Another Look at Vincent van Gogh

Another Look At… Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh was not the greatest painter of all time. (Sit back down!) One of his teachers complained about him that he painted furiously, paint flew everywhere around the room! Vincent was covered in paint, the floor was covered in paint, the people next to him got splashed with paint! It was so bad the teacher said he had to go back to the back of the room, to check to see if any paint made its way onto the canvas. When he looked at Vincent’s painting, it looked as if he had spent hours meticulously applying every stroke. The teacher of course was shocked.

Vincent's House in Arles (the Yellow House) Sept. 1888

Vincent was not the best painter of all time–he would have been the first to admit it too. But he was probably the most sincere and passionate painter of all time–hands down. Vincent saw painting as his job. No matter what else he was doing at the time, painting was always first in his thoughts. His family (his Uncle and later his brother Theo) were heirs to the largest and most reputable art dealership in Europe. Vincent’s Uncle, also named Vincent, tried to bring Vincent and his younger brother Theo into the family business. While Theo thrived at picking saleable art and selling it at a good price, Vincent would sit around with the artists and talk about painting. This irritated his family to the point where they eventually asked him to find another line of work.

Vincent’s Father was a Minister and Theo helped Vincent secure a position as a lay-clergyman; a sort of teacher and social worker who was assigned by the church to work with the poorer members of the community. The Pastor had to fire Vincent eventually, because as he complained to Theo, Vincent would give his pay (all of it) to the poor, so he had nothing left to live on for himself. Theo told the pastor not to give Vincent money, just to provide him with the clothes, food and furniture he might need. The pastor tried this, then later wrote Theo again to tell him that this wasn’t working out either, because Vincent was giving these away too.

Early on Vincent fell in love and decided to marry. Theo was a bit surprised, but tried to be supportive, even though the woman was somewhat older than Vincent and she had nine children. After about six months of marriage, the woman disappeared with all of Vincent’s belongings and her nine kids. At about this point, his family decided that Vincent should move to the country and seek professional help. Psychotherapy had not really been invented yet–but even simple folk could tell when someone was “a little off”, and Vincent certainly was that….

We know too, that Vincent probably had a drinking problem–there was an interview several years ago that aired on European and eventually American TV of the then, oldest person in the world. As a young woman, this person had worked as a shop girl in Provence. The kind of shop where one could buy tobacco and paint.

An old woman of Arles (not the same old woman)

The woman recalled in the interview that she knew Van Gogh as a frequent customer–when the interviewer asked her what he was like she responded that he was “ugly and stank of wine and tobacco.” (And yes, it sounds better in French.) Prob ably the most known and often cited fact about Van Gogh (even my students here out in the God Forsaken desert know it) is that he cut off his ear. Now this may seem a bit eccentric in the extreme but to be fair, it might have made sense to Vincent at the time. In the one-man show “Vincent” popularized by Leonard Nimoy years ago on PBS, the author describes a situation where Vincent would find himself night after night at the local bar, where one of the–how should we say–chantueses would taunt the men by saying “five francs, or cut off your ear”.

But the story is not quite that simple–there were events leading up to this incident. Van Gogh had on a trip to Visit Theo in Paris, met with several painters including Paul Gaughin–who was “hot” at the moment in painterly circles. Vincent and Gaughin hit it off right away and it was decided that Gaughin would join Vincent in Provence and the two would open a school for painters. In Anticipation of the great man’s arrival, Vincent painted furiously to brighten up his little apartment and make it fitting for someone so important. (Or whatever.) At first the two got on well, they painted, they caroused, they drank and then they began to fight. [In a paper i wrote as a grad student i chronicled the whole thing through Vincent’s paintings of his room, letters to his brother and paintings of two of the chairs in his room: one was Gaughin’s chair, and the other was his…. you can read this paper and buy a copy at www.getafreekinlife. com….] On Christmas Eve [i’m not kidding] the two were at their favorite bar (the red one in Vincent’s painting) the fighting came to a fevered pitch, push came to blurry shove, Gaughin stormed out and Vincent went home to his little room.

Bandaged Ear with Pipe (1889)

Sometime in the night Vincent cut off the lobe of his ear, put it in a box and sent it with a note to one of the girls who worked above the bar. The note said only: “take care of this, it is very precious”. Probably the most poignant story about Vincent’s life, concerns his death. One bright day in 1890 Vincent was probably drinking all night, he went out into the meadow behind the house where he was staying, and shot himself in the stomach with a revolver. He was found brought back to his room, Theo was sent for and arrived. Theo talked to the Doctor, the Doctor told Theo that Vincent had shot himself in the stomach but had not lost too much blood and that there was no reason to expect that he shouldn’t make a full recovery.

Theo sat with Vincent for three days. For no apparent reason, Vincent died. Among his effects they found a half-finished letter to Theo. An apparent suicide note; in the note Vincent apologized to his brother and his wife Johanna for all of the trouble he had caused them; he apologized for all of the money he had borrowed (he would often end his letters, which were usually about his art or the art of other painters he knew with “oh, and by the way, could you send me fifty francs–Theo always did) he apologized for failing at everything he ever attempted. The letter ended abruptly with “So, how is it with you?” Theo fell ill, shortly after Vincent’s death, and died a year later. The only reason that we know as much about Theo and his more famous brother Vincent is because Theo’s wife had carefully collected all of their letters to each other; she published these along with several other letters about the two by friends or other artists, after Theo died.

During his lifetime, Vincent never really sold a painting (he traded one for rent and offered sketches to some of the people he lived with in exchange for food.) Instead Vincent sent all of his work to Theo, who stored them in a spare room. From time to time Theo would offer his older brother a showing, but Vincent always declined declaring that “the work isn’t ready yet”.

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