‘My surroundings here begin to weigh on me more than I can say – my word, I have been patient for more than a year – I need air; I feel overwhelmed with boredom and grief. I am at the end of my patience, my dear brother; I can’t stand any more – I must make a change, even a desperate one.’ Vincent van Gogh – letter to his brother Theo
With these words, van Gogh communicated his distress with life in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence to his brother Theo. During his first months in the institution he had recognised that the regulated regime had been beneficial to his mental equilibrium. He had been content to fill his hours only with thoughts of his painting and insisted that his work was the only thing which kept his intermittent but terrifying hallucinatory attacks at bay. However, after another traumatic episode in April 1890, nearly a year after he was first admitted to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, his hopes of a permanent recovery were dashed and he felt the need to escape from Provence – to return to the north where he would be nearer to his brother.
So on 17 May 1890 Vincent arrived at the Gare de Lyon in Paris where he was met by Theo. He stayed briefly with his brother, sister-in-law Johanna and their newly born son (who had been named Vincent after his uncle) in the Pigalle area of Paris before quickly quitting the city for the tranquillity of Auvers sur Oise, a small town about 30 kilometres to the north of Paris.
Theo (who was on good terms with many artists as a result of his employment with a well known Parisian art dealership) had consulted Camille Pissarro on the matter of the best location for his distressed brother. The kindly Pissarro had recommended Auvers-sur-Oise, which was far enough from Paris to be sufficiently bucolic but close enough for the brothers to maintain easy contact. However, the clincher was the presence of Dr Paul Gachet, a collector of Impressionist works and a member of their extended circle, but also a physician who specialised in the treatment of mental disorders.
Despite early doubts, Vincent soon became friends with Dr Gachet who, for his part, admired van Gogh’s work, extending an open invitation to Vincent to come and paint at his home. After his time spent in Provence, Auvers offered a return to more familiar, and therefore more restful, surroundings. Furthermore, he now convinced himself that his illness had been ‘mostly a disease of the south’. Vincent responded to these new circumstances, and to Gachet’s advice that painting would aid his mental stability, by embarking on a remarkable outpouring – a torrent – of work. During his nine weeks at Auvers he completed about seventy oil paintings as well as a number of drawings. This compelling canvas was one of them.
The sheer intensity of the blue sky, enhanced by the darker swirls seething in the corners, delivers a short shock to the spectator. This blue is not just a mere pigment – albeit a captivatingly beautiful pigment – it seems to contain the essence of Vincent’s angst, his passion and his fear. The sky reverberates in sympathy with the gothic forms of the church – it quivers and trills in response to the jagged outline. At one moment this liquid ether seems to enfold the building in a protective embrace, at another, one feels that it may overwhelm it in a destructive maelstrom. A very similar hue is employed for the windows of the church, imparting a curiously blank, somewhat unsettling look to the building. A woman hurries past the glowering edifice on a path which seems to have melted into a flaxen rivulet. All is unstable – the shadow beneath the church pulses and heaves – nothing is grounded; perhaps one might draw a parallel with Vincent’s volatile state of mind.
He continued to suffer from depression and his despair deepened after a visit to stay with his brother in Paris in early July 1890. Although Toulouse-Lautrec and Armand Guillaumin came to see van Gogh during this visit, as well as the critic Albert Aurier (the author of the only favourable review that Vincent received in his lifetime), Theo was unable to hide his own concerns from his brother. Now with a wife and child to support, and with thoughts of setting up on his own as a dealer, Theo felt he was unable to go on funding his brother to the same extent as he had in the past; he broke this news to Vincent as he left to go back to Auvers. Van Gogh continued to produce work at a furious rate but on Sunday 27 July, as he stood in a field near the town, he shot himself. He was able to return to his room – the bullet, it seems, had missed his heart but was still lodged in his body. Dr Gachet was called as well as another physician, who decided that the bullet should not be removed. Gachet contacted Theo who arrived the next day, but on 29 July 1890 Vincent van Gogh died.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1890 Paul Signac: Portrait of Félix Fénéon, New York, MOMA
1890 Albert Moore: A Summer Night, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
1890 Georges Seurat: Young Woman Powdering Herself, London, Courtauld Institute Galleries