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Vincent van Gogh: Arles, Saint-Remy, and Auvers

The events of van Gogh's life between his departure from Paris in early 1888 until his suicide in July, 1890, are well enough known to have established him in the popular mind as the archetype of the Mad Genius. Not mad, he was an unstable personality who in the last two years of his life was subject to epileptic seizures. Not quite a genius, he was a painter who in his last two years produced a life work of extremist originality, combining theory with a high degree of personal emotionalism. Because the events of his life are dramatic enough to be disproportionately intrusive in a discussion of his painting, they must be summarized first:

Vincent left Paris in a fit of despondency to which many factors contributed. He was irritated with the squabbling and bickering that, he found, was the form usually taken by the stimulating discussions he had hoped for among painters. Not only was he dependent on his brother Theo, but he felt that he was in his way -- and he was. And in any case, Paris in February is not a cheerful city in the low-income bracket. For a painter who had suddenly discovered color it was gray, its studios dreary. By temperament Vincent was restless. He had lived his life feeling that what he was hunting was just around the corner. This time he thought it lay in the brilliant sun and the simpler life of a small Provencal city. And this time it did.

Theo gave him an allowance and he set himself up in Arles. For this man of thirty-five it was like a youth's first discovery of the world on his own. Before long he was working so hard that he had several fainting spells. Or perhaps these were the first indication of the malady that was about to make itself apparent. It was also just the time of the arrival in Arles of the painter Gauguin.

Gauguin was a fantastic and, to van Gogh, a glamorous personality, with barbarous and brutal good looks the ugly little man must have envied, and an established reputation among avant-garde painters. The men had met in Paris but did not know one another very well in spite of Vincent's strong attraction toward Gauguin. Gauguin was somewhat older, and there is a hint of adolescent hero worship in van Gogh's feeling for him. He urged Gauguin to visit him in Arles; Gauguin finally consented. As far as their painting was concerned there was an important mutual influence. As far as their life together was concerned there were tensions beyond endurance, at least beyond Vincent's, and in an incident that apparently will never be clarified in its details there was a violent quarrel, after which Vincent went to his room, cut off an ear, wrapped it up, and delivered it to one of the girls in a brothel that he had frequented with Gauguin. This was during the last weeks of 1888.

Shortly before, he had painted a self portrait as a present for Gauguin (top of page); the words "a' mon ami Paul" are still faintly discernible along the upper left border. The Arles experience had begun with the happiest period of van Gogh's life; but the face in the self-portrait for Gauguin is already the face of a man pushed to the limits of endurance, and the remainder of Vincent's life was torment beyond anything he had endured before.

During the first five months of 1889 he remained in Arles, with intermittent periods in the hospital as his seizures recurred. He suffered hallucinations, and his irrational behavior got him into trouble with the townspeople, as had happened elsewhere. Then for a year -- May 1889 to May 1890 -- he was an inmate of the asylum at Saint-Remy, near by, where he had comparative freedom and could receive immediate treatment - of a kind - during seizures. He worked passionately. The Starry Night was painted at Saint-Remy.

By May the seizures seem to have relented and he was thought well enough to return to the north. He went to Auvers, not far from Paris, where Pissarro lived and had worked with Cezanne. Pissarro would have taken Vincent into his own house but his wife, understandably objected. The immediate reason for the choice of Auvers was the presence there of Dr. Paul Gachet, a physician who had special qualifications for this special case since he was a friend of Pissarro's and Cezanne's and some of the other impressionists - whom he had frequently treated without a fee - and was as interested in art as he was medicine.

Etching of Doctor Gachet with Pipe, 1890

In Auvers, Vincent experienced no further seizures. He made occasional short visits to Paris, saw Lautrec there once more, and went to the Salon and exhibitions, but he could not take much of Paris at a time. In Auvers he painted constantly. Dr. Gachet was a miracle of encouragement. But Vincent feared a recurrence of the dreadful experiences in Arles and Saint-Remy. His consciousness of the burden his life imposed on his brother was extreme, exaggerated now because Theo had married and had just had a son. Vincent had come to Auvers in May. Near the end of July he began a letter to Theo in which two sentences are particularly revealing of the nature of his art and his relationship to it:

"Really, we can speak only through our paintings.
"In my own work I am risking my life, and half my reason has been lost in it."

He did not finish the letter. It was not a "suicide note," although parts of it are a summation of his relationship with Theo and have about them an air of finality. But when he stopped the letter in the middle and went out with his paintbox and his canvas he might have gone out to paint. The revolver with which he shot himself was never identified. He might have barrowed it on the way from a peasant, with the excuse that he would use it to shoot at the crows that were a nuisance in the fields. He shot himself below the heart, but managed to walk back to the inn where he was staying. Contrary to the circumstances as usually taken for granted, he did not shoot himself during an attack or in anticipation of one, and during the two days before he died he was lucid. Theo had been reached, and Vincent died in his arms.

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