During his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh sold few of his paintings, possibly only one. He was supported financially throughout his life by his brother Theo. In exchange for this support, Vincent would send Theo his paintings in the hopes that he could sell them and make some money back. With the exception of The Red Vineyard, he wasn’t successful.
Vincent van Gogh is famous for a handful of things:
- His use of intense, vibrant colors in his work
- His debilitating mental health problems he struggled with his entire life
- Cutting off his own ear
But what exactly happened that day? I’m not going to get into the why because, so much of the time, there isn’t a why to mental illness. I’m going to focus on the what and the events that followed.
In 1888, van Gogh left Paris to live in the south of France, in the small country town of Arles. In his earlier years, he had tried to imitate the art of the successful painters of France and do what was in vogue at the time, but it was in Arles that his unique skills really developed and his technique flourished.
However, he was terribly lonely in Arles and rarely spoke to anyone. He begged his friend, fellow artist Paul Gauguin, to come and stay with him, in the hopes that the two of them could start an artist colony and focus on painting. Gauguin’s visit was delayed by illness and van Gogh’s letters show how heartbroken he was by this news. Based on these letters, it is probable that van Gogh was suffering from bipolar disorder.
But when Gauguin did finally arrive, things didn’t go well. They argued frequently. Van Gogh was a fan of his friend’s paintings but criticized Gauguin harshly while he painted them. Gauguin’s paintings were selling well in Paris and this most certainly would have made van Gogh incredibly jealous, causing him to feel contempt toward Gauguin. Gauguin was a bit arrogant and didn’t treat van Gogh as his equal, putting even more stress on their relationship.
Things got worse for the pair in December 1888. According to Gauguin, on recounting the incident many years later, the two artists had argued and Gauguin was walking it off outside, getting some fresh air. It was then that van Gogh rushed at him with a razor.
Historians aren’t sure of what happened, but it’s possible van Gogh realized his friend was planning to leave and it lead to a mental break.
That same day, van Gogh returned home and severed his left ear, possibly using the same razor he’d used to attack Gauguin. He wrapped cloth around his head to ease the bleeding. He passed out from blood loss, was picked up by police and taken to the hospital.
Accounts differ when it comes to what happened to van Gogh’s ear. According to most accounts, he gave the ear to his favorite local prostitute. According to Gauguin, he left the ear with a doorman as a morbid token for Gaugin. Van Gogh had no account of the incident. Shortly after, Gaugin left Arles.
After this psychotic episode, van Gogh moved to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, about 18 miles from Arles. Despite his mental health, he continued to work. It is here that he painted one of his most famous works, Starry Night. He was permitted to leave the asylum grounds to paint in the surrounding area. Some days, he would be incredibly prolific in his art. On other days, Vincent would be crippled by his demons and unable to work.
He attempted to end his life a few times by ingesting paint. Eventually, he left Saint-Rémy in May 1890 to live closer to his brother and to his new physician, Dr. Paul Gachet. He rented an attic room in Auberge Ravoux and continued to paint constantly, producing one canvas per day. He and Gachet became good friends.
According to one of van Gogh’s letters, he felt alive and healthy while painting. It was the times in between that were the problem.
Vincent van Gogh went out to a wheat field in Auvers-sur-Oise, likely one he had spent hours in while painting, put a pistol his chest and pulled the trigger. He managed to crawl back to his tiny attic room. His death took two agonizing days. He would finally die on July 29, 1890 at the age of 37, Theo at his side.
Van Gogh’s struggles with mental illness sadly defeated him in the end, cutting short the promising career of a complicated artist. In one of his letters, he made a joke about how paintings are only worth money when the artist is dead. I doubt that even he would have guessed that his colorful depictions of the world around him would become some of the most sought after artworks in the world.
For more information, check out these links:
- Van Gogh and Mental Illness
- 5 Myths about Vincent van Gogh
- Van Gogh Museum
- Vincent van Gogh (Artsy.net)
- Paul Gauguin Biography
- Paul Gaugin (Artsy.net)
I also recommend you watch the trailer for Loving Vincent, the first fully painted feature film in the world.