Vincent van Gogh obviously had his share of problems. Most of us don’t cut off an ear no matter how bad a day we’re having. (Actually, there is evidence that he only cut off a small part of one ear). Today, mental health professionals would not be especially surprised by this behavior; we know now that people under severe stress do sometimes deal with their pain by cutting themselves or pulling out their hair. My (unprofessional) understanding is that sometimes self-inflicted physical pain can be a distraction from overwhelming psychic pain.
Vincent tried valiantly to face his problems. After the ear incident, he painted the rueful self-portrait above, showing himself bandaged. After each of his health crises, he sought the best medical care he could find. He followed medical advice, such as it was in his day.
At the end of a hard day at the easel, Vincent could have jogged five miles, lifted some free weights, and finished off the evening with a nice tall Gatorade. Instead, he hung out in local dives and drank way too much absinthe. A little absinthe goes a long way. And he admitted that he smoked far too much, even on his deathbed. But then, he did not have Dr. Oz or Dr. Drew advising him.
Recent research at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has shown that Vincent worked methodically and with great care on his paintings. The findings are summarized in an article by Nina Siegal in The New York Times. The director of the museum, Axel Ruger, spoke about the recent exhibit, “Van Gogh at Work.” Mr. Ruger said, “You discover more clearly that van Gogh was a very methodical artist, which runs counter to the general myth that he was a manic, possibly slightly deranged man who just spontaneously threw paint at the canvas.” The article is “Van Gogh’s True Palette Revealed,” at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/arts/30iht-vangogh30.html?_r=0
Vincent must have been as lucid as anyone else for much of the time. And yet, he had periods of serious craziness, including terrifying hallucinations, that made him helpless. And he apparently ended his own life by gunshot at age 37, at a time when he was at the height of his artistic powers.
So what was wrong with him? To me, the most convincing explanation is that he was bipolar. Of course, this diagnosis did not even exist during his lifetime, and there was no effective treatment. In addition, he may have had chronic malnutrition. He was poor for his entire life. Once he decided to become a painter, his only income was whatever his hard-pressed brother Theo could afford to send him. Vincent was single-minded. When faced with a choice of a new pot of paint or a nice chicken baguette with arugula, he went with the paint every time. Not only that, but there is evidence that he sometimes ate his paint, in the heat of composition. Some of the paints he used must have been highly toxic and might have caused hallucinations in the most sane of us.
In 1886, Vincent painted the dreary self-portrait above. He looks depressed, buttoned up, shut in by his waiting canvas. Any writer or painter knows that the blank page or canvas is a challenge and a reproach. The failed effort is even worse. Vincent’s palette in this portrait even looks dreary, just blobs of muted color. Still, the miracle is that with the love and support of his brother Theo, this man pulled himself out of his low periods so many times. In the decade that Vincent worked seriously as a painter, he produced about 860 oil paintings plus about 1300 works in other media, like watercolors and prints. He got on with it, even though not a single painting sold in his lifetime.
We have become so familiar with reproductions of Vincent’s paintings on calendars and coffee mugs that we often don’t really see them. Standing in front of an original painting, inches away from his actual brushstrokes, it is impossible not to feel Vincent’s joy in life and color. “Irises,” pictured above, is at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Are you wondering if you are reading this for the second time? My apologies! I had additional thoughts about a post I wrote a couple of years ago, so I revised and reposted. Join me next time for more explorations in the art, artists and history of Europe!