Vincent van Gogh
Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch post-Impressionist painter whose work, notable for its rough beauty, emotional honesty and bold color, had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art. After years of painful anxiety and frequent bouts of mental illness, he died at the age of 37 from a gunshot wound, generally accepted to be self-inflicted (although no gun was ever found).[note 2] His work was then known to only a handful of people and appreciated by fewer still.
Van Gogh began to draw as a child, and he continued to draw throughout the years that led up to his decision to become an artist. He did not begin painting until his late twenties, completing many of his best-known works during the last two years of his life. In just over a decade, he produced more than 2,100 artworks, consisting of 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings, sketches and prints. His work included self portraits, landscapes, still lifes of flowers, portraits and paintings of cypresses, wheat fields and sunflowers.
Van Gogh spent his early adulthood working for a firm of art dealers, traveling between The Hague, London and Paris, after which he taught for a time in England. One of his early aspirations was to become a pastor and from 1879 he worked as a missionary in a mining region in Belgium where he began to sketch people from the local community. In 1885, he painted his first major work The Potato Eaters. His palette at the time consisted mainly of somber earth tones and showed no sign of the vivid coloration that distinguished his later work. In March 1886, he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. Later, he moved to the south of France and was influenced by the strong sunlight he found there. His work grew brighter in color, and he developed the unique and highly recognizable style that became fully realized during his stay in Arles in 1888.
The extent to which his mental health affected his painting has been a subject of speculation since his death. Despite a widespread tendency to romanticize his ill health, modern critics see an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence brought about by his bouts of illness. According to art critic Robert Hughes, van Gogh’s late works show an artist at the height of his ability, completely in control and “longing for concision and grace”.
The most comprehensive primary source for the understanding of van Gogh as an artist is the collection of letters between him and his younger brother, art dealer Theo van Gogh. They lay the foundation for most of what is known about the thoughts and beliefs of the artist. Theo provided his brother with both financial and emotional support. Their lifelong friendship, and most of what is known of van Gogh’s thoughts and theories of art, is recorded in the hundreds of letters they exchanged between 1872 and 1890: more than 600 from Vincent to Theo and 40 from Theo to Vincent.
Although many are undated, art historians have generally been able to put them in chronological order. Problems remain, mainly in dating those from Arles, although it is known that during that period, van Gogh wrote 200 letters to friends in Dutch, French and English. The period when Vincent lived in Paris is the most difficult for historians to analyze because the brothers lived together and had no need to correspond.
In addition to letters to and from Theo, other surviving documents include those to Van Rappard, Émile Bernard, van Gogh’s sister Wil and her friend Line Kruysse. The letters were first annotated in 1913 by Theo’s widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger who explained that she published them with ‘trepidation’ because she did not want the drama in the artist’s life to overshadow his work. Van Gogh himself was an avid reader of other artists’ biographies and expected their lives to be in keeping with the character of their art.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Groot-Zundert, a village close to Breda in the province of North Brabant in the south of the Netherlands, a predominantly Catholic area. He was the oldest child of Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. Vincent was given the name of his grandfather, and of a brother stillborn exactly a year before his birth.[note 3] The practice of reusing a name was not unusual. Vincent was a common name in the Van Gogh family: his grandfather, Vincent (1789–1874), had received his degree of theology at the University of Leiden in 1811. Grandfather Vincent had six sons, three of whom became art dealers, including another Vincent who was referred to in van Gogh’s letters as “Uncle Cent”. Grandfather Vincent had perhaps been named in turn after his own father’s uncle, the successful sculptor Vincent van Gogh (1729–1802). Art and religion were the two occupations to which the Van Gogh family gravitated. His brother Theodorus “Theo” was born on 1 May 1857. He had another brother, Cor, and three sisters: Elisabeth, Anna and Willemina “Wil”
As a child, Vincent was serious, silent and thoughtful. He attended the Zundert village school from 1860, where the single Catholic teacher taught around 200 pupils. From 1861, he and his sister Anna were taught at home by a governess, until 1 October 1864, when he went to Jan Provily’s boarding school at Zevenbergen about 20 miles (32 km) away. He was distressed to leave his family home as he recalled later as an adult. On 15 September 1866, he went to the new middle school, Willem II College in Tilburg. Constantijn C. Huysmans, a successful artist in Paris, taught van Gogh to draw at the school and advocated a systematic approach to the subject. Vincent’s interest in art began at an early age. He began to draw as a child and continued making drawings throughout the years leading to his decision to become an artist. Though well-done and expressive, his early drawings do not approach the intensity he developed in his later work. In March 1868, van Gogh abruptly left school and returned home. A later comment on his early years was in an 1883 letter to Theo in which he wrote, “My youth was gloomy and cold and sterile”.
In July 1869, his uncle Cent helped him obtain a position with the art dealer Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After his training, in June 1873, Goupil transferred him to London, where he lodged at 87 Hackford Road, Brixton, and worked at Messrs. Goupil & Co., 17 Southampton Street. This was a happy time for Vincent; he was successful at work and was, at 20, earning more than his father. Theo’s wife later remarked that this was the happiest year of Vincent’s life. He fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, Eugénie Loyer, but when he finally confessed his feelings to her, she rejected him, saying that she was secretly engaged to a former lodger. He became increasingly isolated and fervent about religion; his father and uncle arranged for him to be transferred to Paris, where he became resentful at how art was treated as a commodity, a fact apparent to customers. On 1 April 1876, Goupil terminated his employment.
Van Gogh returned to England for unpaid work as a supply teacher in a small boarding school overlooking the harbor in Ramsgate, where he made sketches of the view. When the proprietor of the school relocated to Isleworth, Middlesex, van Gogh moved with him, taking the train to Richmond and the remainder of the journey on foot. The arrangement did not work out and he left to become a Methodist minister’s assistant, following his wish to “preach the gospel everywhere.” At Christmas, he returned home and found work in a bookshop in Dordrecht for six months. He was not happy in this new position and spent much of his time either doodling or translating passages from the Bible into English, French and German. His roommate at the time, a young teacher named Görlitz, recalled that van Gogh ate frugally, and preferred not to eat meat.[note 4]
Van Gogh’s religious zeal grew until he felt he had found his true vocation. To support his effort to become a pastor, his family sent him to Amsterdam to study theology in May 1877, where he stayed with his uncle Jan van Gogh, a naval Vice Admiral. Vincent prepared for the entrance exam with his uncle Johannes Stricker; a respected theologian who published the first “Life of Jesus” in the Netherlands. Van Gogh failed the exam, and left his uncle Jan’s house in July 1878. He then undertook, but failed, a three-month course at the Vlaamsche Opleidingsschool, a Protestant missionary school in Laeken, near Brussels.
In January 1879, he took a temporary post as a missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes[note 5] in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. Taking Christianity to what he saw as its logical conclusion, van Gogh lived like those he preached to, sleeping on straw in a small hut at the back of the baker’s house where he was staying. The baker’s wife reported hearing van Gogh sobbing at night in the hut. His choice of squalid living conditions did not endear him to the appalled church authorities, who dismissed him for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.” He then walked to Brussels, returned briefly to the village of Cuesmes in the Borinage, but gave in to pressure from his parents to return home to Etten. He stayed there until around March the following year,[note 6] a cause of increasing concern and frustration for his parents. There was particular conflict between Vincent and his father; Theodorus made inquiries about having his son committed to the lunatic asylum at Geel.[note 7]
He returned to Cuesmes where he lodged until October with a miner named Charles Decrucq. Increasingly interested in the people and scenes around him, van Gogh recorded his time there in his drawings and followed Theo’s suggestion that he should take up art in earnest. He traveled to Brussels that autumn intending to follow Theo’s recommendation to study with the prominent Dutch artist Willem Roelofs, who persuaded him, in spite of his aversion to formal schools of art, to attend the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where he registered on 15 November 1880. At the Académie, he studied anatomy and the standard rules of modeling and perspective, about which he said, “…you have to know just to be able to draw the least thing.” Van Gogh aspired to become an artist in God’s service, stating: “…to try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture.”
In April 1881, van Gogh moved to the Etten countryside with his parents where he continued drawing, often using neighbors as subjects. Through the summer he spent time walking and talking with his recently widowed cousin, Kee Vos-Stricker, the daughter of his mother’s older sister and Johannes Stricker, with whom he stayed in Amsterdam in 1878. Kee, who had an eight-year-old son, was seven years older than van Gogh. He proposed marriage, but she refused with the words, “No, nay, never,” (“nooit, neen, nimmer”). Late that November, van Gogh wrote a strongly worded letter to Johannes, and then hurried to Amsterdam where he spoke with him on several occasions. Kee refused to see him, and her parents wrote, “Your persistence is disgusting.” In desperation, he held his left hand in the flame of a lamp, with the words “Let me see her for as long as I can keep my hand in the flame.” He did not recall the event well, but later assumed that his uncle blew out the flame. Kee’s father made it clear to him that Kee’s refusal should be heeded and that the two would not be married because of van Gogh’s inability to support himself. Van Gogh’s perception of his uncle and former tutor’s hypocrisy affected him deeply and put an end to his religious faith forever. That Christmas he refused to go to church, quarreling violently with his father as a result and leading him to leave home the same day for The Hague.
In January 1882, he settled in The Hague where he called on his cousin-in-law, Anton Mauve (1838–88), who was a Dutch realist painter and a leading member of the Hague School. Mauve introduced him to painting in both oil and watercolor and lent him money to set up a studio but the two soon fell out, possibly over the issue of drawing from plaster casts. Mauve appears to have suddenly gone cold towards van Gogh and did not return a number of his letters. Van Gogh supposed that he had learned of his new domestic arrangement with an alcoholic prostitute, Clasina Maria “Sien” Hoornik (1850–1904), and her young daughter. He had met Sien towards the end of January when she had a five-year-old daughter and was pregnant. She had already borne two children who had died, although van Gogh was unaware of this. On 2 July, she gave birth to a baby boy, Willem. When van Gogh’s father discovered the details of their relationship, he put considerable pressure on his son to abandon Sien and her children, although Vincent at first defied him.
Van Gogh’s uncle Cornelis, an art dealer, commissioned 12 ink drawings of views of the city, which van Gogh completed soon after arriving in The Hague, along with a further seven drawings that May. In June, he spent three weeks in a hospital suffering from gonorrhea. During the summer he began to paint in oil. In autumn 1883, after a year together, he left Sien and the two children. He had thought of moving the family out of the city but in the end made the break. It is possible that lack of money pushed Sien back to prostitution; the home became less happy, and van Gogh may have felt family life was irreconcilable with his artistic development. When he left, Sien gave her daughter to her mother and baby Willem to her brother. She then moved to Delft, and later to Antwerp. Willem remembered being taken to visit his mother in Rotterdam at around the age of 12, where his uncle tried to persuade Sien to marry in order to legitimize the child. Willem remembered his mother saying, “But I know who the father is. He was an artist I lived with nearly 20 years ago in The Hague. His name was van Gogh.” She then turned to Willem and said “You are called after him.” While Willem believed himself van Gogh’s son, the timing of his birth makes this unlikely. In 1904, Sien drowned herself in the River Scheldt. Van Gogh moved to the Dutch province of Drenthe, in the northern Netherlands. That December, driven by loneliness, he went to stay with his parents who had been posted to Nuenen, North Brabant.
In Nuenen, van Gogh devoted himself to drawing, and he gave money to boys to bring him birds’ nests for subject matter for paintings,[note 8] and he made many sketches and paintings of weavers in their cottages. In autumn 1884, Margot Begemann, a neighbor’s daughter and ten years his senior, often joined him on his painting forays. She fell in love, and he reciprocated—though less enthusiastically. They decided to marry, but the idea was opposed by both families. As a result, Margot took an overdose of strychnine. She was saved when van Gogh rushed her to a nearby hospital. On 26 March 1885, his father died of a heart attack and he grieved deeply at the loss.
For the first time, there was interest from Paris in his work. That spring, he completed what is generally considered his first major work, The Potato Eaters, the culmination of several years work painting peasant character studies. In August 1885, his work was exhibited for the first time, in the windows of a paint dealer, Leurs, in The Hague. When he was accused of forcing himself on one of his young peasant sitters Gordina de Groot who became pregnant that September [note 9] the Catholic village priest forbade parishioners from modeling for him. During 1885, he painted several groups of still-life paintings.
From this period, Still-Life with Straw Hat and Pipe and Still-life with Earthen Pot and Clogs are characterized by smooth, meticulous brushwork and fine shading of colors. During his two-year stay in Nuenen, he completed numerous drawings and watercolors and nearly 200 oil paintings. His palette consisted mainly of somber earth tones, particularly dark brown, and he showed no sign of developing the vivid coloration that distinguishes his later, best-known work. When he complained that Theo was not making enough effort to sell his paintings in Paris, his brother wrote back, telling him that the paintings were too dark and not in line with the current style of bright Impressionist paintings.
In November 1885, he moved to Antwerp and rented a small room above a paint dealer’s shop in the Rue des Images (Lange Beeldekensstraat). He had little money and ate poorly, preferring to spend the money Theo sent on painting materials and models. Bread, coffee and tobacco were his staple intake. In February 1886, he wrote to Theo saying that he could only remember eating six hot meals since May of the previous year. His teeth became loose and painful. While in Antwerp he applied himself to the study of color theory and spent time in museums, particularly studying the work of Peter Paul Rubens, gaining encouragement to broaden his palette to carmine, cobalt and emerald green. He bought a number of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts in the docklands, and incorporated their style into the background of a number of his paintings. While in Antwerp, van Gogh began to drink absinthe heavily. He was treated by Dr. Amadeus Cavenaile, whose practice was near the docklands,[note 10] possibly for syphilis;[note 11] the treatment of alum irrigation and sitz baths was jotted down by van Gogh in one of his notebooks. Despite his rejection of academic teaching, he took the higher-level admission exams at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and in January 1886, matriculated in painting and drawing. For most of February, he was ill and run down by overwork, a poor diet and excessive smoking.
Van Gogh traveled to Paris in March 1886, where he shared Theo’s Rue Laval apartment on Montmartre, to study at Fernand Cormon’s studio. In June, they took a larger apartment further uphill, at 54 Rue Lepic. Because the brothers had no need to write letters to communicate, little is known about van Gogh’s stay in Paris, and less is known about this time than earlier or later periods of his life. In Paris he painted portraits of friends and acquaintances, still-life paintings, views of Le Moulin de la Galette, scenes in Montmartre, Asnières, and along the Seine.
During his stay in Paris, he collected more Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints; he became interested in such works, when in 1885 in Antwerp he used them to decorate the walls of his studio. He collected hundreds of prints, which are visible in the backgrounds of several of his paintings. In his 1887 Portrait of Père Tanguy several can be seen hanging on the wall behind the main figure. In The Courtesan or Oiran (after Kesai Eisen) (1887), van Gogh traced the figure from a reproduction on the cover of the magazine Paris Illustre, which he then graphically enlarged in the painting. His 1888 Plum Tree in Blossom (After Hiroshige) is a vivid example of the admiration he had for the prints he collected. His version is slightly bolder than Hiroshige’s original.
After seeing Adolphe Joseph Thomas Monticelli’s work at the Galerie Delareybarette, which he admired, van Gogh immediately adopted a brighter palette and a bolder attack, particularly in paintings such as his Seascape at Saintes-Maries (1888). Two years later, in 1890, Vincent and Theo paid to have a book about Monticelli published, and van Gogh bought a number of Monticelli’s paintings, adding them to his collection
For months, van Gogh worked at Cormon’s studio where he frequented the circle of the British-Australian artist John Peter Russell, and met fellow students like Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—who painted a portrait of van Gogh with pastel. The group congregated at Julien “Père” Tanguy’s paint store; at that time the only place where Paul Cézanne’s paintings were displayed. He had easy access to Impressionist works in Paris at the time. In 1886, two large vanguard exhibitions were staged; shows where Neo-Impressionism was first exhibited and seen, with works by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac becoming the talk of the town. Though Theo kept a stock of Impressionist paintings in his gallery on Boulevard Montmarte—by artists including Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro—van Gogh seemingly had problems acknowledging developments in how artists view and paint their subject matter.
Conflicts arose between the brothers. At the end of 1886 Theo found that living with Vincent was “almost unbearable”. By the spring of 1887, they were again at peace, although van Gogh moved to Asnières a northwestern suburb of Paris, where he became acquainted with Signac. With Émile Bernard he adopted elements of pointillism, a technique in which a multitude of small colored dots are applied to the canvas that, when seen from a distance, create an optical blend of hues. The style stresses the value of complementary colors—including blue and orange—to form vibrant contrasts that are enhanced when juxtaposed. While in Asnières he painted parks and restaurants and the Seine, including Bridges across the Seine at Asnieres.
In November 1887, Theo and Vincent met and befriended Paul Gauguin who had just arrived in Paris. Towards the end of the year, Vincent arranged an exhibition of paintings by himself, Bernard, Anquetin, and probably Toulouse-Lautrec in the Grand-Bouillon Restaurant du Chalet, 43 Avenue de Clichy, in Montmartre. In a contemporary account, Emile Bernard wrote of the event: “On the avenue de Clichy a new restaurant was opened. Vincent used to eat there. He proposed to the manager that an exhibition be held there …. Canvases by Anquetin, by Lautrec, by Koning …filled the hall….It really had the impact of something new; it was more modern than anything that was made in Paris at that moment.” There Bernard and Anquetin sold their first paintings, and van Gogh exchanged work with Gauguin who soon departed to Pont-Aven. Discussions on art, artists and their social situations that started during this exhibition continued and expanded to include visitors to the show like Pissarro and his son Lucien, Signac and Seurat. Finally in February 1888, feeling worn out from life in Paris, he left, having painted over 200 paintings during his two years in the city. Only hours before his departure, accompanied by Theo, he paid his first and only visit to Seurat in his atelier (studio).
Van Gogh moved to Arles hoping for refuge; at the time he was ill from drink and suffering from smoker’s cough. He arrived on 21 February 1888, and took a room at the Hôtel-Restaurant Carrel, which, idealistically, he had expected to look like one of Hokusai (1760–1849) or Utamaro’s (1753–1806) prints. He had moved to the town with thoughts of founding a utopian art colony, and the Danish artist Christian Mourier-Petersen (1858–1945), became his companion for two months. Arles appeared exotic and filthy to van Gogh. In a letter he described it as a foreign country: “The Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlesiennes going to their First Communion, the priest in his surplice, who looks like a dangerous rhinocerous, the people drinking absinthe, all seem to me creatures from another world”. A hundred years later, van Gogh was remembered by 113-year-old Jeanne Calment—who, as a 13 year old, was serving in her uncle’s fabric shop where van Gogh wanted to buy some canvas—as “dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable”, and “very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick”. She also recalled selling him colored pencils.
He was enchanted by the local landscape and light. His works from the period are richly draped in yellow, ultramarine and mauve. His portrayals of the Arles landscape are informed by his Dutch upbringing; the patchwork of fields and avenues appear flat and lack perspective, but excel in their intensity of color. The vibrant light in Arles excited him, and his newfound appreciation is seen in the range and scope of his work. That March he painted local landscapes using a gridded “perspective frame”. Three of these paintings were shown at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. In April, he was visited by the American artist Dodge MacKnight, who was living nearby at Fontvieille. On 1 May, he signed a lease for 15 francs a month in the eastern wing of the Yellow House at No. 2 Place Lamartine. The rooms were unfurnished and uninhabited for some time. He was still at the Hôtel Restaurant Carrel, but the rate charged by the hotel was 5 francs a week, which he found excessive. He disputed the price, took the case to a local arbitrator and was awarded a twelve franc reduction on the total bill.
He moved from the Hôtel Carrel to the Café de la Gare on 7 May, where he became friends with the proprietors, Joseph and Marie Ginoux. Although the Yellow House had to be furnished before he could fully move in, van Gogh was able to utilize it as a studio. Hoping to have a gallery to display his work, his project at this time was a series of paintings including Van Gogh’s Chair (1888), Bedroom in Arles (1888), The Night Café (1888), Cafe Terrace at Night (September 1888), Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888), Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers (1888), all intended to form the décoration for the Yellow House. van Gogh wrote about The Night Café: “I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime.”
He visited Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer that June where he gave drawing lessons to a Zouave second lieutenant, Paul-Eugène Milliet and painted boats on the sea and the village. MacKnight introduced van Gogh to Eugène Boch, a Belgian painter who stayed at times in Fontvieille, and the two exchanged visits in July.
When Gauguin agreed to visit Arles, van Gogh hoped for friendship and for his utopian idea of a collective of artists. While waiting that August he painted sunflowers. When Boch visited again, van Gogh painted a portrait of him, as well as the study The Poet Against a Starry Sky. Boch’s sister Anna (1848–1936), also an artist, purchased The Red Vineyard in 1890.
In preparation for Gauguin’s visit he bought two beds, on advice from his friend the station’s postal supervisor Joseph Roulin, whose portrait he painted, and on 17 September spent the first night in the still sparsely furnished Yellow House. When Gauguin consented to work and live side-by-side in Arles with van Gogh, he started to work on The Décoration for the Yellow House, probably the most ambitious effort he ever undertook. van Gogh did two chair paintings: Van Gogh’s Chair and Gauguin’s Chair.
After repeated requests, Gauguin finally arrived in Arles on 23 October. During November, the two painted together. Gauguin painted van Gogh’s portrait The Painter of Sunflowers: Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, and uncharacteristically, van Gogh painted some pictures from memory—deferring to Gauguin’s ideas in this—as well as his The Red Vineyard. Their first joint outdoor painting exercise produced Les Alyscamps, and was conducted at the Alyscamps.
The two visited Montpellier that December and viewed works in the Alfred Bruyas collection by Courbet and Delacroix in the Musée Fabre, but their relationship began to deteriorate. Van Gogh greatly admired Gauguin, and desperately wanted to be treated as his equal. But Gauguin was arrogant and domineering, a fact that often frustrated van Gogh. They quarreled fiercely about art; van Gogh felt an increasing fear that Gauguin was going to desert him, as a situation he described as one of “excessive tension” reached crisis point.
On 23 December 1888, frustrated and ill, van Gogh confronted Gauguin with a razor blade, but in panic, left and fled to a local brothel. Deeply lonely at the time, he often visited the prostitutes at a brothel on Rue du Bout d’Aeles as his single emotional and sensuous point of contact with other people. While there, he cut off his left ear, though it is often claimed that it was only the lower part of his left earlobe.[note 13] He wrapped the severed ear in newspaper and handed it to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to “keep this object carefully.” He staggered home, where he was later found by Gauguin lying unconscious with his head covered in blood.
Van Gogh was taken to a hospital and remained in a critical state for several days. He asked for Gauguin continually over the next number of days, but the Frenchman stayed away. Gauguin told one of the policeman attending the case, “Be kind enough, Monsieur, to awaken this man with great care, and if he asks for me tell him I have left for Paris; the sight of me might prove fatal for him.” Gauguin wrote of van Gogh, “His state is worse, he wants to sleep with the patients, chase the nurses, and washes himself in the coal bucket. That is to say, he continues the biblical mortifications.” Theo—notified by Gauguin—visited, as did both Madame Ginoux and Roulin. Gauguin left Arles and never saw van Gogh again.[note 14] In January 1889, van Gogh returned to the Yellow House, but spent the following month between the hospital and home, suffering from hallucinations and delusions that he was being poisoned. In March, the police closed his house after a petition by 30 townspeople, who called him “fou roux” (the redheaded madman). Paul Signac visited him in the hospital and van Gogh was allowed home in his company. In April, he moved into rooms owned by Dr. Rey, after floods damaged paintings in his own home. Around this time, he wrote, “Sometimes moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.” Two months later he had left Arles and entered an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
On 8 May 1889, accompanied by his carer, the Reverend Salles, van Gogh committed himself to the hospital at Saint Paul-de-Mausole. A former monastery in Saint-Rémy less than 20 miles (32 km) from Arles, the monastery is located in an area of cornfields, vineyards and olive trees at the time run by a former naval doctor, Dr. Théophile Peyron. Theo arranged for two small rooms—adjoining cells with barred windows. The second was to be used as a studio.
During his stay, the clinic and its garden became the main subjects of his paintings. He made several studies of the hospital interiors, such as Vestibule of the Asylum and Saint-Remy (September 1889). Some of the work from this time is characterized by swirls—including one of his best-known paintings The Starry Night. He was allowed short supervised walks, which led to paintings of cypresses and olive trees, like Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background 1889, Cypresses 1889, Cornfield with Cypresses (1889), Country road in Provence by Night (1890). That September he also produced a further two versions of Bedroom in Arles.
Limited access to the world outside the clinic resulted in a shortage of subject matter. He was left to work on interpretations of other artist’s paintings, such as Millet’s The Sower and Noon – Rest from Work (after Millet), as well as variations on his own earlier work. Van Gogh was an admirer of the Realism of Jules Breton, Gustave Courbet and Millet and compared his copies to a musician’s interpreting Beethoven. Many of his most compelling works date from this period. His The Round of the Prisoners (1890) was painted after an engraving by Gustave Doré (1832–1883). It is suggested that the face of the prisoner in the center of the painting and looking toward the viewer is van Gogh himself, although the noted van Gogh scholar Jan Hulsker discounts this.
Towards the end of his stay, van Gogh suffered a severe relapse lasting two month between February and April 1890. Nevertheless he was able to paint and draw a little during this time and he later wrote Theo that he had made a few small canvases “from memory … reminisces of the North”. Amongst these was Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset. Hulsker believes that this small group of paintings formed the nucleus of a large number of drawings and study sheets depicting landscapes and figures that van Gogh worked on during this time. He comments that, save for this short period, van Gogh’s illness had hardly any effect on his work but in these he sees a reflection of van Gogh’s mental health at the time. Also belonging to this period is Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’), a color study that Hulsker describes as “another unmistakable remembrance of times long past”.
In February 1890 he painted five versions of L’Arlésienne (Madame Ginoux), based on a charcoal sketch Gauguin had produced when Madame Ginoux sat for both artists at the beginning of November 1888. The version intended for Madame Ginoux is lost. It was attempting to deliver this painting to Madame Ginoux in Arles that precipitated his February relapse.
His work was praised by Albert Aurier in the Mercure de France in January 1890, when he was described as “a genius”. In February invited by Les XX, a society of avant-garde painters in Brussels, he participated in their annual exhibition. At the opening dinner, Les XX member Henry de Groux insulted van Gogh’s works. Toulouse-Lautrec demanded satisfaction, and Signac declared he would continue to fight for van Gogh’s honor if Lautrec should surrender. Later, when van Gogh’s exhibit was on display with the Artistes Indépendants in Paris, Monet said that his work was the best in the show. In February 1890, following the birth of his nephew Vincent Willem, he wrote in a letter to his mother, that with the new addition to the family, he “started right away to make a picture for him, to hang in their bedroom, branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.
On February 22, 1890, van Gogh suffered a new crisis that was “the starting point for one of the saddest episodes in a life already rife with sad events”. This period lasted until the end of April, during which time he was unable to bring himself to write though he did continue to draw and paint. Hughes writes that from May 1889 to May 1890 he, “had fits of despair and hallucination during which he could not work, and in between them, long clear months in which he could and did, punctuated by extreme visionary ecstasy.”
Although an alternative theory exists that he was shot by someone else, it is widely understood that on 27 July 1890, aged 37, van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Where he was when he shot himself is unclear. Ingo Walther writes that “Some think van Gogh shot himself in the wheat field that had engaged his attention as an artist of late; others think he did it at a barn near the inn.” Biographer David Sweetman writes that the bullet was deflected by a rib bone and passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal organs, probably stopped by his spine. He was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux. He was attended by two physicians, neither with the capability to perform surgery to remove the bullet, who left him alone in his room, smoking his pipe. The following morning (Monday), as soon as he was notified, Theo rushed to be with Vincent, to find him in surprisingly good shape; within hours, however, he began to fail, the result of untreated infection in the wound. Vincent died in the evening, 29 hours after he shot himself. Theo reported his brother’s last words as “The sadness will last forever.
Van Gogh was buried on 30 July in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise at a funeral attended by Theo van Gogh, Andries Bonger, Charles Laval, Lucien Pissarro, Émile Bernard, Julien Tanguy and Dr. Gachet amongst some 20 family and friends, as well as a number of locals. The funeral was described by Émile Bernard in a letter to Albert Aurier. Theo suffered from syphilis and his health declined rapidly after Vincent’s death. Weak and unable to come to terms with Vincent’s absence, he died six months later, on 25 January, at Den Dolder. The original burial plot was leased for 15 years; the intention was to bury Vincent alongside Theo. Vincent’s remains were exhumed on 13 June 1905, in the presence of Jo Bonger, Dr. Gachet and others, and relocated, eventually for Theo to be buried beside him. The precise location of the original grave is no longer known. In 1914, the year she had van Gogh’s letters published, Jo Bonger had Theo moved from Utrecht and reburied with Vincent.
While many of Vincent’s late paintings are somber, they are essentially optimistic and reflect his desire to return to lucid mental health right up to the time of his death. Yet some of his final works reflect his deepening concerns. Referring to his paintings of wheatfields under troubled skies, he commented in a letter to his brother Theo: “I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.” Nevertheless, he adds in the same paragraph: ” … these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside”.
There has been much debate over the years as to the source of van Gogh’s illness and its effect on his work. Over 150 psychiatrists have attempted to label its root, with some 30 different diagnoses. Diagnoses include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, syphilis, poisoning from swallowed paints, temporal lobe epilepsy and acute intermittent porphyria. Any of these could have been the culprit and been aggravated by malnutrition, overwork, insomnia and consumption of alcohol, especially absinthe.
In Van Gogh: the Life, a biography published in 2011, authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith argue that van Gogh did not commit suicide. They contend that he was shot accidentally by two boys he knew who had “a malfunctioning gun”. However experts at the Van Gogh Museum remain unconvinced. Prominent skeptics Joe Nickell also was not convinced. Nickell analyzed the questions raised by Naifeh and Smith to support their new theory and found that all can be addressed with a more likely answer. By ignoring the well-known psychological state of Van Gogh (given to self-inflicting harm, self-mortification) and much more reliable testimony (from Adeline Ravoux, daughter of the inn keeper Gustave Ravoux, the owner of the gun), Naifeh and Smith instead make a lot of assumptions on the circumstances around the incident, and misrepresent what Rene Secretan (one of the two boys) said sixty-six years later in 1956, who did not confess shooting Van Gogh. Nickell concludes that their theory is the result of the logical fallacy of ‘confirmation bias’ – “start the investigation with a supposed answer and work backward to the evidence”