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 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.
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.
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.
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.