlier for a reputed $300m (he owns 98% of the island, which has an area of 364 sq. km). He likes to move the art around in his various homes, to see works in fresh situations, so the Van Gogh pieces are probably regularly rehung.
And in addition to the four identified Van Gogh paintings, there may be more. With $127bn to his name Ellison could afford to buy the artist’s entire oeuvre many times over—if theoretically it was all up for sale.
Other Van Gogh news:
• An exhibition at the Van Gogh House in Zundert, Vincent’s birthplace, features photomontages by the Dutch artist Ruud van Empel. His show, Inventing Van Gogh, runs until 5 December, with a bilingual catalogue in Dutch and English.