VAN GOGH'S FINAL DAYS

"My own work, I am risking my life for it."

Excerpted from the book
Van Gogh in Provence and Auvers

(see also Chronology of Vincent Van Gogh)


 

Within two weeks of arriving in Auvers, on June 1, Van Gogh began his first painting of Dr. Gachet. His portrait of this complex man, one of the most significant examples of the genre in Western art, represents the summary and culmination of all of Van Gogh's experiments with the modern portrait in the Midi. By this time, he had painted in the doctor's garden and had studied his art collection, which Vincent described to his brother as black antiquities, save Gachet's collection of Impressionist paintings.

Van Gogh was very intrigued by the personality and physical appearance of the doctor who practiced medicine in Paris several days a week, treating emotional as well as physical illnesses. His varied interests included homeopathy, electroshock therapy, and anthropology. His passion for the arts was well known in Paris, where he had gained recognition as an amateur engraver and philanthropist. His physical appearance was remarkable, even eccentric: a white cap often crowned his shock of flaming red hair as he breezed about town and worked in his vegetable and flower gardens, surrounded by various species of pets, including at least a dozen cats, five dogs, a goat, two peacocks, and a turtle. The lonely sixty-two-year-old widower lived with his seventeen-year-old son Paul, and twenty-one-year-old daughter Marguerite, in a walled property near Ravoux's inn.

In Gachet, Van Gogh recognized a kindred spirit--both physically and psychologically. When Vincent was still in Saint-Rémy, Theo had told his brother how Gachet reminded him of Vincent alluding chiefly to the red hair that the two men had in common. After meeting the doctor, Vincent recounted to his sister other similarities between them, including mental fragility and occasionally odd behavior. Van Gogh felt an affinity towards Dr. Gachet, particularly due to Gachet's physical appearance and occasional odd and nervous behavior. Van Gogh also identified with Gachet's immersion in his work as a way of alleviating his loneliness and melancholy. Van Gogh's first portrait was an etching of Dr. Gachet with his pipe. After lunching with his friend, he used Gachet's materials and equipment to produce the only etching he made in France. In the doctor's painted portrait, the artist sought to express "the impassioned expression of modern times," by means of intense color. He exaggerated the colors of the doctor's sunburned face and of his blue coat set against a cobalt blue background. For the doctor's portrait, however, the artist was less specific about the meaning of the color, and instead of cosmic images of stars, he painted the rolling hills of Auvers. Gachet's melancholy was an essential aspect of the man, and through the physicians' pose and agonized features Van Gogh synthesized what he described to Gauguin as "the heartbroken expression of our time." In the Midi, Vincent had discussed with Theo the mental suffering of people in modern society as a disease of the changing times. Van Gogh now posed Dr. Gachet as he had posed Mme Ginoux for L'Arlésienne, one of the paintings he had brought to Auvers.

On the red table in the doctor's portrait, Van Gogh placed other emblems of Gachet's melancholy spirit: a glass with sprigs of foxglove--a plant used in homeopathic medicine to treat melancholy--and next to it two French novels about modern life and mental suffering in Paris: Germinie Lacerteux (1864) and Manette Salomon (1867-68), written by the Goncourt brothers. "This is how one ought to paint many portraits," Vincent remarked to Wil. In his last portrait of a man, Van Gogh summarized the ideas on the modern portrait that had preoccupied him during his two years in the Midi. He wrote to Theo that the modern portrait, in this case, that of Dr. Gachet, greatly impassioned him. Color was central to creating the character of the sitter, so that future generations would view the sitter as if he were an apparition.

In Auvers, Van Gogh found more opportunities to paint portraits than in Saint-Rémy; as he informed Theo, Dr. Gachet was providing him with models for his portraits. Several weeks after Van Gogh completed his portrait of the physician, he painted his daughter in Marguerite Gachet at the Piano. He wrote Theo that while he enjoyed painting her, he still found the painting a difficult one to do. He was interested in the fresh contrast of the pink and greens of her dress--his colors for spring--and the youthful character of the doctor's daughter, who had just turned twenty-one. Vincent described the bright colors of her dress and those of the background to his brother, saying that the colors in the portrait were the ideal complements of one of his landscapes of wheat, with the green of the wheat field enhancing the pink tones of the portrait.


In Auvers Van Gogh's portraits were almost all of young women; Dr. Gachet was his only male sitter. In June he painted another portrait of Marguerite, this time in a white dress, amidst the splendor of her flowering summer garden. He wrote Gauguin from Auvers in mid-June expressing his desire to paint "some portraits against a very vivid yet tranquil background." The tension created by using different hues of the same color--green in this instance--would produce a kind of "vibration that will make you think of the gentle rustle of the ears of grain swaying in the breeze." He painted a closeup, Ears of Wheat, which he described as "nothing but ears of wheat with green-blue stalks, long leaves like ribbons of green shot with pink, ears that are just turning yellow." Some weeks later, Van Gogh painted two studies of girls, one of them Sketch of a Peasant Woman with Straw Hat Sitting in the Wheat. For this portrait, the artist identified the young girl with nature's renewal: in a pale gown and yellow straw hat, against the green wheat field sprinkled with poppies, she is analogous to a tender young plant.

The model for Young Girl appears to be the same as for Girl Standing in the Wheat. In Young Girl, however, Van Gogh did not associate her with nature, but painted her against a dotted background, like the one in Marguerite Gachet at the Piano. One of his most memorable portraits, Adeline Ravoux, represented the young daughter of the innkeeper Arthur-Gustave Ravoux. Here, the artist used two principal colors, blue and yellow, setting her blonde head in profile against a deep blue background reminiscent of the color in one of the portraits of Dr. Gachet. This time the color seems not to have had any poetic association--Van Gogh chose it to enhance the girl's fair coloring. He commented to Theo that he had painted a portrait of the daughter of the owner of the inn where he was lodging. He gave this painting of the sixteen-year-old girl, dressed in blue and posed against a blue background to Ravoux; however, he first made a similar painting for Theo.

The dialectic between art and nature had been a constant in Van Gogh's work in Provence and the theme took on even more meaning after Van Gogh saw Puvis de Chavannes's Between Art and Nature at the Salon in Paris. Vincent remarked to his brother how Puvis had succinctly captured the grace of nature in this painting. Women Crossing the Fields depicts two gaily dressed women in a flowering potato field with a modern villa in the countryside in late June. In this painting, the horizontal canvas recalls Puvis de Chavannes's frieze-like compositions, just as the simplified figures evoke the elder artist's pastoral modernity.

During his months in Auvers, Van Gogh observed the specific character and seasonal effects of the countryside, as he had in Nuenen and in the Midi. In his landscapes, he captured the essence of the colors of springtime and summer in varied tones of greens, as he had written Gauguin, a palette more suited to the lush, verdant, northern landscape than the more richly varied hues of his Provençal landscapes. The crops around Auvers consisted of wheat and corn, while grapevines grew on the hillsides and in the fields of the Oise Valley, and in the gardens of the houses of the area. When he painted a study in Dr. Gachet's garden, Vincent commented to his brother that he had included grapevines, white roses, and a figure in this contained landscape.

Van Gogh selected a variety of viewpoints for his landscapes, from high vantage points overlooking receding vistas of the fields, with the roofs of the town in the far distance, or in compositional formulas of panoramic views of expanses of wheat fields, as in Wheat Fields under Clouded Skies. Unlike in his views of the plains of La Crau, here there are no figures laboring on the land. Vincent was fascinated by this plain above Auvers and wrote to his mother and Wil, "I am quite absorbed in the endless sea of wheat fields set against the hills of gentle yellow and delicate green and violet ploughed earth, regularly checkered with potato plants in flower under a sky of blue, white, pink, and violet." These plains inspired Van Gogh with an image blending bucolic peacefulness and a feeling of complete solitude. Sometimes he included a small figure of a peasant--a participant in nature--in the vineyard, as for example in his watercolor Landscape with Bridge Across the Oise. Van Gogh was well aware that life on the land had altered since the days before the Industrial Revolution, yet he did not judge the changing character of the countryside nostalgically. His study Landscape with Carriage and Train in the Distance is an assemblage of motifs, including the mower laboring unperturbed during the harvest season amidst modern villas and the railway in the distance.

In mid-June, he began working in a very specific new horizontal format for a series of landscapes, as he announced to his brother upon finishing a study of wheat fields that he had created a canvas 40 inches long by 20 inches high. From late June until July 27, Van Gogh was absorbed in painting more than a dozen canvases using this new format; their subjects were the changing moods of the countryside at different times of the day. One example is a panorama of Auvers and its fields under rain, another, the picturesque contours of the thatched roofs the village. This horizontal composition was especially effective for a study of sunset over a prominent site in town: the seventeenth-century Château of Auvers amid somber greenery, which included, as he wrote to his brother, "two very black pear trees, set against a yellowing sky, with some wheat." At the same time, the artist was intrigued with the subject of forest interiors, as in his study of two lovers strolling among violet-colored poplar trunks, a motif that recalls his studies done in The Hague, Paris, and, more recently, Saint-Rémy. A more radical work in this vein is Roots and Trunks of Trees, which succeeds in being both naturalistic and quasi-abstract in its decoratively conceived image. The assortment of tree trunks and exposed roots painted in tan-to-brown hues announced another shift in the artist's palette, away from the vivid complementary colors he had used in the Midi. This study proclaims Van Gogh's return to his native Dutch traditions, in the use of earth tones and a subject that had fascinated him in The Hague. He did not, however, abandon his radiant hues, which reappear in studies of the harvest.

Van Gogh's depictions of the wheat fields of Auvers show the influence of paintings by Charles-François Daubigny, whose work he had deeply admired during his early Dutch years. The connection was also closer to hand, since Daubigny had built a house and studio in the central part of the village. After his death in 1878, Madame Daubigny moved to another house that her husband had constructed, close to the church and not far from Van Gogh's room at Ravoux's inn. His abiding interest in Daubigny's work moved Vincent to comment to his brother his belief that Madame Daubigny still lived there, as perhaps did Madame Daumier. He was moved to seek out Daubigny's widow and he must have succeeded, because in the first half of June, he painted a small version of the corner of Madame Daubigny's garden and in July he completed two studies in the new format. Both paintings demonstrated the charm that modernity held for the artist, both in subject matter--Daubigny's contemporary villa--and in the color that Van Gogh employed. He included in the distance the tiny figure of Madame Daubigny walking in her lush garden, as well as the noted profile of the church, thereby creating a seamless effect of rustic charm and the present, a harmony that for Van Gogh characterized Auvers.

Only eight of the letters Vincent wrote to his family in July survive; of these, none gives us a clear indication as to which canvas was his last work. After visiting Theo and his family on a one-day trip to Paris on July 7, Vincent rushed back to Auvers, and two or three days later he expressed in a letter to Theo and Johanna his great sadness and concern about the recent problems that Theo was experiencing with his employers. These were forcing Theo to consider leaving Boussod & Valadon, which threatened the young family's financial future, as well as Vincent's. Shaken by his trip and his personal encounter with Theo's difficult situation, he nevertheless resumed painting on his return to Auvers, writing his brother,

I began to paint again, even though I could barely hold the brush, but knowing exactly what I wanted to paint, I began three more large canvases . . . of large wheat fields under cloudy skies, and it did not take a great deal to express sadness and loneliness. . . . I believe these paintings say what words cannot.

These three studies are among the last he mentioned before his suicide. Two studies of vast wheat fields have been proposed as the two mentioned by the artist in his letter, and Van Gogh's most apocalyptic painting, Crows over the Wheat Fields, is generally considered his last painting, but there is little evidence for this.

Whether or not it is his last work, many interpretations have been put forward of this compellingly dramatic and thought-provoking painting. It has been suggested that the darkening blue sky, with its hovering black flock of crows and disorienting perspective, creates a feeling of impending doom. The picture has also been viewed as having a Christian message, the Crucifixion or the Last Judgment. The painting ambiguously conveys melancholy and loneliness, but also a celebration of the renewal inherent in nature. His description of a "clouded sky" does not quite fit the mood of another possible candidate for the last painting: the elongated canvas Wheat Fields under Clouded Skies, in which the wide expanse of nature projects more of a mood of solitude and the sublime. Vincent mentioned the third canvas, Daubigny's Garden, once more, as well as a study of some old thatched roofs, in a letter to his brother, four days before he shot himself on July 27. He enclosed in his letter two sketches of vast fields of wheat after the rain. One of these final sketches might well be one of the last paintings of the "clouded skies."


Three days before his suicide, Vincent wrote Theo two final letters, believed dated July 23, only one of which he sent. The artist repeated the same phrases: "There are so many things I would like to write to you, but I feel it is futile. . . . There are many things I would rather write to you about, but the desire to do so is completely gone, leaving me to feel it is useless." He ended his letter by wishing his brother "good luck in business, etc." The letter that was not sent was found on Vincent's body; it contained another remark that presaged his calculated and imminent suicide: "Once again, you are to me more than a dealer in Corots, that through me you are directly involved in the creation of paintings that will appear calm even in the catastrophe." Van Gogh's decision to commit suicide remains a complex conundrum and many attempts have been made--by artists as well as writers and psychiatrists--to unravel the causes of that final tragic act. We shall never know exactly why he decided to shoot himself that Sunday, July 27, in the wheat fields behind the Château of Auvers. Tellingly, in his last letter to his mother and Wil he reported "a mood of almost too much serenity"--a chilling note before the calamity.

In Auvers, too, the tranquility he desperately longed for had proved as ephemeral and ultimately elusive as ever. The pervasive melancholy that he had recognized in himself in his early years in Holland and that he had struggled to hold at bay had finally manifested itself in his illness in the Midi. It has been suggested that Van Gogh was extremely sensitive to images of sorrow, whether in the Bible, contemporary literature, or life and nature. His deep communion with nature bordered on Romantic mysticism and included not only euphoric feelings of the regenerative powers of nature, symbolized for him by the sun and the seasons, the blossoming trees and the wheat fields, but also a visceral sense of the other face of regeneration: death and timelessness expressed in the cypresses, olive trees, and the night sky with its stars. The shadow of death had arisen in his mind in 1873, and can be traced in his mourning for the love and family life he lacked in his own life, and in his longing for an ideal purity. His obsessive personality dictated his approach to everything, from his early devotion to the Bible, to his passion for literature, his excessive behaviors as well as his attempts to control those behaviors and, above all, his unabated dedication to art. When, at the age of twenty-seven, he finally decided to become an artist, Van Gogh believed he had found a remedy for his melancholia. A theme that recurred in his letters was the efficacy of work as a "distraction" from his sadness, a note that became ever more urgent during his periods of illness in Arles and in Saint-Rémy.

Several strands of Van Gogh's life had come together in Auvers. He knew that he could not live a healthy life in Paris, or, indeed, in any large city, because his nerves were constantly overstimulated, not least by the abuse of alcohol and tobacco that he felt had undermined his health in Paris. In the countryside, however, he lacked the artistic fellowship and exchanges upon which he thrived. Van Gogh had suffered greatly from Gauguin's flight from Arles and the consequent failure of his dream of an artistic community. His sense of isolation was compounded by his confinement in a religious environment in Saint-Rémy and an apparent aggravation of his illness--one possible reason for his suicide attempts at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. Though he had had no attacks since arriving in Auvers, the fear must have haunted him. In Auvers, too, he was alone again, despite the goodwill--even affection, as Emile Bernard would later report--of people around him. Van Gogh was now within easy reach of Paris, yet Paris may have aroused acute feelings that were hard to bear: love for Theo, Johanna, and little Vincent, mixed perhaps with despair at seeing close up a vision of life that Vincent believed he could never have. Finally, there was Theo's professional situation. Now that he was married, his income was inadequate to his needs; in early July, as Vincent was about to return to Auvers from Paris, Theo confided his anxiety, and the fact that he would not be able to support Vincent as regularly as before. As concerned as Vincent was for Theo and Theo's family, he was worried for himself as well: in a subsequent letter to Theo, Vincent described himself as "stunned" and uncertain about his financial future. The one reliable element in his world was his art, but the personal cost was high. The last sentence in his unfinished letter read: "Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered because of it."

The heartrending particulars of the artist's last hours are revealed by contemporary testimonies from Dr. Gachet and Adeline Ravoux, the innkeeper's daughter, and from Theo's letters to Johanna. On July 27, after shooting himself, Van Gogh returned to Ravoux's inn. Emile Bernard has left us a detailed account of the event, which he sent to Aurier:

I imagine that you have already guessed that he killed himself. . . . On Sunday evening he went into the Auvers countryside, left his easel against a haystack and went behind the Château and shot himself with a revolver. From the violence of the impact (the bullet passed under the heart) he fell, but he got up and fell again three times and then returned to the inn where he lived (Ravoux, place de la Mairie) without saying anything to anyone about his injury. Finally, Monday evening he expired, smoking [the] pipe he had not wanted to put down, and explaining that his suicide was absolutely calculated and lucid. Characteristically enough, I was told that he frankly stated his desire to die--"Then it has to be done over again"--when Dr. Gachet told him that he still hoped to save him; but, alas, it was no longer possible.

Dr. Gachet summoned Theo, who arrived in Auvers the next day. Distraught, he raced into the inn to embrace his dying brother; they spoke together affectionately. Theo reported his vigil to Johanna: "I found him somewhat better than I expected. I will not write the details, they are too sad. . . . He was happy to see me, and I stay with him constantly. . . . Poor fellow, such brief happiness fell to him, and now he holds no illusions. The burden grows too great at times; he feels so alone." At 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 29, 1890, Vincent van Gogh died. His brother recalled one of the last things Vincent said: "I wish I could pass away like this." Theo concluded that shortly thereafter all was over, and that finally Vincent would find the rest denied to him while he was alive. Theo had funeral invitations printed and attempted to arrange for a mass to be held the next day in the church in Auvers. However, because Vincent's death was a suicide, the church refused, and Theo was forced to cancel the service.

Around ten o'clock on Wednesday morning, Emile Bernard, the old art dealer and artists' friend Julien "Père" Tanguy, and other artists, including Lucien Pissarro, came from Paris and joined Dr. Gachet and Theo. Bernard reported to Aurier that people from the area, who knew him only briefly, loved him, as he was "so good, so human." The closed wooden coffin was placed in a spare room on the ground floor of Ravoux's inn--"the artist's room," where Van Gogh had painted. The simple coffin was draped with white cotton bedecked with masses of flowers, especially the sunflowers that the artist had so loved. In front of the casket on the floor were the artist's emblems: his easel, folding stool, and brushes. Bernard recalled that the "halo" of Van Gogh's paintings tacked against the walls of his room created an aura of his genius. Such a sensation made the loss of Van Gogh even more profound to his fellow artists.

At three o'clock, under a fierce sun, the funeral cortege followed the hearse up the hill, "talking," as Bernard recalled, "about the bold thrust he gave to art, the great projects that he was always planning." Bernard continued, "We arrived at the cemetery, a small, new graveyard. . . . It is on the knoll overlooking the crops, under that great blue sky that he would have loved still. . . . Then he was lowered into the grave. . . . That day was too much made for him for us not to imagine that he could still have lived happily."

Dr. Gachet attempted to give the eulogy, but wept so copiously that his words came out as a confused adieu. Bernard summed up the physician's final words: "He was, he said, an honest man and a great artist. He had only two goals: humanity and art. It is the art that he cherished above all else that will ensure that he lives on."


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