This is an excerpt from a narrative about the last seventy-four days in the life of Vincent van Gogh. It begins in Paris on the morning of Saturday, May 17, 1890, when Vincent first met his sister-in-law Jo, the wife of his younger brother Theo. It ends in Auvers, northwest of Paris, at one-thirty in the morning of Tuesday, July 29, 1890, when Vincent died after wounding himself in the chest with a pistol.
Vincent’s suicide was not a surprise for anyone who knew him. Theo mourned for his brother, but to Jo, Vincent’s death might even have been a relief. There can be no final, irrefutable determination about why Vincent shot himself, but the events of those seventy-four final days, when considered closely, explain Vincent’s suicide as clearly as it’s possible to do so. They were days of despair, but not days of despair alone. As the events that Vincent perceived as rejections and slights, as cruel blows and vast disappointments, continued to occur one by one, Vincent painted at a furious rate and produced some of his finest art. He made paintings that express his deepest ideas about religion, politics, nature, and art itself. They are not, however, a summation or even a last reworking of familiar themes. They are instead the record of Vincent pushing himself deep into new territory that, as it turned out, was often glorious, often frightening, and often both. Looking carefully at those final days brings us close to the odd, tormented man who lived and died an artist.
Saturday, May 17, 1890
It was sunny and mild in Paris the morning Vincent arrived. He, who compulsively filled each moment with frenzied activity—painting with ferocious strokes that appeared to attack the canvas, reading feverishly, composing endless letters—had spent the night before sitting quietly on the train. He appeared calm enough for a man who had never been calm and who had spent the previous eighteen months in an asylum outside Arles.
Vincent’s younger brother Theo was waiting when the train arrived at the Gare de Lyon. Theo hadn’t been able to sleep at all the night before, since he was so worried that Vincent, alone on the train, would lose control of himself. But here he was after all. And Vincent was excited to see Theo again and to meet his wife, Jo, for the first time and to see his namesake and godson, Vincent Willem van Gogh, who was four months old.
The two men got into an open carriage for the drive across Paris to Theo’s apartment on a cul-de-sac named Cité Pigalle. They were beaming as they arrived and waved excitedly up to Jo, whom they could see on the fourth floor, standing at the window. Jo waved back. Vincent and Theo raced up the four flights of stairs.
Vincent and Jo had exchanged letters, but now they would be face-to-face. Jo had been expecting to see a sick man. Instead she was astonished by Vincent’s ruddy appearance. “He seems perfectly well,” she thought. “He looks much stronger than Theo.”
Jo loved her new baby, but she was not happy. She didn’t like Paris very much. She didn’t speak French well, certainly not as well as her husband or his friends, and that was part of the reason life in Paris made her uncomfortable. But mostly it was the noise that spoiled the city for her. She and Theo had taken the apartment on the cul-de-sac to try to escape the bustle and confusion of the city. Here the noise was less, but, except for the occasional spot of greenery and the artist’s studio directly across from their apartment, Jo found the area a little shabby. She was not a snob. And she had known when she married Theo that, on his salary as an art dealer, their circumstances would not be grand. Still, the Cité Pigalle was a few noticeable steps down from what she had been accustomed to in Amsterdam, where Theo met and courted her. Putting the best face on things in letters back to her family in Holland, she described the quarter as “highly typical.”
Their apartment on the fourth floor had been a long climb up when she was pregnant and was a long climb now with the infant in her arms. Three rooms—a dining room, a living room, and a bedroom—ran along the windows that overlooked the narrow street below. Behind those three rooms were a much smaller kitchen, storage area, and bathroom. She and Theo had furnished this modest home with various pieces of family furniture, including a piano. But all of their furniture and other possessions seemed to fade into the background, because, except for the baby, the overwhelming presence in the apartment was Vincent.
When Jo had moved in as Theo’s new wife just over a year ago, she had found a desk drawer filled with letters from Vincent. They continued to come day after day in yellow envelopes covered with Vincent’s distinctive handwriting. In time they became so many that Theo had to store them in a cupboard in the dining room. Their apartment was cluttered with various small objets, such as vases and jugs and pitchers of heavy clay and thick glass—cheap things that Jo called “ornaments and bits and bobs”—but they were all attractive in subtle and unexpected ways. When Jo would ask Theo about one of them, he would say, “That is something Vincent bought.”
And then there were Vincent’s paintings, dozens and dozens of them. They covered all the walls. They were piled up in corners; here and there they leaned against pieces of furniture; they lay in stacks under the bed.
Jo liked them, fortunately. Lying in bed in the morning, she could see Vincent’s painting of a fruit tree in blossom. It was filled with delicate pinks and whites. Often she would feel that the painting was looking kindly back at her. A large landscape painted near Arles hung over the piano in the sitting room, and The Potato Eaters, an early painting, hung over the mantelpiece in the dining room, or at least they did for the present. Theo could never be satisfied with the arrangement and spent Sunday mornings changing all the paintings and replacing some of the ones hanging on the walls with those that had been stuffed under the bed.
Jo was twenty-eight and had a rather plain round face with a straight mouth and a large, shapeless nose. Although she was extremely intelligent and generally good-natured, her expression was typically solemn, even distracted, with deep and soulful eyes. At least that was so before the baby. Since then, her eyes had a brightness that was missing before, especially as she held the infant easily on her lap. Then her slender figure and the flattering dresses she wore gave her a warm air of sensuality.
Jo and Theo had married in April 1889. At first Jo took great pleasure in the routine of her life in Paris with Theo, and within weeks she was pregnant. Yet, by August, when the early novelty of a new life had worn off and the fact of her pregnancy had sunk in, Jo was unhappy. It wasn’t Theo. She appreciated his great kindness toward her, and she found him to be an extremely good person in every way—in his life, his marriage, and his work. She trusted him completely.
But marriage! She didn’t like marriage at all. She had been free, but now she was confined on all sides. Yes, in the morning she could say to their maid, “Let’s have beans today instead of cauliflower,” or “No veal today; I would prefer steak.” But that was the extent of her freedom. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that belonged to her and her alone. She had found love, but only at the expense of so many sacrifices.
Theo lived among artists, but, sadly, and despite her liking Vincent’s paintings, Jo had little feeling for art left. Once she had been thrilled by discovering things she thought were beautiful. That was how she had felt when first reading Shakespeare. But now all she thought about was the ordinary and the everyday. She listened to Theo’s friends talking in French about art without understanding a word of what they were saying. It was unbearable.
She had managed to get away from the baby to go with Theo to the opening of an important show. Several of Vincent’s paintings were on display, and Claude Monet would later tell Theo that they were the best paintings in the exhibit. Theo was in his element, talking with everyone there, but Jo had neither the energy nor the desire to join in. She found a bench in front of a painting by Vincent, and there she sat alone. The painting showed a corner of a garden thick with trees and covered with ragged undergrowth. A solitary bench stood in the middle distance. The undergrowth seemed cool and fresh, as opposed to the close and intensified atmosphere of the opening night, and Jo began to feel that she knew this little, hidden spot in the painting and had been there many times. She sat on her bench alone for a quarter of an hour. Solitary reflection—that was her response to art these days.
And, when she thought about it, maybe there was something slightly forced in her feelings for Theo. She felt completely alone in Paris. It was as if she were lost in a labyrinth. She had no family there, except her brother Andries and his wife, and no friends of her own. In fact, hardly anyone even spoke to her. So she found herself infinitely more attached to Theo than she might have been otherwise. Everything she had came from him. Would it be this way if they lived in Amsterdam? In other words, was the problem marriage itself or Paris? She didn’t know.
Or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps the one great impediment to their happiness was not herself or Theo or marriage or Paris, but Vincent. She thought that if she could make Theo happy and content, then everything would be fine, but Vincent wasn’t interested in contentment. He worked, he battled, he thought relaxation rotted the brain, and Jo saw Theo adopt these same attitudes. He worried about Vincent constantly. Vincent’s letters, even when he was in the hospital at Saint Rémy, might be rational for weeks at a time, and Jo was awed by the intelligence they displayed. But then, suddenly, something would dislodge Vincent’s equilibrium and, as had happened just last September, a telegram would arrive from a doctor saying, “Vincent sick. Letter follows.” Then there was no further news for days. Theo became even gloomier.
Theo was a slender man of thirty-three with wavy red hair and a thick mustache. He dressed carefully and kept his hair trimmed and combed. He should have been in the prime of his life, but in general his health was not good. He looked ill. He had a chronic cough, his legs ached constantly, and he was prone to attacks of shivering. Just a few months ago he had had a complete physical examination, because he had applied for a life insurance policy. The insurance company turned him down. This rejection disappointed Theo so badly that Jo warned her family that no one should ever mention it in any way. Most recently he had sought out a homeopathic doctor in the hope of finding relief from his cough.
And then there was the problem of money. Newly married couples with babies always have trouble coming to understandings about their finances. For Jo and Theo, that problem was intensified because of Theo’s generous support of Vincent. Without Vincent, they could afford a better apartment, for one thing, in a neighborhood that was not quite so “typical.” And what if the baby got sick? Or what if Theo’s health turned dramatically worse? Or, for that matter, what if her health failed?
Now, in the midst of Jo’s worry and discontent, Vincent was in Paris. He and Jo had met at last, and Vincent was able to see his namesake and godson for the first time. Shortly after introducing Vincent and Jo, Theo drew Vincent into the next room, where the baby boy was in his crib. In silence, the two men looked down at the quietly sleeping baby. Vincent’s eyes teared up, and so did Theo’s. Jo had put a crocheted cover over the crib. Vincent pointed to it and turned to Jo with a smile. “Do not cover him too much with lace, little sister,” he said, by which he meant: Don’t spoil the child.
We do not know what the young mother thought of this mild, but gratuitous rebuke.
Sunday, May 18, to Tuesday, May 20, 1890
The next morning Vincent rose very early and, in his shirtsleeves, began looking over his paintings that were in the apartment. He pulled the huge piles of unframed canvases out from under the sofa, the cupboards, and the bed, spread them across the floor, and began studying them intensely. He saw many he wanted to work on further.
Vincent had gained weight in the asylum and now appeared a little pudgy. He even had the beginning of a potbelly. He had broad shoulders and a sturdy build, and his face looked flush and healthy. His red hair shot up in spikes, and freckles covered his face and arms, indeed his entire body. His teeth were crooked and bad. They clicked on the stem of his pipe, which he smoked incessantly. For years he had considered his pipe an old and trusty friend. Sometimes he sucked on it almost violently, especially when he was painting.
Whether he was thin or plump, though, Vincent always looked odd. He was dirty, and when reading or sitting at his meals, he would pull faces for no apparent reason. His clothes were secondhand, old, worn, mismatched, and covered with drips of paint. To shield his fair skin from the sun, he had a battered straw hat with a broad, round brim.
Ten years before, when he had begun painting, it had occurred to him that he might have better luck selling his work if he dressed better. But then he found himself filled with loathing for any artist who would create a false façade in the hope of making sales. Instead he determined that he should dress like the people he was painting: at first, like miners; more recently, like peasants who worked in the fields. But even these costumes he got wrong, and the irony was that to the miners and the peasants he looked like a phony trying to pass for one of them, and to the rest of the world he just looked strange.
When Vincent was in his late teens, his father had seriously considered having him committed and had explored various possibilities for doing so. Vincent discovered what his father was doing and was both enraged and deeply wounded. But in the following years, he had periodic attacks of tension and nervous despair that would leave him bedridden for days. In time, though, with rest and maybe a solid meal or two, he would, as he thought of it, gain the strength on his own to conquer his nerves and resume the life he was leading.
But after the attacks in Arles eighteen months ago that had forced him into the asylum, there was no longer any question of a fair struggle. The illness was far more powerful than he was. He saw visions, he heard voices, he would crawl on his stomach, he would eat filth, he would drink turpentine and squeeze paints into his mouth hoping to kill himself, and when the worst had passed, he would not remember anything, just as he had no memory of the night when he had sliced his ear. After these most intense waves had subsided, he would have brief moments of relative lucidity before becoming sad and anxious again. He would sit with his head in his hands for hours, for days, for weeks. If someone spoke to him, either he would not respond or he would appear pained, as if those words spoken to him were on the attack, and he would gesture to be left alone.
He was better, for the moment. That’s why his doctor had allowed him to travel to Paris alone overnight on the train. But what was to prevent the illness from returning? Tension; an argument; an unexpected slight; the noise and confusion of the streets in Paris; a sudden, shocking loss; an irrevocable and unwanted change—such things, singly or in tandem, could make his nerves scream and contract, and he would be lost. Vincent lived each moment of each day with the fear that his darkness would rise and, unrelenting as the tide, sweep him away.
Vincent was thirty-seven now, an old thirty-seven. After his attacks during the last eighteen months, he had given up on many cherished dreams. In particular, he had given up on having the wife and children he had yearned for as a young man. Now he knew with certainty that he was too sick for marriage or for a regular domestic life. With that dream now just a memory, only a few things still mattered to him. He cared about his painting most of all and pursued it with a constant, unwavering, feverish intensity. He cared about the paintings of artists he admired, such as Gauguin and Bernard and, above all, Millet. He cared about literature and reading. He cared about Theo, and now he cared about the infant Vincent Willem. He cared to a degree about his sister Willemina and about his mother. He cared about a few friends, and he cared, in an abstract, sentimental way, about the mass of impoverished workers and miners and peasants. He cared about seduced and abandoned women and about prostitutes in the streets and their children. He thought that men who were not prepared to protect and rescue a woman were unworthy and should be ashamed. He could be charming and kind to small children, and he loved his pipe. He didn’t drink much anymore or go to the brothels. His religious beliefs, which had obsessed him when he was young, had lost their fervor, if they hadn’t evaporated entirely. An elderly couple out walking together or a pretty girl and her young companions in the countryside might produce longing reveries in him, but he knew those reveries were for a world beyond his embrace, except in his painting.
Later that Sunday morning, after Vincent had finished studying his paintings that were in Theo’s apartment, he and Theo went to Père Tanguy’s store where Theo bought the paints, brushes, and canvases he had sent to Vincent in Arles. Père Tanguy also stored paintings by Vincent. Here, too, Vincent saw paintings that he thought needed more work. Then the two brothers went to the Salon du Champ-de-Mars.
This was the first exhibition mounted by the Société National des Beaux-Arts. Since about 1850, beginning with the first Impressionists, young, radical artists working in new styles broke away from the official shows sponsored by the government. But by now, the politics of art in France had grown so complicated that it was the established artists who were breaking away to present their own shows. Instead of young radicals, this exhibit included such famous and successful artists as the sculptor Auguste Rodin, the history painter Ernest Meissonier, and the sixty-six-year-old Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who had been a force in organizing the show.
Puvis de Chavannes was twenty-eight years older than Vincent. He had come of age during the rise of the Impressionists. Although the Impressionists rebelled against the classical orthodoxy that had ruled the generations of painters before them, Puvis de Chavannes never did. Classical figures and poses dominated his work. Also, Puvis de Chavannes used a deliberately muted and pale palette that was the opposite of the vivid, pulsing colors that often marked Vincent’s paintings.
Still, Vincent had always admired the older painter. At the Salon du Champs-de-Mars, he was drawn powerfully toward Puvis de Chavannes’s Inter artes et naturam, which had become the biggest sensation in the show. In the painting, men and women stand or sit in classical poses, wearing clothes that seem to be both contemporary and classical at the same time. These personages are in a highly stylized garden of fruit trees by the banks of the Seine. Some of the men are excavating classical antiquities. One woman is painting pottery, while another pulls down a bough so her infant in arms can reach the fruit. Still other men and women are simply sitting or standing idly. The ground is dotted with little white and yellow flowers.
Vincent was transfixed. He thought the painting revealed all nature and all humanity, not as they are, but simplified to show how they could be. As he continued to study the painting, he began to feel that he was witnessing a strange and happy meeting of very distant antiquity and raw modernity–that is, modernity in a new and still unrefined version. Here before him was the inevitable, benevolent rebirth of things he had believed in and desired. Vincent found himself meditating gratefully on a painting he took to be as definitive as the Sermon on the Mount, one that caused old words such as “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are the pure in heart” to return with a new significance.
And Vincent saw even more. In his eyes, Puvis de Chavannes had painted the world and its inhabitants that Vincent had seen revealed beneath the blue skies and intense sun of the south of France. The previous November, while he was still in the asylum in Saint Rémy, Vincent had received a drawing of Paul Gauguin’s Agony in the Garden and a photograph of Émile Bernard’s Christ in the Garden of Olives. The two paintings horrified Vincent. He thought they were false, unconvincing, even repellant abominations. Christ in the garden on the Mount of Olives was a theme he himself had tried twice to paint from his imagination. He destroyed both attempts. His failures had convinced him that the subject was too important to try to paint from the imagination alone. Christ in the olive garden needed to be painted from life somehow.
And Vincent had an intimation about how that could be done. While he was in the asylum, he had studied the neighboring olive groves carefully and found them filled with different shades of silver against orangey or purplish earth, all under a great blue sky. He thought of painting a series of canvases that would be a meditation on silver the way his series of sunflowers was a meditation on yellow.
He had seen successful paintings of apple trees or willows, but he had never seen a successful painting of an olive tree by any other painter or by himself. But olive trees could be more than just a meditation on silver; they might also be the way to paint Christ in the olive garden from life. During his time in the south, Vincent had concluded that the closest a painter could come to suitable models at the present time was to paint the olive trees and the people in the olive groves that were there around Arles and Saint Rémy.
In the weeks before he left for Paris, Vincent had painted several canvases in the olive groves, canvases he regarded as failures. He thought he had failed to express the symbolic language of these low, gnarled trees. Vincent called Millet the great painter of wheat fields and of the peasants who worked in those fields. By showing their labor, Millet had revealed those peasants and the beauty and meaning in their lives. But who were the contemporary inhabitants of the olive groves of the south? Who were these modern versions of the disciples and of Christ himself? Who could reveal them? Yes, Vincent had tried, but he thought he looked at the olive groves with a northern eye that prevented him from painting what he believed to be “the current human being of the south.”
Now, studying this long, narrow painting by Puvis de Chavannes, with its stylized men and women engaging in symbolic rather than realistic activities—a painting that was not, after all, painted from life—Vincent had a presentiment nonetheless that while he had failed in painting the real significance of the olive trees of the south, Puvis de Chavannes had succeeded. For days to come, the image of this serene, yet radical painting would remain churning in his mind.
That evening, Andries Bonger, Jo’s brother, came to visit. Theo was thinking about leaving his firm in order to found his own business as an art dealer, and he was hoping Andries would become his partner. The two men had had several serious talks about their potential partnership.
Andries was a slender man with narrow shoulders who often wore a somewhat imposing expression. Andries, like Jo, was struck by how healthy Vincent looked and how sensible his conversation had become. Vincent liked Andries, whom he saw as strong, calm, and intelligent. As they sat that evening talking of artistic matters, Vincent was struck once again by how accurately Andries reasoned. And now that Theo was married to Jo, they were all part of the same family. Vincent was very glad Andries had come by.
Vincent, like Jo, was worried about Theo’s health. When he first saw Theo at the railway station, Vincent thought that his brother looked even paler and was coughing more than when he had left two years ago. But that first impression faded after Vincent saw Theo at home in the company of Jo and the baby. He thought that Theo was no worse after all and that his staying the same could almost be counted as progress.
Vincent, though he had never been married nor had children, firmly believed that a sedate family life was the secret to good health. Jo, then, was both a threat to Vincent and his ally. Theo couldn’t support either of them if he was too sick to work. Jo might draw money away from Vincent, but without her and without a healthy family life, Vincent might lose Theo completely.
Before Vincent’s arrival in Paris, Theo had devised a plan for his brother’s future. Now that Vincent was satisfied that Theo’s health and circumstances were as good as could be expected, there was nothing for Vincent to do but to move on according to the arrangements Theo had made.
And he had to leave Paris. The city was too much for him. Several times during Vincent’s two days in Paris, he had gone out into the city streets by himself to buy olives. In the south, among the groves, he had come to believe fervently in the benefits of eating olives and pressed them upon Jo and Theo and anyone else who would listen. But that was as far into the city as Vincent ventured alone. Paris, noisy Paris, with its streets filled with confusion, was far too threatening.
Tuesday, May 20, 1890
Auvers is less than an hour by train from the Gare du Nord in Paris, but it seems far, far away. It’s a lovely village stretched along the north bank of the river Oise. Vincent, disembarking from the train, was immediately struck by the beauty of the place and especially by the many cottages with thatched roofs, a style of dwelling that he considered the most wonderful architecture of any kind. Thatched cottages were becoming rare elsewhere. To paint them and their inhabitants would be as beautiful as Millet and therefore something significant, something in which Vincent thought he could have solid faith.
There were two notable public buildings in Auvers, a town hall with a plaza before it and an imposing church built toward the end of the twelfth century. There was a copse of trees just north of the church, hardly large or imposing enough to be called a forest, and beyond it the fields began. They were planted mostly with wheat, and they rolled gently in all directions far off into the horizon. From time to time a train spouting smoke came through on the tracks that ran parallel to the river.
For Vincent, this peaceful village that immediately presented appealing subjects for paintings was immensely reassuring. He needed to keep control of himself so that he would not be sent back to an asylum. Worse, if he lost control, would be an arrest by some rural policeman who would throw him in jail. He feared he might be beaten there or forced to suffer other indignities that would cause him to lose his mind forever.
His memories of his months in the asylum at Saint Rémy terrified him. When he first entered he was hopeful and not uncomfortable living there. But after five months or so, the cockroaches that were sometimes in his food and the incessant wailing and bizarre behavior of the other inmates weighed on him more and more. Worst of all—and this loomed in his memory again and again—was the eternal idleness of the other inmates who were allowed to sit all day doing nothing. He couldn’t face living in yet another asylum.
But, outside an asylum, where was he to go? He couldn’t stay longer than a few days with Jo and Theo in Paris, because there wasn’t room for him even if there hadn’t been a baby. And Vincent and Theo both doubted that Vincent would have the stability to live by himself among strangers. When it had looked like his release from the asylum was imminent, Vincent mentioned casually in a letter to Theo that he might live with the painter Camille Pissarro and his family, who lived in the country not too far from Auvers. Theo would pay for room and board. Theo, without any better ideas of his own, put the matter to Pissarro. He might have considered the proposition, but his wife absolutely refused. Trying to be helpful—Pissarro liked Theo and respected Vincent’s painting—Pissarro told Theo about
an old friend, Dr. Paul Gachet.
The doctor lived in Auvers, but he maintained an office in Paris on the Faubourg Saint-Denis, where he went several times a week for consultations. Theo went there to see him in March 1890, just a few weeks before Vincent arrived in Paris. He was struck immediately by how much Vincent and the doctor resembled each other. When Theo described Vincent’s attacks, Gachet replied that he didn’t think they had anything at all to do with madness but derived from another cause. And if that were the case, which he wouldn’t be able to know for sure until he had talked with Vincent directly, Gachet said he could guarantee a complete recovery. Theo was delighted with this news. He allowed himself to believe it because Gachet had impressed him as a man of understanding. Theo left the office intending to take Vincent there as soon as he arrived in Paris.
As it happened, Vincent arrived in Paris on a Saturday, so it hadn’t been possible for Theo to take him to Dr. Gachet’s office. Instead, Vincent arrived in Auvers carrying a letter of introduction from Theo and soon found his way to Gachet’s home on the side of a hill about a mile from the center of town. The house turned out to be an imposing, three-story, white building behind a high stone wall on the side of a hill. At one time it had been a small boarding school for girls. Dr. Gachet was about to turn sixty-two. His wife had died from tuberculosis fifteen years earlier, in 1875. Now Dr. Gachet lived in this house with his daughter Marguerite, who was twenty, and his son, also named Paul, who was sixteen. A governess looked after the children and a young woman who also lived there as a ward and companion for Marguerite. In addition, there were fifteen or so cats, five dogs, a couple of peacocks, and a tortoise. There was a flower garden in front of the house and a vegetable garden behind, where there was also a henhouse, a small duck pond, a rabbit hutch, and a pigeon coop, all of whose inhabitants provided meat for the household. A system of barriers protected Gachet’s flowers and vegetable garden from this menagerie.
While the village was light beneath a radiant sky, Gachet’s house was dark, dark upon dark. The entrance hall was lit only by the light that came through a narrow window in the front door. A solemn, blocky coffre-banquette of dark oak stood against one wall. The hall led to a large rectangular sitting room that took up most of the first floor. Here, again, the only light came from two small windows on one wall and a long, double-paneled window of leaded glass containing round medallions embossed with cherubs. This room was filled to overflowing with furniture, claptrap, things, all of them old, with the exception of the paintings, drawings, and engravings hanging everywhere on the walls.
Dr. Gachet himself painted, and he signed his work with the pseudonym Van Ryssel. He had wanted to be an artist before he became a doctor. In the course of his life, he had been friends with many artists, including Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne, who both had lived in Auvers for short periods some years before. Vincent was indifferent to most of the art he saw here, but two bouquets by Cézanne struck his eye, and a painting of a red house and chestnut trees in the snow by Pissarro impressed him even more. Two muffled figures, apparently a mother and a daughter, stood solemnly on the right edge of the painting.
There was a large fireplace with a mantel that held an oval plate in the center. On the right side stood a plaster statuette of a nude woman on her knees tossing back her head. On the left side was a similar nude, but seated, and between the two there was a collection of grey enamel pitchers. The doctor himself was seated next to the fireplace in a Louis XIII armchair with a high back.
He and Vincent talked easily enough in this gloomy atmosphere. Paul Gachet had fair skin and fair reddish hair, which appeared to be dyed, that helped to underscore his slight resemblance to Vincent. He often wore odd jackets and a peculiar white cap with a short bill that perched on the top of his head and partially hid his baldness.
Gachet spoke of Lille, where he had been born. It was not far from Borinage, a coal mining region where Vincent had tried to become an evangelist when he was in his early twenties. And Gachet enjoyed reliving memories of the painters he had known—Pissarro and Cézanne, of course, but also Manet, Renoir, and even Cézanne’s father, with whom Gachet had interceded when the father was despairing of his errant son.
These reminiscences brought a smile to Gachet’s otherwise rather stiff face, which struck Vincent as inexpressibly sad. Although Vincent had arrived here as a patient, he came quickly to believe that this eccentric man was suffering from nervous ailments that were at least as serious as his own. He was already studying Gachet for a portrait.
For his part, Gachet had some advice for Vincent: He should work hard, he should paint boldly, and he should never think about his illness. The doctor had apparently determined from his slight knowledge of Vincent that there was nothing wrong with him at all.
Despite this apparently abrupt and poorly supported diagnosis, Theo’s confidence in Dr. Gachet was not entirely misplaced. Seven years earlier Gachet had advised his friend Édouard Manet, the painter, against having his foot amputated for gangrene. Manet had had the amputation anyway and died from it eleven days later. Gachet had nursed Henri Renoir through a nasty bout of pneumonia. He was among the first physicians to prescribe powdered milk as a dietary supplement for infants. His friend, a chemist named Henri Nestlé, had introduced powered milk in France. While serving in the military, which Gachet was very proud of having done, he had devised an antiseptic ointment that became commonly used and undoubtedly saved numerous lives during the Franco-Prussian War. But this ointment was the result of an informed guess about the beneficial properties of various substances rather than of disciplined scientific research.
Dr. Gachet lived in an age when medicine was still considerably more art than science. He had received his medical degree in 1858 after writing a thesis on melancholy which was not scientific at all but literary. He found melancholia throughout history, from Diogenes in Athens, to Seneca in Rome, to the present day. “One might almost say,” Gachet wrote, “that all the great men, the philosophers, the tyrants, the great conspirators, the great criminals, the great poets, the great artists, were essentially melancholic beings.” In fact he saw melancholia extending throughout nature. There were melancholy animals, melancholy plants, and even melancholy rocks. “Who,” he asked, “has knelt beside a tomb and not seen in the cypress, the weeping willow, the poplar the emblem of sadness!”
He went on in this vein for a while in his thesis before blaming melancholy in the present day on civilization and progress that broke the laws of nature, a theory with which Vincent would concur. Gachet did not think mental illness was contagious, as some prominent physicians of that time did; he argued that humane treatment combined with the patient’s freedom could lead to a complete cure. He rejected the then common practices of bloodletting and purging and recommended instead warm baths to calm the patient if necessary (as was done in Saint Rémy), good personal hygiene, and a resumption of physically and intellectually healthy activities.
Vincent left the doctor’s house with directions Gachet had given him to an inn where he could stay. Vincent was not disappointed with the meeting. He now knew a doctor who would be nearby, in case another crisis seized him. But at the recommended inn, they told him the charges were six francs a day. This enraged Vincent, who thought they were trying to take advantage of him.
On his own, he found a small inn named the Auberge Ravoux that charged only three and a half francs per day. It was directly across the street from the city hall and its plaza. It had two doors in front. The one on the right led to a small restaurant; the one on the left, to a wine shop. A long alley ran down the right side of the building, where, about thirty feet along, a door opened onto a flight of stairs, behind the restaurant, that led up to a few rooms on the second and third floor. Vincent’s room was at the top of the stairs, on the third floor. It had a small dresser and a low metal bed. A narrow window, whose glass could be propped open with a metal bar, was the only ventilation. The room was stifling in the summer heat.
Vincent thought that if he did a few serious paintings of the cottages with the thatched roofs, he might actually be able to make some money with them and offset the cost of his stay. Until that happened, he was happy to stay at the Auberge Ravoux. He wrote a letter about his day, addressing it to both Theo and Jo, although he did apologize to Jo for writing in French. After his two years in the south, his thoughts came to him better in French than they did in Dutch.
But after this promising beginning, and after a pleasant Sunday visit a few days later from Theo, Jo, and the baby, things deteriorated rapidly in Auvers. After painting portraits of Dr. Gachet and of his daughter, Vincent quarreled with the doctor, and the two men stopped seeing each other. Vincent went to Paris with the intention of staying a few days, but this visit resulted in a heated argument among Theo, Jo, and Vincent, principally about money. Vincent returned to Auvers that very day, highly agitated and distraught. He wrote Theo immediately, but then the letters stopped and Vincent’s next ten or twelve days are a mystery. He produced many paintings during his seventy days in Auvers, so this final period must have been one of intense labor at his easel. But exactly which paintings belong to the period is difficult, even impossible, to determine. And it is unclear how he obtained the pistol with which he shot himself on the afternoon of July 28,1890. After hours of intense pain, he died the following morning.
Gregory Curtis’s books are Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo and The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists.
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