Mike Slickster (slicker) wrote,
Mike Slickster

Torment and Self-Destruction: A Short Biography of Vincent van Gogh

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Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh

During my last visit to Amsterdam, I visited the Van Gogh Museum and viewed the wealth of magnificent masterpieces from the institution's namesake. Picture-taking was forbidden inside, but I was permitted to enter with my camera case; nevertheless, the curators were probably keeping a close eye on me. Multiple levels of the vast building were filled with priceless paintings, sketches, and letters from van Gogh; along with art treasures from Rembrandt, Monet, Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec, Manet and others. A steady flow of art lovers browsed throughout the spacious galleries of the sensational exhibition, allowing close-up inspection of the mastery put forth by every brilliant brushstroke of colorful paint spread upon this expansive collection of van Gogh's work, accumulated from during the short period of time he painted.

Vincent van Gogh, born in 1853, was the son of a Dutch Reformed minister, brought up in boarding schools, felt his youth was "gloomy and cold and sterile," learned to draw as a youngster by influential teachers, dabbled in the art-dealing trade at the age of twenty in The Hague while working at a job obtained for him by the artist's Uncle Cent, who was also in the illustrious business. Transferring to England for a year to work for the company's London branch, Vincent fell in love while there with his landlady's daughter, who turned down his amorous intentions, stating she was secretly engaged to another. Ultimately van Gogh shifted his thoughts fervently towards religion and developed a keen desire to follow in his father's footsteps as a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, but wasn't able to maintain the discipline expected of him.

After moving and working a short stint in Paris at another art dealership, from which he was fired reportedly for his alleged bad attitude toward the French's treatment of art as a commodity, van Gogh received his theological training in 1877, studying for a while with his uncle, a renowned theologian in Amsterdam. The young cleric ended up near Brussels afterward to study at a missionary school, which resulted with him taking a temporary post as a missionary in the coal mines of Belgium. There the seeds of becoming an artist were sown. However, due to his radical interpretation of Christian beliefs, insisting that he should live in squalid conditions like the poor miners for whom ministered, the church authorities dismissed him from his duties, claiming van Gogh had undermined the dignity of the priesthood.

The Potato Eaters

The aspiring painter had documented his everyday experiences extensively through drawings on letters to his brother and life-long patron, Theo, who persuaded van Gogh to pursue art as a career. Vincent attended the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and began his livelihood in earnest. The Potato Eaters, the artist's first masterpiece, was inspired by the nasty conditions suffered by the miners and their families with whom he had experienced the terrible squalor firsthand, while he lived amongst them in the coalfields. For a short period, Vincent also studied art in Antwerp while enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. The proverbially starving artist survived with little money for necessities, sustaining only on bread, coffee, tobacco, and absinthe. He became sick and rundown as a result, moving to Paris to live with his brother in 1886, where he was able to meet and befriend the masters of the post-impressionistic era, acquiring a new flair and technique in his painting while working and studying at an art studio in Montmartre.

Vincent and Theo van Gogh

Due to his intolerable behavior and incessantly bad habits, teamed with numerous bouts of intense depression and alcoholism, the struggling artist eventually had a falling-out with his brother, forcing Vincent to leave his sibling's home in 1887. Van Gogh moved to the outskirts of Paris, where he became close friends with Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, met Impressionist Claude Monet, and Neo-Impressionists Paul Signac and Georges Seurat; all from whom he adopted their colorful styles of expression while combining them with the neo-impressionists' technical interpretations of time and space.

A look at late 19th-century Paris and a chalk portrait of van Gogh by Toulouse-Lautrec.

Van Gogh, now burned out and sick from mostly too much smoke, drink, and exhaustion, had produced over two hundred pieces of art during his two years in Paris and set up many exhibitions in the city with his contemporaries. The artist left for the South of France to recuperate. The brightness of the sun found in the sub-tropical region around Arles had fired his palette with new bursts of color and vitality, and illustrated an artist who had reached his prime.

Arles in the South of France

Paul Gauguin moved in with van Gogh for nine weeks, late in 1888; and the pair worked together until the former suddenly left Arles, never to see van Gogh again. Their relationship reportedly had floundered to the point of no return, for on December 23, 1888, a tormented van Gogh allegedly went after his roommate with a straight-edge razor and ended up at a local brothel soon afterward, where it was said Vincent cut off the lower part of his left earlobe and left it with a prostitute. The wounded painter hence became hospitalized in critical condition and released after a lengthy stay.

Starry Night - Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

From then onward, the artist was never quite able to regain his lucidity totally; for he had suffered continually with wretched hallucinations and uncontrollable delusions. He was forced by the police to leave his home and remain committed at the local hospital, as the result of a petition drafted by the townspeople who claimed he was a madman. Van Gogh was released to live with his friend and fellow painter, Paul Signac; but ultimately, Vincent committed himself into an insane asylum at Saint-Rémy and remained there for a year until 1890. From having been allowed to paint while confined and having supervised outings around the grounds of the institution, the artist created his most memorable works during his self-imposed incarceration: The Starry Night, Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background, Cypresses, and Country Road in Provence by Night, to name a few.

Doctor Paul Gachet and his daughter.

The next few months after his release from the asylum were the last ones for Vincent, and he spent the rest of his life in a suburb of Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise, under the care of a notable psychiatrist, Doctor Paul Gachet. In one of van Gogh's last letters to Theo about the former's first impression of the doctor who had treated other painters and was an amateur artist himself, my art hero wrote, “First of all, he is sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much, so that's that. Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don't they both fall into the ditch?” Vincent's final flurry of creativity reflected his morbid inner turmoil, as his bright yellows turned to darker greens and blues, with no longer ultramarine and mauve. Shortly before his death, his creations turned severely dismal as shown in his painting, At Eternity's Gate: a portrayal of a desperate man, sitting in a wooden chair while holding onto his heavy head and covering his eyes, appearing dissolute and in tremendous pain from agony and grief.

At Eternity's Gate - Courtesy of Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky - Painted during van Gogh's last weeks alive.

On July 27, 1890, Vincent van Gogh walked out into one of the fields around Auvers-sur-Oise, and he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Not killing himself, nor realizing he was mortally wounded, Vincent returned to his room at the Ravoux Inn and died in his bed two days later. The exact reason for van Gogh's attempted suicide, which ultimately led to his death, can only be one of speculation. Obviously, van Gogh suffered from depression, but what were the causes for this affliction? The malady plaguing van Gogh for most of his life was probably due to several psychological reasons. It was clear long before he shot himself that the painter suffered from mental illness; albeit, it was towards the end of his short career when the thread between sanity and insanity severed.

The realization of his own incapacity for remaining lucid evidently was what sent Vincent to Saint-Rémy for his self-imposed lockup. Van Gogh's letters indicated he may have considered himself a burden to his brother Theo, who gave Vincent financial support for the decade Van Gogh worked as an artist. Although Vincent was thankful for this support, I presume he eventually grew to feel like he contributed nothing to his brother, nor to the world.

Van Gogh's tremendous skills and techniques were most represented in his works housed at the museum in Amsterdam. His creations had been traded for millions of dollars and euros at modern-day auctions, but that was not the case before he died. Vincent produced over two thousand pieces of fine art, although he felt all of them were worthless, as only one painting was sold during his lifetime. One had to assume this must have taken its toll on the artist, making him feel like he himself was worthless and wasting his time, questioning why he continued to produce nothing of value, while his brother had to foot the bill for his failures. With no faith in his own abilities to support himself, Vincent, in this writer's humble opinion, considered suicide as the only way to avoid being a deadweight to his brother, for whom he cared a great deal. Van Gogh attempted to end his mental anguish and ultimately succeeded.

Many possible biological reasons certainly prevailed for why van Gogh suffered from depression as well, but these are harder to determine. He suffered from seizure disorder and may have been an epileptic. A fair amount of evidence implied he was bipolar, explaining his incessant smoking and excessive drinking of coffee and alcohol. Alternatively, drinking itself may have been the source of the problem. He was particularly fond of absinthe, a liquor containing a neurotoxin called thujone: in excess the substance produced epilepsy and led to renal failure, not to mention bizarre psychotic behavior, hallucinations and delirium. Since van Gogh was allegedly known to eat his lead-based paints from time to time when food was scarce, one cannot rule out lead poisoning. Multiple theories have been suggested for his illness by a large number of physicians, none of which may have been accurate, or several of them might have pinpointed the causes for his erratic behavior. Whatever afflicted Vincent, it must have given him his unique perspective responsible for his enduring fame. Nevertheless, this anguish brought an abrupt end to the career of one of the most famous artists ever to have lived. Perhaps his reputation would have caught up with his stellar achievements had he only lived a little longer. Sadly, his mental illness ensured he only would work as a painter for ten brief years.

Copy of a letter sent from van Gogh to his brother Theo

After a most inspirational afternoon spent at the museum, I stopped by the bookstore before leaving the premises, located on the main level, and bought a publication entitled A Letter from Vincent van Gogh, by Ceciel de Bie. In the book, many instances of van Gogh's exceptional masterpieces on display in Amsterdam were illustrated—some of which are shown on this page—and a sampling of the treasure trove of letters Vincent wrote to his brother and others were exhibited. The painter was a prolific writer, having penned over six hundred correspondences; most were housed at the museum. Through these letters, containing exquisitely detailed drawings on most of them, art historians were able to piece together the life and memoirs of this troubled painter, who was finally lain to rest in a cemetery at Auvers-sur-Oise, in the French-capital region of Île-de-France. His brother Theodore, who died grief-stricken six months after Vincent, was buried next to his sibling in a modest grave with simple granite headstones for each of them.

For more than a century after his death, Vincent van Gogh had been known as the tortured genius who sliced off his own ear in a fit of madness; but a new study claims that Paul Gauguin lopped off the organ with his sword, as the two friends argued over a wench. In a recently published book, German art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans contended that van Gogh led everyone to believe he had mutilated himself in order to protect Gauguin from prosecution. The tome, entitled Van Gogh's Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence, alleged that van Gogh and Gauguin got into an argument over Rachel, the previously mentioned lady of the night, outside of the brothel where she worked. Gauguin, who was known to be an excellent fencer, purportedly drew his sword and cut off van Gogh's left ear. According to the authors, "The left ear fell. We cannot say if it was deliberate or an accident. In this situation, the protagonists vowed to keep silent. Then Gauguin disappeared, abandoning his friend."

The book further postulated Gauguin dumped his sword into the nearby Rhone River and left town shortly thereafter. Van Gogh, in the meantime, handed the severed ear to the prostitute and then staggered home, where police found the injured artist on the next day. Kaufmann and Wildegans believed the painter didn't give the police any information and ended up taking the rap; Gauguin remained silent not wanting to face charges. The two authors alleged van Gogh didn't inform the authorities due to the painter's profound infatuation with his compadre. "Subsequent behavior and numerous allusions by the protagonists suggest they were hiding the truth," Kaufmann told a French newspaper. "Based on their correspondences, it's likely van Gogh's brother, Theo, knew the truth but also kept silent."

Unless otherwise indicated, all above picture are taken from the publication, A Letter from Vincent van Gogh, by Ceciel de Bie.
Tags: biography, ceciel de bie, claude monet, dr. paul gauchet, georges seurat, hans kaufmann, henri de toulouse-lautrec, paul gauguin, paul signac, rita wildegans, theo van gogh, vincent van gogh
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