The peripatetic life of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), the son of a Dutch Protestant minister, was an endless series of catastrophes. He longed for a wife and child but was rejected by the two women he loved. He pursued a disastrous vocation as minister and missionary among the coal miners of Belgium, was dismissed as an art dealer in Paris, failed as a teacher in London and lived with an alcoholic, pregnant prostitute in The Hague. He studied briefly at the Fine Arts Academy in Antwerp (though he was mainly self-taught) and sold only one picture in his lifetime (though his loyal brother Theo was an art dealer). He tried to build an artistic community in Arles, but quarrelled bitterly with his friend and housemate, Paul Gauguin. Except for Theo, Van Gogh was isolated and cut off from family and friends. Finally, this religious fanatic, artistic failure, impoverished suppliant, self-mutilator and violent maniac was committed to two insane asylums in Provence. One positive result of his restless, perpetual flights was that he was multi-lingual in Dutch, German, English and French.

Vincent van Gogh. The church in Auvers-sur-Oise, view from the Chevet, 1890. Oil on canvas, 93 x 74.5cm

Van Gogh suffered frequent epileptic fits in which he experienced uncontrollable frenzy, incoherence, hallucinations and fears of being poisoned. This disease was fatally combined with cyclic, intermittent attacks of manic depression. His epilepsy was treated as if it were a mental illness, his mania was not understood and had no cure. His letters, long howls of despair, gave morbid descriptions of his feelings after the seizures. In April 1888 he wrote, ‘I have had four major attacks, during which I had no idea what I said, what I wanted or what I did, not to mention the three times before when I had fainting fits for inexplicable reasons, being quite unable to recall what I felt at the time.’ As soon as he recovered, his tense nerves were strained by the terrified expectation of the next attack.

In September 1889, a particularly difficult month, Van Gogh connected his art to his mania and saw himself as a sacrificial victim: ‘my sad illness makes me work in a pent-up fury. . . . I have risked my life for my work, and it has cost me half my reason.’ But he had to continue to create his crippling yet vitalizing art no matter what it cost: ‘It is only when I stand painting before my easel that I feel in any way alive.’ Yet he feared that another violent attack would permanently destroy his ability to paint and prophetically wrote, ‘I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide’ but draws back at the last moment. Like the mad poet John Clare and the mad painter Richard Dadd, he continued to create while safely confined to asylums. The expressions in his portraits of Chief Attendant Trabuc and Dr. Gachet make them seem even more tormented than Van Gogh.

The last two agonizing years of Van Gogh’s life were also the period of his greatest creativity. The Expressionistic distortions of his late works reveal, more clearly than any other painter, the stages of his personal calvary. The vertiginous Night Café —with its blood-red walls, sea-green ceiling and bilious-yellow floor — seems charged with an electric current and a morbid aura. The three drunken, drowsing men and the courting couple huddle separately near the edge of the picture while the brilliantly gas-lit refuge illuminates their misery. With his blurred features and body cut off at the knees, the white-clad waiter seems strangely suspended in the air. The steeply slanted wood-plank floor resembles the deck of a pitching ship that threatens to hurl down everything in the room and overwhelm the viewer. The tilted billiards table looks like an operating platform, a mortuary slab with pockets draining the blood, or a padded coffin.

In Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, a bold, three-quarter view, the warm gold and brick-red of the background are clearly divided by a straight line that runs emphatically across the painting at eye level. Van Gogh portrays himself against the flat colors with the sharp outlines of his blue fur-trapper’s hat, rough sallow-skinned face, narrow red-rimmed eyes, high-bridged nose, tightly clenched mouth and green-buttoned greatcoat. Puffing clouds of smoke from a comforting pipe, he bravely confronts the viewer, despite his traumatic, self-inflicted wound, with an expression of defiant despair.

Vincent van Gogh The Starry Night, 1889 Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm
Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night, 1889. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm

The pulsating, apocalyptic Starry Night portrays a dark, empty village, menaced by a gigantic, twisted cypress tree that towers above the white church steeple, by the enveloping hills and by the swirling sky — like Hokusai’s clutching wave — that seems about to rage into a destructive tornado. The largest star looks like the huge eyeball of a bright sun that’s about to burn itself out and consume the village as it dies. Two other pictures reveal Van Gogh’s compassion. In the claustrophobic Prisoners Exercising a defeated circle of men, casting eerie shadows, are trapped in a high, stone-walled dungeon with no relief of sky light. Hunched, grey-clothed and watched by three chatting warders, the isolados shuffle endlessly and hopelessly in the constricted space like rats in a caged treadmill or lost souls in Dante’s Inferno. The subject of Old Man in Sorrow is slumped in a plain, straw-bottomed brown chair, next to a glowing fire that affords no comfort, on a sharply sloping floor. He wears rough blue clothing and heavy brown boots, and his bald, grey-haired head, with features hidden, is bent over and supported by his clenched fists. He seems to be weeping for his own suffering as he approaches death.

The Church at Auvers depicts a tremulous structure with no straight lines. It stands uneasily under a stormy blue-black sky and next to a jagged, V-shaped path on which a solitary woman walks past (rather than into) the church. Its tilted tower, wobbly red roof and bulging windows rest on an unsteady foundation, and the building seems about to collapse from intense internal pressure or topple over from an earthly convulsion. Threatening rather than comforting, the church offers no refuge or relief. Van Gogh’s last painting, Wheat Fields with Crows (July 1890, the month of his death), is a striking contrast to the limpid atmosphere and bright colors of Provence in his earlier landscapes. With turbulent brushwork it portrays golden wheat fields thrashed sideways by a strong wind, three divergent paths that end blindly and a dark troubled sky about to burst into thunderous rain. Ominous black birds, like figures of death, circle low while searching for their prey and flying aggressively toward the spectator. All these pictures — the lonely café, bandaged victim, threatened village, condemned inmates, mournful ancient, convulsive church and menacing crows — reveal Van Gogh at the edge of self-destruction. He described his last painting as ‘immense stretches of wheat under a troubled sky’ and said, ‘I had no difficulty in trying to express sadness and extreme solitude.’

Vincent van Gogh The Night Café, 1888 Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 92.1 cm
Vincent van Gogh. The Night Café, 1888. Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 92.1 cm

Meyer Schapiro observed that for Van Gogh, no matter how disturbing the content of his pictures, ‘the task of painting had for him a conscious restorative function…When he paints something exciting or melancholy, a picture of high emotion, he feels relieved…Painting was an act of high intelligence which enabled him to forestall the oncoming collapse…Only painting kept him from going mad.’ Though Van Gogh painted his finest works at the very end of his life, they could not forestall his madness and suicide.

After Van Gogh had threatened him with a razor, Gauguin feared that he might also become a mutilated victim and immediately left Arles. Van Gogh’s severed ear was a symbolic castration. By presenting it to a terrified prostitute and instructing her to guard it carefully, he said farewell to sexual pleasures. In another self-destructive gesture, he swallowed his own poisonous paint and portrayed himself as the sacrificial victim of his art.

It’s painfully ironic that in 1890 Van Gogh gradually began to emerge from total obscurity and achieved his first success. He had six pictures included in a Brussels exhibition, read a favourable article about himself in the Mercure de France and sold his first painting for about $80. Theo’s wife, Johanna, simplifying Vincent’s complex motives, concluded that ‘fear of the illness that was threatening him once again, or an actual attack, drove him to his death.’ On July 27, 1890 he shot himself in the chest in the wheat fields of Auvers, north of Paris, but botched the attempt and missed his heart. Bleeding copiously, Van Gogh staggered home, called for his soothing pipe and died two days later in severe pain. Soon after his death, through Johanna’s energetic efforts, he became famous.

By Jeffrey Meyers

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