Art in Europe,  English

[Part 4/5] Vincent Van Gogh: The mystery of an ear

On the subject of his new motifs, Van Gogh had to solve the problem of black and white. In Impressionist and Pointillist painting, the world was full of colour overtones; black or white did not exist. For Van Gogh, colour consisted of a little of both, but he refused to abandon black and white, and attempted to integrate them into his contrast system to strengthen colours.

Another motif was the people of Provence. From the very beginning, Van Gogh’s eye caught the remarkable variety in Arles: young and old women, loaders on barges, fishermen.

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Vincent van Gogh, Morning: Going out to work (after Millet), 1890. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Gradually, he began distinguishing among them those that interested him the most. In his portraits, colour was just as important as character. From that time on, colour was an expression of his tension, of his all-consuming passion for self-expression, his zeal to capture with paint the rhythm of life.

It was in Arles that he became the Van Gogh who blazed a trail where no one had gone before. Van Gogh was finally able to rent a small house to work, but also to house a future community of artists, a dream he had never ceased to have. In September 1888 he moved into the house and began decorating it. To Theo he wrote, “One fine day you will receive a painting that represents my small house on a sunny day”. He painted the bedroom of the house. The yellow furniture, yellow floor, and red blanket contrasted with the blue shadows of the white walls. Despite the closed shutters, the room appeared filled with light.

“In the room where you or Gauguin will stay, if he comes, the white walls are decorated with large yellow sunflowers,” continued Van Gogh. He had already painted sunflowers in Paris. The dazzling yellow sunflowers from Arles shone in a ceramic vase before a blue wall. Van Gogh painted them several times. The painter sculpted the heart of the flower in dense layers, producing the feeling of real and rough brushwork the hand wants to touch.

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Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888 or 1889. Oil on canvas, 92.4 x 71.1 cm.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

Van Gogh worked remarkably in Provence, but it did not give him a sense of peace and well-being. Van Gogh was thinking more and more often of Holland. In November 1888, he made a painting of two girls from Arles walking in the garden; this garden was surprisingly similar to the garden of his parents in the village of Etten (Arlésiennes. Souvenir of the Garden of Etten).

All these months Van Gogh had worked frantically, under constant pressure. Thus, it was truly in Arles that the great painter Van Gogh was “born”. In this period, Vincent was already working with Gauguin. Paul Gauguin arrived in Arles on October 20, 1888. Van Gogh’s dream to organise an association of artists came true, even if Gauguin was the only one who had agreed to participate in his project.

Despite this, Van Gogh considered Gauguin to be a great artist and wanted to give him the opportunity to breathe and work quietly and peacefully, in a style befitting a free artist.” He hoped that by working together in a few years they would end up becoming successful.

Van Gogh’s letters were full of admiration for Gauguin’s talent and human qualities. He was proud that Gauguin praised his paintings. Van Gogh very much wanted their communal life to work. Gauguin, however, did not share Van Gogh’s naive confidence.

Their diverging opinions regarding painting were the greatest obstacle to a peaceful communal life. They went to Montpellier to visit a museum where they saw the paintings of Delacroix, Courbet and many other artists. “Gauguin and I discussed at length Delacroix, Rembrandt, etc. Our discussions were extremely heated. And after them we sometimes felt as empty as a discharged electric battery.”

This was the cause of the tragedy that occurred December 23. Van Gogh brought part of an ear that he had cut off to one of the prostitutes in a local brothel. The increasingly heated atmosphere in their common house, as well as Gauguin’s constant teasing, set off Van Gogh’s first attack. Finding Van Gogh in a pool of blood in his bedroom, the terrified Gauguin had his friend sent to hospital and called Theo to Arles. He then left for Paris and never saw Van Gogh again.

In hospital Van Gogh was placed under the care of Doctor Rey, a twenty-three-year-old physician. The doctor reassured Theo, assuring him that his brother would quickly recover. When he left the hospital on January 7, Van Gogh showed the studio to Rey. Thankful for the doctor’s care and friendship, Vincent painted his portrait (Portrait of Dr. Rey). He tried to reassure his family in every possible way, and believed himself, that he had escaped with nothing worse than a fright.

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Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Rey, 1889. Oil on canvas, 64 x 53 cm.
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Right after his discharge from the hospital, Van Gogh painted a self-portrait with his bandaged ear. In it, he appears to be very calm. There is no despair in his face.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889. Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 50 cm. Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London

At the beginning of February his strength seemed to have returned, and he wanted to work in the open air. But on February 9, he was re-admitted to hospital, having suffered from hallucinations. February 22, Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “The weather remains sunny and windy. I am spending a lot of time outdoors, but still sleep and board in the clinic.” The doctors were going to send him to Aix for treatment, but Van Gogh felt better in Arles, to which he was accustomed, and where he had friends.

However, in March neighbours complained of his behaviour to the mayor of Arles, who ordered Van Gogh to again be sent hospital. This time, in his own words, “in a locked, solitary cell, under the supervision of a nurse”. The house where he worked had been sealed up. It could be opened only with the help of Signac, who had arrived in Arles to took an active part in Van Gogh’s destiny. Despite his constant agitation, Van Gogh only painted when he felt capable of doing so. Several times he rented a small room at Dr. Rey’s, who gave him his support. But even Van Gogh himself felt that he had to leave for his recovery and agreed to treatment at the asylum of Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

The director of the hospital in Saint-Rémy allowed Van Gogh to work and even gave him a studio – there were many free rooms at the hospital. Van Gogh started painting what he saw. He was not allowed to go outside the limits of the hospital garden, but that did not bother him…

Watch the video about Vincent Van Gogh below:

Keywords: Vincent Van Gogh , Gauguin , SignacThe Pushkin State Museum of Fine ArtsThe Museum of Modern ArtThe State Hermitage MuseumVan Gogh Museum , Kröller-Müller MuseumPhiladelphia Museum of Art , Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery , Parkstone International , Art , Painting , Ebook Gallery, Image-Bar , Amazon Australia, Amazon Italy, Amazon Japan , Amazon China , Amazon India , Amazon Mexico, Amazon UK , Amazon Canada, Amazon Spain, Amazon France , Amazon Germany , Kobo , Douban , Taobao , Scribd

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