23 Chapter 10 – Vincent Van Gogh


Megan Bylsma

Audio recording of the full chapter can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/15HcqiOdu8ZY-kbMp3nB-W6khBj6dpxyr/view?usp=sharing

One of the most famous painters in the 20th century, Vincent Van Gogh was not a famous artist during his lifetime. His story so perfectly fits the narrative that is told and re-told about artists that after his death his fame grew. During his lifetime he was known by friends and artists, but it is unlikely that he ever sold a painting in his life. (And if he did sell a painting, the story goes that he managed to sell one – to an art school who used it as an example for their students…of how not to paint.)

Much of Van Gogh’s life and art are tied up in the legendary stories of his (mis)behaviours. In Van Gogh it is easy to find more of a portrait of mental illness than a portrait of a human man. When society says that mental illness carries stigma in Western culture, Van Gogh serves as a prime example. When looking at the art of Vincent Van Gogh, do viewers recognize what he was trying to communicate, and feel what he was trying to get them to feel, and see what he was working to portray? Or do they simply see nothing beyond the stench of illness – fascinating as a circus freak and as opposite to them as the moon is to the sun?

Out of all the artists that have ever been in the world, Vincent Van Gogh’s name shows up the most in medical journals. So many researchers have poured over every brush stroke of his paintings and every line of his letters to diagnose his illness and to bring into the realm of the easily labelled his strange perspective on life. Paper after paper proclaims his mental and physical maladies and deficiencies, in an attempt to explain the unique and unprecedented art he created. From migraines to psychopathy, from epilepsy to HSP, each reduces the artist to list of symptoms and creates the image of a robot at the mercy of the juices in his brain and the disorder of his construction. But barely any pause to ask a question: How would Van Gogh feel about this?

Van Gogh, was at his core, a man of feeling. He felt things deeply. Some see this as a symptom of his obvious mental malfunction and the key to his perceived weakness. Feeling deeply certainly presents challenges that are unique to the person who feels. However, these are not, of themselves, weakness or illness. They simply mean the person who feels has a difference of perception than those who do not feel quite so much. Van Gogh wanted more than anything, to be understood. Understood and accepted. But how can a man who struggles to understand himself, be understood by others? And how can one who is rarely understood be truly accepted? And so Van Gogh struggled his entire life with a fish-out-of-water feeling. He was the triangular peg in a very round hole. Even amongst his fellow artists he had a reputation as being a very agreeable, friendly, and pleasant man; a man who as as agreeable as he was intense and awkward. His fellow artists rather liked him, but none really wanted to be alone with him and his intensity. And so he attracted only the truly kind and the truly horrible as his friends. Some of his artist friends, in their amiable kindness, spent time with him. But for a personality like Van Gogh it was the bullies and manipulators who really found a plaything in their relationship with him and who had the deepest impact on him (as is the case with traumatic experiences).

A group of five sit around a small wooden table with a large platter of food, while one person pours drinks from a kettle in a dark room with an overhead lantern.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, oil on canvas, 1885

Van Gogh had gone to Paris and had spent time with many of the avant-garde artists who were there. His stay in Paris had introduced him to the art of the Impressionists, to Japanese woodblock prints, to experimentation, and all of this had an irrevocable impact on his art. For almost twenty years he had been trying to paint like an old master, but in one trip to Paris his years of stagnant practicing finally gained ground in leaps and bounds. Colours gathered in his palette like tropical birds at a feeder, where before only brown sparrows had pecked. His own innate awkward style became his friend, instead of his enemy, and the Van Gogh we know now was forged.

A bearded old man sits gazing directly at the viewer with japanese prints in the background
Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of Père Tanguy, oil on canvas, 1887

But Paris is a busy city. It bustles and bumps and jars. Van Gogh had gone to Paris at the suggestion of his brother Theo – his best friend and biggest supporter – to shake of the dark funk he had found himself in after failing to connect with the parishioners he had been sent to win at his first placement. Van Gogh had trained to be a minister; he wanted nothing more than to win the poorest and most wretched of people. And so he had been placed with the potato farmers in poverty. He loved his (practice) flock, but he told Theo in his letters that he knew he wasn’t connecting with them. They avoided him and didn’t trust him and he realized if he couldn’t win the hearts of these people he would never be an effective preacher. He gave up the ministry.

Very sad and in a deep sense of gloom that he couldn’t shake, Theo suggested that he visit Paris for an art trip. He had been working hard at seminary school and at his ministry placement, so why not go to Paris to embrace some art? The trip was a success. The gloom lifted and an energized and inspired Van Gogh emerged.

But as time went on the energy levels of Van Gogh just kept accelerating. With the intense stimulus of the city, Theo recognized that his brother was starting to ‘wobble’ a little again. Not so much that he was on a downward trajectory, but more that he was just experiencing some failing mental health. Theo suggested that his brother should take a break and head to the south of France for some slow life in the sun and surf. Vincent Van Gogh enthusiastically agreed. He had big plans – wouldn’t it be perfect if all the artists in Paris could live in one place, without the distractions of the city, and work on art together? He decided his trip to the south of France would be to scout a location for a new artists commune. The other artists seemed to agree, at least he felt they did, that it was a good idea. So he went to Arles in the south of France and waited for his friends to follow.

He painted and painted and painted as he worked through his anticipation of his future companions enjoying the quiet peasant life in Arles. Paul Signac eventually came down for a few weeks before sailing off into the sunset for warmer and sunnier locales. Signac was kind and encouraging and didn’t seem terribly put-off by Van Gogh’s intense moods. But Signac was never one to stay in one place long, so the commune life wasn’t for him.

An armchair with a cushion seat; there are two books and a lit candle on the seat. A lit lamp is on the wall.
Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin’s Armchair, oil on canvas, 1888

Then Paul Gauguin arrived. Gauguin’s arrival had been impatiently anticipated by Van Gogh. He had painted two portraits in the form of two chairs – one a painting of his own chair and another a painting of an armchair he had reserved for Gauguin. In Gauguin’s chair painting a lit candle sits on the seat as as sign of the anticipation of the other artist’s visit. Van Gogh couldn’t have known that Gauguin was using his trip to Arles as a trial separation from his wife and children (who he would bundle back to his in-laws saying he was denouncing modern life in all its forms) before splitting for Tahiti and a yet unknown thirteen year old bride. To be fair, perhaps Gauguin didn’t really know that yet himself.  Gauguin, a manipulator at heart, saw Van Gogh (and most other people) as lesser than himself. His belief in his superiority to others would become a catalysing wedge in his friendship with Van Gogh. Gauguin, who would one day have art cults built entirely on his reputation and persona, was the kind of man who liked to create drama for people and Van Gogh was the kind of man who would alternate between trying to eliminate the repercussions of the drama or be swept completely up in it. Gauguin created chaos nearly everywhere he went – whether it was chaos of the variety caused by visiting a friends house and then drinking all the liquor, taking off his pants, playing the piano (pants-less), and staying until the visit lasted days and the homeowners despaired that he was going to be there, stirring up trouble, forever. Or it was chaos of the variety caused by whipping up the mental state of someone who had mental illness struggles and creating stories that would forever haunt the mentally ill man (while never seeming to impact his own reputation), Gauguin had dramatic chaos as his constant and well-honed companion.

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, at one point, the collection of Van Gogh paintings they had on display were hung in the same room, on the opposite wall of their collection of Gauguin paintings. This arrangement would have thrilled Van Gogh. Gauguin would have probably preferred having his own museum.

Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, “Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables),” in Smarthistory, February 8, 2017, https://smarthistory.org/gauguin-self-portrait/.
All Smarthistory content is available for free at www.smarthistory.org 

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, 61.5 x 50.3 cm (Fogg, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA)
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1888

This self portrait was painted for Paul Gauguin as part of swap between the artists. Van Gogh chose to represent himself with monastic severity. The other painting is Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Vincent van Gogh (Les Misérables). Gauguin’s title is a reference to the heroic fugitive, Jean Valjean, in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Gauguin’s painting also contains a portrait of Emile Bernard that was painted not by Gauguin but by Bernard within Gauguin’s painting.

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Vincent van Gogh (Les Misérables), 1888, oil on canvas, 44.5 x 50.3 cm (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Vincent van Gogh (Les Misérables), oil on canvas, 1888

The following is a letter by Van Gogh to his brother Theo about the painting exchange with Gauguin dated October 7, 1888:

My dear Theo,

Many thanks for your letter. How glad I am for Gauguin; I shall not try to find words to tell you – let’s be of good heart.

I have just received the portrait of Gauguin by himself and the portrait of Bernard by Bernard and in the background of the portrait of Gauguin there is Bernard’s on the wall, and vice versa.

The Gauguin is of course remarkable, but I very much like Bernard’s picture. It is just the inner vision of a painter, a few abrupt tones, a few dark lines, but it has the distinction of a real, real Manet.

The Gauguin is more studied, carried further. That, along with what he says in his letter, gave me absolutely the impression of its representing a prisoner. Not a shadow of gaiety. Absolutely nothing of the flesh, but one can confidently put that down to his determination to make a melancholy effect, the flesh in the shadows has gone a dismal blue.

So now at last I have a chance to compare my painting with what the comrades are doing. My portrait, which I am sending to Gauguin in exchange, holds its own, I am sure of that. I have written to Gauguin in reply to his letter that if I might be allowed to stress my own personality in a portrait, I had done so in trying to convey in my portrait not only myself but an impressionist in general, had conceived it as the portrait of a bonze, a simple worshiper of the eternal Buddha.

And when I put Gauguin’s conception and my own side by side, mine is as grave, but less despairing. What Gauguin’s portrait says to me before all things is that he must not go on like this, he must become again the richer Gauguin of the “Negresses.”

I am very glad to have these two portraits, for they finally represent the comrades at this stage; they will not remain like that, they will come back to a more serene life.

And I see clearly that the duty laid upon me is to do everything I can to lessen our poverty.

No good comes the way in this painter’s job. I feel that he is more Millet than I, but I am more Diaz then he, and like Diaz I am going to try to please the public, so that a few pennies may come into our community. I have spent more than they, but I do not care a bit now that I see their painting—they have worked in too much poverty to succeed.

Mind you, I have better and more saleable stuff than what I have sent you, and I feel that I can go on doing it. I have confidence in it at last. I know that it will do some people’s hearts good to find poetic subjects again, “The Starry Sky,” “The Vines in Leaf,” “The Furrows,” the “Poet’s Garden.”

So then I believe that it is your duty and mine to demand comparative wealth just because we have very great artists to keep alive. But at the moment you are as fortunate, or at least fortunate in the same way, as Sensier if you have Gauguin and I hope he will be with us heart and soul. There is no hurry, but in any case I think that he will like the house so much as a studio that he will agree to being its head. Give us half a year and see what that will mean.

Bernard has again sent me a collection of ten drawings with a daring poem – the whole is called At the Brothel.

You will soon see these things, but I shall send you the portraits when I have had them to look at for some time.

I hope you will write soon, I am very hard up because of the stretchers and frames that I ordered.

What you told me of Freret gave me pleasure, but I venture to think that I shall do things which will please him better, and you too.

Yesterday I painted a sunset.

Gauguin looks ill and tormented in his portrait!! You wait, that will not last, and it will be very interesting to compare this portrait with the one he will do of himself in six months’ time.

Someday you will also see my self-portrait, which I am sending to Gauguin, because he will keep it, I hope.

It is all ashen gray against pale veronese (no yellow). The clothes are this brown coat with a blue border, but I have exaggerated the brown into purple, and the width of the blue borders.

The head is modeled in light colours painted in a thick impasto against the light background with hardly any shadows. Only I have made the eyes slightly slanting like the Japanese.

Write me soon and the best of luck. How happy old Gauguin will be.

A good handshake, and thank Freret for the pleasure he has given me. Good-by for now.

Ever yours,


Excerpted and Adapted from: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, “Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015,  https://smarthistory.org/van-gogh-self-portrait-dedicated-to-paul-gauguin/.
All Smarthistory content is available for free at www.smarthistory.org 

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, oil on canvas, 60 x 49 cm (Courtauld Galleries, London)
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, oil on canvas, 1889

The following report appeared in the Arles journal Le Forum Republicain on December 30, 1888:

Last Sunday, at 11:30 in the evening, Vincent Vaugogh [sic], a painter of Dutch origin, called at the Brothel No. 1, asked for a woman called Rachel and handed her … his ear, saying: ‘Guard this object with your life’. Then he disappeared. When informed of the action, which could only be that of a pitiful madman, the police went the next day to his house and discovered him lying on his bed apparently at the point of death. The unfortunate man has been rushed to hospital.

Accounts of what took place that night vary. Whatever the exact circumstances, though, whatever underlying motivations could have compelled van Gogh to do it, the episode effectively put an end to one of the most famous working relationships in the history of art, as Paul Gauguin boarded the train to Paris the next day.

For nine weeks they had lived together sharing lodgings in the Yellow House, just outside the old town walls of Arles in the South of France, spurring each other on as collaborators and as rivals too. The dream had been to set up “a studio in the South,” as van Gogh put it, a community of artists, with himself and Gauguin, the founding fathers, all working in harmony with nature and, as he hoped, with each other.

There are some issues with the stories that emerged about Van Gogh’s ear. So many, especially at the time, said that Van Gogh and Gauguin had gotten into yet another intense argument. Gauguin’s dismissive and cruel humours created such anxious unrest for Van Gogh that Van Gogh would act oddly (to say the least). And Gauguin was known to spin stories to make Van Gogh look dangerously unbalanced. Stories of Van Gogh attacking Gauguin from behind, completely unprovoked, with a machete were popular. The idea that Gauguin might be taking something out of context for chaotic narrative’s sake was rarely considered, because as everyone knew – that Van Gogh was intense and weird.

For context: Van Gogh and Gauguin used to engage in machete sword fights (at Gauguin’s urging) frequently during their time at Arles. (But that story is less dramatic than the one-sided story of being attacked with a machete for no reason whatsoever.)

In the story that emerged immediately after Van Gogh’s ear incident is that he and Gauguin had an argument and in a rage Van Gogh cut his own earlobe off with a straight razor to make Gauguin suffer. Van Gogh then boxed up the detached lobe and gifted it to his favorite prostitute at the local brothel. At least, that’s the story Gauguin told. But maybe Gauguin had some covering up to do in regards to his own marriage because…

A different story has since emerged about that evening. Some say that Gauguin cut the lobe off Van Gogh’s ear during one of their machete duels. In a situation wracked with chaotic drama, it seemed that perhaps Gauguin could get into trouble with the law for this, so Van Gogh told everyone that he had done it to himself to save Gauguin from the trouble. Van Gogh then packaged the earlobe and did indeed gift it to a woman at the local brothel, but the woman was not a sex worker that Van Gogh frequented. The woman was Gauguin’s favorite prostitute. That last detail changes the flavour of the story just a little bit, adding a little intrigue to things.

Regardless of Van Gogh’s intentions (which he seems to have never fully shared in a form that anyone has paid attention to), Gauguin left Arles never to return. The two artists did stay in contact – through letters, but they would never see each other face to face again. Gauguin did suggest to Van Gogh in 1890 that they should found an artists’ studio in Antwerp, but by a few months later Van Gogh would be dead by gunshot and Gauguin would be moving to Tahiti.

The painting, completed two weeks after the event, is often read as a farewell to that dream. For Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the most recent biographers of the artist, however, the portrait was first and foremost a plea to van Gogh’s doctors.

It shows the artist in three-quarter profile standing in a room in the Yellow House wearing a closed coat and a fur cap. His right ear is bandaged. It was in fact his left ear that was bandaged, the painting being a mirror image. To his right is an easel with a canvas on it. Barely visible, a faint outline underneath reveals what looks to be a still-life which appears to have been painted over. The top of the easel has been cropped by the edge of the canvas and the sitter’s hat so as to form a fork-like shape. To his left is a blue framed window, and partly obscured by the gaunt ridge of his cheek, a Japanese woodblock print shows two geishas in a landscape with Mount Fuji in the background.

Naifeh and White Smith argue that van Gogh, following his release from hospital, was anxious to persuade his doctors that he was indeed perfectly fit and able to take care of himself and that, despite his momentary lapse, it would not be necessary for them to have him committed, as had been suggested, to one of the local insane asylums; hence the winter coat and hat, to keep warm as they had advised, and with the window ajar still getting that much-needed fresh air into his system. The bandage too, which would have been soaked in camphor, suggests that he both accepts what has happened and is happy, literally, to take his medicine. The same note of stoic optimism, if one wishes to read the painting this way, is also found in the letters to his brother Theo, in which van Gogh, far from abandoning his dream of a “studio in the South,” talks of continuing the project, expressing the desire for more artists to come to Arles, even proposing that Gauguin and he could “start afresh.”

Yet, of course, whether or not van Gogh was willing to admit to it, the project had most definitely reached its end. And though for a short time he did get to carry on living in the Yellow House, within a few weeks, acting on a petition handed in to the local authorities and signed by 30 of his neighbors, he was forcefully removed and taken to Arles Hospital where he was locked in an isolation cell. In May van Gogh committed himself to the private asylum in Saint-Remy a small town north of Arles and in a little over a year he was dead.

Excerpted and Adapted from: Ben Pollitt, “Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/van-gogh-self-portrait-with-bandaged-ear/.
All Smarthistory content is available for free at www.smarthistory.org 



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