May 01, 2024

Thinking about Van Gogh....

By Elizabeth Hasen
Thinking about Van Gogh....

I've been thinking about our visit to the asylum where Vincent van Gogh voluntarily went to stay in May 1889, Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, just outside the town of Saint-Remy in Provence. In his year there he painted almost 150 paintings and did numerous drawings. The furnishings of the room where he stayed have been recreated, but the view from his window is much like it was when he was there.  

I've always liked his art, but I've never studied him as an artist or learned much about his life.  But one of the things I learned about him on this trip, and that I found most poignant, was that in the fall of the year before he went to the asylum, Vincent had tried to create something he had longed for:  establishing an artists' community -- a "studio of the south" -- in Arles.  He had come there for the incredible light and the beauty of the area, and he wanted other artists to join him.  As Martin Gayford writes in his book "The Yellow House," Vincent's dream was that "he and the others would live and paint together—different in individual style but sharing a common aim, exchanging ideas, commenting on each other’s work...."


                                                  -- Field of Poppies, Spring 1888 near Arles

Funded by his brother Theo, who was beginning to represent the artist Paul Gaugin, Vincent invited Gaugin to come south to Arles and help him create the thriving artists' colony he dreamed of.  The nine weeks the two spent together in the "Yellow House" in Arles were incredibly fruitful in terms of the works each produced, but Vincent's personality and habits made life with him difficult.  The two men were like oil and water together.  After an especially enraging argument, Vincent cut off his ear, Gaugin fled north to Paris, and the two never saw each other again, although they maintained a connection by writing. 

Gayford quotes someone who as a boy in Arles taunted Vincent for his eccentricities, and who later regretted it:  "We were young, and he was odd, going out to paint in the country, his pipe between his teeth, his big body a bit hunched, a mad look in his eye. He always looked as if he were running away, without daring to look at anyone.....<He was> really a gentle person, a creature who would probably have liked us to like him, and we left him in his terrifying isolation, the terrible loneliness of genius.”

For me the poignancy of this event is that the thing Vincent so deeply wanted in his life was something that his own personality would not allow him.  His art pushed him into solitude -- demanded it -- and his personality made this solitude even worse -- and yet at the same time he longed for relationship, for community.  To me, the image of him out in the countryside, day after day, painting alone, with all his emotional struggles, is a sad one.  And yet -- how can we, from our distant vantage point, regret that out of this came such amazing, stunning beauty?   Perhaps what still haunts us today is that his life and his art were caught in a tension of opposites that he could never resolve -- and that we are the beneficiaries of it.  



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