Tag Archives: Paul Gaugin

Vincent van Gogh: Can We Forget About the Ear?

“Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear,” January 1889, Vincent van Gogh, Public Domain

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.

“In a Cafe,” or “Absinthe,” Edgar Degas, 1873, Public Domain

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.

Self Portrait with Dark Felt Hat at the Easel, Vincent van Gogh, 1886, Public Domain

Self Portrait with Dark Felt Hat at the Easel, Vincent van Gogh, 1886, Public Domain

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.

“Irises,” Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Public Domain

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!

Vincent and Theo


In 1990, Robert Altman directed the movie Vincent and Theo, concerning the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother.  The fine actor Tim Roth plays Vincent.  The equally fine Paul Rhys plays his brother Theo. It was originally made as a 4-hour BBC mini-series, which the director Altman compressed into a feature film. Rolling Stone called the Altman movie “a masterpiece.” But then, lots of Altman films are known as masterpieces.

The film brilliantly evokes the times in Paris and in the south of France.  There is nothing very picturesque about poverty in either place.  Vincent’s brave attempts to create a stable life for himself are heartbreaking.

“Memory of the Garden at Etten,” Vincent van Gogh, 1988, Public Domain

In 1888, during his troubled time with his painter friend Paul Gaugin in Arles, van Gogh painted his mother’s garden at Etten from memory.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever see the original; it’s at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.  It’s a stunning painting.  Vincent wrote about it to Theo:  “A reminiscence of our garden at Etten with cabbages, cypresses, dahlias and figures…Gaugin gives me courage to imagine and the things of the imagination do indeed take on a more mysterious character.” Which of the figures is van Gogh’s mother?  One of the sad-looking figures in the foreground?  Or the woman bent over her garden in humble hard work?  Maybe they all represent his mother, or his childhood, in some way.  I think this painting would have had deep meaning for the brothers who shared so much.

Having recently visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I gave the film another look.  I have always thought of Theo as the long-suffering, conventional patron of his tortured genius brother.  In the film, interestingly, Theo comes across as equally troubled.  In fact, he sometimes seems more tortured than VIncent.  At least Vincent always has his single-minded determination to paint.  Theo has self-doubts.  Why is he stuck working in art galleries?  Why can’t he afford to get married?  Finally he does marry, in spite of suffering from syphilis.  Then he has a wife and colicky baby to add to his troubles.


Theo was always in frail health.  In fact, he died just a few months after VIncent’s death.  The brothers are buried side by side in Auvers. When I visited, a few years ago, the cemetery adjoined a cornfield that could have come straight out of a van Gogh painting. The same ivy vine intertwines and covers the graves of the two brothers. It’s a lonely trek to see the graves; this is not a major tourist attraction. The brothers’ relationship, troubled as it was, gave us the gift of Vincent’s paintings, which always attract clumps of viewers in museums lucky enough to own them. Vincent could not have painted his masterpieces without the love and support of his brother Theo.

I wrote about Vincent’s mother and their loving relationship in a previous post at  https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/05/09/thanks-for-eve…m-love-vincent/

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Thanks for Everything, Mom! Love, Vincent

Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Public Domain

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Public Domain

Vincent van Gogh painted a portrait of his mother in October of 1888 during his stay in Arles, France.  This was an autumn of turmoil for Vincent; Paul Gaugin visited him in Arles, they quarreled, and the visit finally ended with the infamous ear-cutting episode.


Photo of Anna van Gogh, Public Domain

Photo of Anna van Gogh, Public Domain

It seems that Vincent was missing his mother, whom he had not seen in years.  He wrote to his brother Theo that he was painting his mother for himself.  He had received a black and white photograph of her, and couldn’t bear to look at it. So he painted her in the soft glowing colors in which he remembered her. I wish he could have visited her. I think that her gentle actual presence would have helped him at this point in his life.

Vincent’s mother, Anna Carbentus van Gogh, raised six children: Vincent, Theo, Anna, Elizabeth, Wilhelmien and Cornelius.  Vincent was the oldest, although an earlier son, also named Vincent, had died.  Anna van Gogh was a pastor’s wife, tirelessly serving rural communities. Still, she found time to paint in watercolors, especially flowers and nature subjects.  She shared her love of flowers and painting with her children. As he accumulated finished canvases, Vincent used to send flowers to his mother in the form of paintings.  He sent, he wrote, “great bouquets of flowers, violet-colored irises, great bouquets of roses.”

Vincent’s parents had conservative and conventional religious views.  They were dismayed when he turned away from the institutional church and developed his own mystical religious view of the world, in which the divine was present everywhere at all times.  They could not approve of his stubborn poverty for the sake of his art, and they certainly could not approve of his unconventional love life.  But I love to think of Vincent’s mother, at her modest home in the Netherlands, unrolling a canvas from her son and finding a glorious bouquet of irises.

Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, J. Paul Getty Museum, Public Domain

Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, J. Paul Getty Museum, Public Domain

You can see van Gogh’s portrait of his mother at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.  It’s one of my very favorite small museums in the world, worth going a little out of the way to visit on any trip to Los Angeles.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms!  Join me next time for more explorations into the art, artists and history of Europe.