The tragic genius of Vincent van Gogh

One of the things I was looking forward to when visiting Paris though was not the over-hyped Mona Lisa but the works of Vincent van Gogh in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, one of the largest museums of modern art in the world.

Van Gogh Portrait with Straw Hat

Van Gogh Portrait with Straw Hat

Van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter.  His work is nearly always depicting a rough beauty and bold colours and if I’m not losing anyone, its emotional honesty.  His works inspired the artists of the 20thC and beyond but he was never able to enjoy any success.   He suffered from anxiety , depression and mental disorders and died at the young age of 37 apparently by a suicide gun-shot although no gun was ever found.

Vincent started drawing as a child and over his short life painted thousands of works of art. Especially famous are his self-portraits, landscapes and of course those Sunflowers.

He split his time between London, Paris and The Hague and had ambitions to become a priest.  Later he moved to southern France and the sunshine and bright colours began to influence his work along with coming into contact French Impressionist painters when he moved to Paris in 1886.

Much has been made of Vincent Van Gogh’s tragic illness which left him unable to paint for long periods of time and when he died he was in his prime as an artist.  It is possible that his mental illness helped him produce his increasingly spectacular works of art which when exhibited in Paris were described by Monet as being the finest works of art in the exhibition.

Vincent began to seek medical help for his illness and when he switched clinics to see Dr. Paul Gachet in Auvers-Sur-Oise his first impression of the doctor was that he is “sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much”.  His work during this period was prolific with 70 paintings in as many days.

His relapses became worse and he suffered a month long relapse ion July 1889 and an even worse one in December 1889.  More than a hint of his state of mind can be seen in the desperate figure in his painting ‘At Eternity’s Gate’.  He was plagued by nightmares and bored out of his mind having to paint from inside an asylum.

Sorrowing Old Man Vincent Willem van Gogh

At Eternity’s Gate – Sorrowing Old Man Vincent Willem van Gogh

By May 1890 he was feeling much brighter and more optimistic about the future and he wrote positive letters to his sister and some friends which didn’t belay the events that would shortly unfold.   He continued to paint and write letters to his brother such as this example in early July when he wrote “I myself am also trying to do as well as I can, but I will not conceal from you that I hardly dare count on always being in good health. And if my disease returns, you would forgive me. I still love art and life very much…”

By mid July however dark clouds were looming on the horizon both in the mind of van Gogh and in the real world.  He wrote on 10th July “Certainly my last attack, which was terrible, was in a large measure due to the influence of the other patients…For myself, I can only say at the moment that I think we all need rest — I feel exhausted and the prospect grows darker, I see no happy future at all.”

Despite the troubled clouds that feature in many of his paintings, van Gogh loved the countryside and the corn fields that he lived amongst.

Van Gogh Wheatfield with crows

Van Gogh Wheatfield with crows

On the day of 27th July 1890, van Gogh left the inn that he was staying at after breakfast.  It was his habit to stay in sparsely furnished rooms and attics and spend all day outside.  Unusually for him, he didn’t return until about 9pm and when he did so he was clutching his stomach. Vincent told the inn keeper that he had shot himself in his stomach and fallen unconscious but the cool air of the evening revived him.  Though he tried to find the pistol to finish the job he couldn’t find it and so had returned to his room where the inn keeper had found him curled up on the floor.

Local doctors were called but it became clear that little could be done for him in this quiet rural region and when the local police arrived to make inquiries van Gogh informed them “My body is mine and I am free to do what I want with it. Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide.”

A telegram was sent to Vincents brother, Theo who arrived in the afternoon and Theo kept his brother company until his death shortly after midnight.  Theo said of his brother “He himself wanted to die. When I sat at his bedside and said that we would try to get him better and that we hoped that he would then be spared this kind of despair, he said, “La tristesse durera toujours” (The sadness will last forever). I understood what he wanted to say with those words.”

In recent years studies have been made into Van Goghs death which have raised doubts over when he did indeed commit suicide.  The gun wound was apparently not at an angle consistent with suicide and instead it is theorised that Van Gogh was the victim of accidental death by three boys who had too much to drink.  This would also explain Vincents declaration to the Police that it was he and not others who fired the fatal bullet.

The real tragedy of Vincent Van Gogh is not just that he died almost penniless and without any fame whatsoever but that his illness made him so lonely and desperate that he couldn’t always see the beauty of the world which he so vividly painted.  Would he have felt so bad if he had known less than a century later he would be widely acknowledged

For me somehow knowing his tragic story makes me appreciate his paintings even more.  There aren’t any that I know that I don’t like although my favourite has to be Starry Night Over the Rhone.  I love the vibrancy of the stars in the night sky.

Starry Night Over the Rhone

My favourite Van Gogh painting, Starry Night Over the Rhone

If you want a recent dramatic and touching look at Vincent van Gogh you might want to check the ‘Vincent and The Doctor’ which is a slightly unexpected but truly magical episode of Dr. Who which goes a long way to demonstrating the tortures that Vincent went through and in this case makes one of the demons that haunts van Gogh’s mind as an actual scary though harmless monster. It’s one of the most emotional ways to spend 45 minutes. I wish Vincent van Gogh were still alive so I could tell him how much I love his work.

Van Gogh wrote that he didn’t have any children and that his art would be his progeny as indeed were the countless artists that he inspired.  His work can be found on permanent exhibitions in London, New York, Paris, Amsterdam and other large galleries.

Do you have a favourite painter or sculptor? I know one or two follow my blog and one of my favourite is Karen Gadient who can both paint and write. A lot of her work is bold, bright and to me quite interesting which I really like plus she likes Dr Who so I hope she liked the Vincent episode too.

I can write and am musical but sadly my painting and drawing hasn’t ever progressed beyond the levels of a 5 year old.  Maybe I could pretend my paintings are done by one of those artistic chimpanzees on a bad day.

Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh

Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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22 Responses to The tragic genius of Vincent van Gogh

  1. I didn’t know that Doctor Who ventured near Van Gogh. It strikes me an an excellent way of introducing a broader audience to the man and the tragedy that befell him. His story reminds us of the fact that we could be undervaluing talent today- within and beyond the world of art- that future generations would treasure as much as Van Gogh’s spectacular art.

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    • Yes it was a great way, I certainly know one or two people who got into van Gogh and art generally through that one episode.

      You’re right of course, the current climate in many nations only value people who make a lot of hard cash no matter how. If you have the talents of van Gogh or Beethoven it is likely you would be thrown on the scrap heap as much of society doesn’t value anything other than money whether it is artists, musicians, social and care workers of even scientists and engineers. I wonder how many brilliant but in some ways unwell or eccentric minds are lost for their unconventional ways of being.

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  2. merrildsmith says:

    I’m not sure that I have a favorite artist, although van Gogh would be near the top. We’re also fortunate to have world class museums nearby in Philadelphia.

    I’m with you in that I can write and have some musical ability, but I cannot draw at all. My mother though, who can not see very well at almost 92 years old, still paints.

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    • I would quite like to visit Philadelphia one day, I like what I have seen of the older quarters 🙂

      That is amazing about your mother. Good for her at pursuing her hobby at such a good age.

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      • merrildsmith says:

        Thanks, Stephen. You might be interested in the documentary “Tim’s Vermeer.” It just opened in Philadelphia, so I don’t know if and when it will be in your area. It’s by Penn & Teller, and it’s about a man who wants to paint his own Vermeer. I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but my husband and I both enjoyed it very much. 🙂

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  3. Rosemarie says:

    A very enjoyable and informative commentary on Van Gogh.

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  4. padresteve says:

    One of the most haunting songs from the 1970’s that I remember was Don McLean’s “Vincent.” Van Gogh is a tragic figure…. thanks for posting.

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  5. Dave Miller says:

    Thanks Stephen. Van Gogh is my favourite painter. He generally used a trowel rather than a brush which means his pictures are almost three dimensional. You mention crows: the more unsettled his mind then the more crows he tended to paint. Regarding Dr Who – an excellent episode: Tony Curran portrayed Van Gogh excellently. He also looks uncannily like him as well.

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    • Oh I didn’t know about his painting techniques, that explains the “rough” textures of his paintings.

      I think it is my favourite “new” Dr. Who along with ‘Blink’. Tony Curran looks very similar, they did well to cast him. That episode could very easily be just a drama with out the Dr.Who element but the way they brought him to the modern day was the icing on the cake.

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  6. My favorite is ‘Straw Hat’. A thoughtful expression

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  7. I was going to mention the Doctor Who episode, a very powerful piece of television. The ending is superb. A very talented man whose great work I hope will live on for eternity.

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    • Yes the ending was amazing, how they brought him to the future to see his fame and how much he is appreciated and then took him back but with the same tragic consequences. Thanks for commenting!

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  8. Van Gogh touched me too, when I was developing into a young adult. He does communicate his feelings through his art, as does L.S.Lowry , who I think had view of the world affected by being a the autistic spectrum, but that is only speculation from me. I wrote a blog about seeing an exhibition of his. I can’t say I have favourites any more, as my appreciation grows as I get older of so many men and women who have used art as a means of expressing what it is to be human.Thank you fro a wonderful post.

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  9. Amy Reese says:

    I’m so jealous you got to see this in Paris. I teach art lessons in my kids’ classes as a volunteer and Van Gogh was one of our artists. I’m not much of an artist either, but I really enjoy it and love learning about all the different artists. Great post!

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  10. karengadient says:

    Apologies for such a late comment, especially when you mentioned me! I was out of town for the last few days. The very first thing that popped into my head when I saw this post was Doctor Who (so you know me well–and thank you for the mention). I have such admiration for Van Gogh’s work. Brilliant soul. Excellent post.

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  11. What an interesting post – I so enjoyed it! Thanks!

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