l tell you again that I shall always consider you to be something more than a simple dealer in Corots, that through my mediation you have your part in the actual production of some canvases, which will retain their calm even in the catastrophe.” From Vincent van Gogh’s last letter to his brother Theo.
A Christmas card I got this year shows the last self-portrait Vincent van Gogh would paint. Prone to sudden violent outbreaks, Van Gogh at the time he painted this last green-tinged portrait — September 1889 — was sequestered in the Asylum St. Paul near St.-Remy-en-Provence. He was thirty-six. He had tried for the second time in several months to kill himself by squeezing out tubes of paint and forcing himself to swallow the poisonous oily globs of color. But his self-destructive urges were muffled and he was feeling more confident. He intended the painting as a gift for his mother’s 70th birthday. Wanting to reassure her about his health, he sought to show features erased of 20 years of suffering. But reality outstripped intention and the eyes that look out from the canvas are steeped with sadness and loss.
The year previous had been unusually difficult for Van Gogh (and this for a man for whom no year was easy). October 1888, Paul Gauguin joined Van Gogh in Arles. They planned to live together, share expenses, and paint. Quickly, however, the two began to quarrel. Absinthe made their disputes stormier. On December 23, 1888, after attacking Gauguin with a straight razor, Van Gogh sliced off his own left ear. Bleeding profusely (he had cut through an auricular artery) and with his head wrapped in rags, Van Gogh bundled the bloody gobbet of skin and cartilage in newspaper and carried this packet down dark Arles streets to a brothel — the Maison de Tolerance, Number 1 — where he and Gauguin several nights earlier had visited. “Guard this object carefully,” Van Gogh said, and handed the ear over to Rachel, a prostitute. Van Gogh’s drinking buddy, the postman Joseph Roulin (whose portrait Van Gogh had painted), was at the brothel when Van Gogh arrived. Roulin dragged Van Gogh back to the house Van Gogh and Gauguin shared and laid the painter down in the single bed whose rich ocher, oddly skewed footboard seems almost to fatten its half of the canvas in Van Gogh’s Yellow Bed. Weakened by blood loss, Van Gogh was taken by carriage to the hospital. For the rest of his life, until he died a suicide on July 29, 1890, Van Gogh would be institutionalized or under a doctor’s care, first in Arles and then in St.-Remy, and last, in Auvers-sur-Oise.
On the afternoon Van Gogh shot himself (in the chest with a small revolver he had stolen or been loaned to scare away crows that harassed him while he worked) he had been drawing and painting for only 11 years, and his most famous works were painted in the last 4 of those years. Van Gogh remains one of the world’s most popular painters, his Yellow Chair (one of the series of “yellow” pictures that includes the several rapturously yellow sunflower canvases, The Yellow House, The Yellow Bed painted by Van Gogh to decorate the house for Gauguin’s arrival in Arles) among the most reproduced works of recent art. During Van Gogh’s lifetime his work was ignored by all but a few people, one of whom was his younger brother Theo, an art dealer who supported Vincent during his painting years, and only one of his paintings was sold outside his family. Van Gogh regularly wrote long, passionate letters. Some 700 letters survive, most written to Theo. All the letters, from boyhood notes to his parents to the last letter to Theo, can be read in three volumes in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh. W.H. Auden selected 652 letters for Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait, Letters Revealing His Life as a Painter.
David Sweetman’s Van Gogh: His Life and His Art, the first biography of the artist in 25 years, uses the letters to “understand Vincent in the context of his own world as he would have seen it himself.”
Van Gogh’s father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Vincent, born in a Dutch village near the Belgian border, was the oldest of six children (two of his five siblings became psychotic as adults and another may have committed suicide). From an early age Van Gogh read prodigiously and shared his mother’s interest in nature study and sketching. He did well academically but left school at 15 and never returned (Sweet- man suggests Van Gogh’s abrupt removal from school may have been precipitated by the first of the manic-depressive episodes that later regularly beset him).
One of Van Gogh’s paternal uncles was connected with the prestigious Goupil gal- leries in Paris, which had branches in Brus- sels, Berlin, London, the Hague, and New York. At 16 Van Gogh was taken into the firm as an assistant. While at Goupil’s London gallery in 1873, he fell into love with — or, more likely a monomaniacal obsession for — his landlady’s daughter. She rejected Van Gogh’s suit. His descent into depression was instant.
On the outgoing tide of Van Gogh’s failure at romance three future passions revealed themselves: religion, painting, relieving the anguish of the poor. He tramped London’s streets. He saw, writes Sweetman (echoing letters to Theo): “women in rags whose filthy children held out scrawny hands for coins.” And he “turned to the Bible for comfort, sitting up late reading and rereading it.” And “[H]e began to draw. Only a little, but it helped to pass the time and the activity seemed to keep at bay the endless cycle of unanswerable questions that plagued him.”
Van Gogh quickly lost interest in his work at Goupil. “Why,” Sweetman writes, “waste one’s life peddling art to the well-off, when there was so much to be done for the poor...?” By 1876, even Van Gogh’s family connections to Goupil could not protect him from dismissal. After brief employment as a teacher in an English boarding school and then at a bookstore in Holland, Van Gogh (who all this time had been studying the Bible) felt called by God to become an ordained Dutch Reformed pastor, like his father. He wanted, he said, “to teach the Gospel to the poor and oppressed.” To do this he would need to pass university examinations in Latin and Greek and then enter the Dutch Reformed seminary.