Van Gogh Story of Art & Mental Health

VINCENT WILLEM VAN GOGH

Vincent Willem van Gogh (March 30, 1853 to July 29, 1890) was a post-impressionist painter whose work, notable for its beauty, emotion and color, highly influenced 20th-century art. He struggled with mental illness, frequent episodes of depression, paralyzing anxiety and, according to some accounts, the symptoms of bipolar disorder — which would eventually claim his life in 1890, shortly after his 37th birthday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

ART

Vincent van Gogh completed more than 2,100 works, consisting of 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings and sketches. Several of his paintings now rank among the most expensive in the world; “Irises” sold for a record $53.9 million, and his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold for $82.5 million.

The Starry NightY NIGHT

Van Gogh painted “The Starry Night” in the asylum where he was staying in Saint-Rémy, France, in 1889, the year before his death.
“This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big,” he wrote to his brother Theo. A combination of imagination, memory, emotion and observation, the oil painting on canvas depicts an expressive swirling night sky and a sleeping village, with a large flame-like cypress, thought to represent the bridge between life and death, looming in the foreground. The painting is currently housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, NY.

SUNFLOWERS

Van Gogh painted two series of sunflowers in Arles, France: four between August and September 1888 and one in January 1889; the versions and replicas are debated among art historians. The oil paintings on canvas, which depict wilting yellow sunflowers in a vase, are now displayed at museums in London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Munich and Philadelphia.

SELF-PORTRAITS

Over the course of 10 years, van Gogh created more than 43 self-portraits as both paintings and drawings.

He wrote to his sister stating:
“I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer.”

And to his brother:
“People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either. The portraits painted by Rembrandt are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation.”
The works are now displayed in museums around the world, including in Washington, D.C., Paris, New York and Amsterdam.

FAMILY

Vincent van Gogh’s father, Theodorus van Gogh, was an austere country minister, and his mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus, was a moody artist whose love of nature, drawing and watercolors was transferred to her son. Van Gogh was born exactly one year after his parents’ first son, also named Vincent, was stillborn. At a young age — his name and birthdate already etched on his dead brother’s headstone — van Gogh was melancholy. The eldest of six living children, van Gogh had two younger brothers (Theo, who worked as an art dealer and supported his older brother’s art, and Cor) and three younger sisters (Anna, Elizabeth and Willemien).

MENTAL HEALTH

Van Gogh’s most direct and honest account of his psychoemotional turmoil comes from the letters to his brother Theo, originally published in 1937.

In one of the early letters, Van Gogh expressed an aspiration that remained significant for him throughout his life:

“Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.”

It’s also a thought bittersweet in hindsight, given the self-compassion it implies for being eccentric. Years later, that very eccentricity would be interpreted as madness by his neighbors, who would evict him from his house and lead to his checking into an insane asylum.

Meanwhile, his bouts of depression, when they descended upon him, were unforgiving. In another letter to Theo, he writes:
“I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.”

Having at one point subsisted primarily on bread, coffee and absinthe, he embraces work as life’s highest reward, worth any sacrifice:

“I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort.”

Before long, it became apparent that in addition to suffering from physical illness, his psychological health was declining. Around this time, he is known to have sipped on turpentine and eaten paint.

His brother Theo was worried, and he offered Paul Gauguin money to go watch over Vincent in Arles. Within a month, van Gogh and Gauguin were arguing constantly, and one night, Gauguin walked out. Van Gogh followed him, and when Gauguin turned around, he saw van Gogh holding a razor in his hand. Hours later, van Gogh went to the local brothel and paid for a prostitute named Rachel. With blood pouring from his hand, he offered her his ear, asking her to “keep this object carefully.”

The police found van Gogh in his room the next morning, and admitted him to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. Theo arrived on Christmas Day to see van Gogh, who was weak from blood loss and having violent seizures. The doctors assured Theo that his brother would live and would be taken good care of, and on January 7, 1889, van Gogh was released from the hospital. He was alone and depressed. For hope, he turned to painting and nature, but could not find peace and was hospitalized again. He would paint at the yellow house during the day and return to the hospital at night.

DEATH

On January 31, 1890, Theo and his wife, Johanna, gave birth to a boy and named him after van Gogh. Around this time, Theo sold van Gogh’s “The Red Vineyards” painting for 400 francs. Also, around this time, Dr. Paul Gachet, who lived in Auvers, about 20 miles north of Paris, agreed to take van Gogh as his patient. Van Gogh moved to Auvers and rented a room. In July of that year, Vincent van Gogh committed suicide.
Theo, who was suffering from syphilis and weakened by his brother’s death, died six months after his brother in a Dutch asylum. He was buried in Utrecht, but in 1914 Theo’s wife, Johanna, who was a dedicated supporter of van Gogh’s works, had Theo’s body reburied in the Auvers cemetery next to Vincent.

LEGACY

Theo’s wife Johanna then collected as many of van Gogh’s paintings as she could, but discovered that many had been destroyed or lost, van Gogh’s own mother having thrown away crates full of his art. On March 17, 1901, 71 of van Gogh’s paintings were displayed at a show in Paris, and his fame subsequently grew enormously. His mother lived long enough to see her son hailed as an artist and a genius. Today, Vincent van Gogh is considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt.

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