In his 72 years on this earth Herman Melville wrote more than 90 books and short stories. He was no stranger to some small fame but it was only after death that the man’s magnum opus Moby Dick, came to be seen as one of the finest works of literature ever written. Edgar Allen Poe struggled as a writer. The Raven was sold for only $9 during his lifetime. Now a towering figure in the literary world Poe’s fame too, would only come after death. Shy and introverted in life, Emily Dickinson published only 8 poems during her lifetime. Her remaining body of work she hid carefully away, some 1,800 poems coming to light, only after she was gone.
Such a list could be long and include the likes of Franz Kafka, Henry David Thoreau and Jane Austen. Artists who became famous only in death contain a who’s who of painters including Monet, Gaugin, Cezanne and more but none so tragic, as Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born and died on March 30, 1852, a stillbirth. The artist with the same name was born one year later, to the day. Confusingly, the church register even assigned the infant the same number, as his dead brother. Vincent van Gogh, #29. It wasn’t unusual in those days for grieving parents to give the same name as a child who had died. What it’s like to grow up a replacement, to visit a grave marked with your own name and birthdate minus a year, is something the rest of us can only guess at.
A successful Dutch art dealer, Van Gogh’s younger brother Theodorus (“Theo”) had an important impact on the world of French and Dutch art. Thanks to Theo van Gogh and his financial and emotional support of his older brother, that we’re able to enjoy much of the artist’s work.
Four years his junior it was Theo who encouraged his brother to paint in the first place. Vincent could always draw but he didn’t pick up a brush, until he was 27.
Vincent Van Gogh began to write letters in 1872, an average of one every ten days. He would continue this practice for the rest of his life, some 903 in all. His sister Wil was a frequent recipient as were the artists Paul Gauguin, Anthon van Rappard and Émile Bernard, but none so much as his brother Theo. 663 of these letters are known to survive including this 1885 note describing the artist’s first masterpiece, “The Potato Eaters”. It is through these letters we know much of the life, of Vincent van Gogh.
2,300 years ago, Aristotle spoke of the confluence of Greatness and mental illness. Even now that place where genius meets darkness, is imperfectly understood. Definitive diagnoses of historical figures are elusive and yet, history abounds with stories pointing toward mental illness in some of the great figures of the past. Michelangelo displayed signs of autism, as did Isaac Newton. The famous “scream” painting by Edvard Munch may be autobiographical of a man, prone to panic attacks. Ludwig von Beethoven suffered mood swings likely amounting to bipolar disorder as did Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent tried his hand at dealing art but suffered depression during visits to London. There followed a period as Christian missionary in the south of Belgium before, feeling ill and depressed, van Gogh moved in with his parents. Theo, always the source of encouragement and support both financial and emotional convinced his brother, to take up the brush.
Vincent van Gogh had but ten years to live when he started to paint. In that time the man produced 2,100 artworks including 860 oil paintings, most of those, in the last two years of his life. First there were the dark colors of the “Dutch period” seen in peasant scenes, portraits and still life.
Vincent moved to Paris in 1886 where he met members of the avant-garde art world, including Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. These were the iconoclasts, the radicals, the unorthodox who opened a whole new vision. Here we see the burst of bright colors and bold brush strokes for which Vincent is now known.
This too was a period of depression, of mental instability and psychotic episodes. The confrontation ending Vincent’s friendship with Paul Gaugin culminated in van Gogh cutting off his own ear, with a razor.
Thus began a period of mental decline. A period spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, of heavy drinking, poor diet and declining health. One day, this tortured soul would be recognized as one of the finest artists who ever lived. For now he was just another madman, a failure in work, and in life.
Fun Fact: Following the self-mutilation episode in which Vincent removed his own ear, van Gogh spent time in an asylum outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in France. There he was fond of painting outdoors where he painted olive groves, and other pastoral scenes. If you look very closely just to the right of this 1889 portrait you will find the remains of a dead grasshopper, blown by the wind and trapped in wet paint. There are no signs of struggle, indicating the insect was deceased before hitting the canvas. As for the Master he either didn’t notice, or did not care.
For the man, the last two years were a downward spiral from which there would be no return. For Vincent’s art this was the most productive, the most brilliant period of a short career.
Theo alone understood his brother. His talent. His madness. For Vincent, Theo was the only person he could open up to. Vincent received a never-ending stream of letters from his brother, words of love, of encouragement, and always the painting supplies, and the money. Theo received a stream of letters in return with day-to-day news, plans for upcoming works but all the while, it wasn’t enough.
Around this time, Vincent set out on foot to visit the French naturalist Jules Breton, a walk of some 80 kilometers. Unlike van Gogh, Breton achieved considerable success in his lifetime. Perhaps Vincent was intimidated by the high walls. The large estates. Nobody knows. After all that he turned and walked home. The man he intended to visit never knew he was there.
In Paris, Theo fell in love with one Johanna Bonger. The couple was married on April 17, 1889. Ten months later came a son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. The name was intended to honor his brother but, to Vincent, who knows? Perhaps in his madness the replacement felt that he himself, was now replaced. Theo had always been there with money, with painting materials and words of encouragement but to Vincent, he himself was nothing but a burden on a brother, now responsible for a family of three.
In May of 1890, Vincent moved to a small attic room in the village of Ouvers-sur-Oisne. To be closer to Theo, and to Dr Paul Gachet, the quack homeopathic doctor Vincent himself described as “iller than I am, it seemed to me, or let’s say just as much.”
On July 27, 1890, Vincent departed his small apartment for the countryside. This time he carried no paints or brushes. Sick in body and mind and bereft of the Christian faith which had once buoyed his thoughts, Vincent had nothing to believe in anymore but his paintings and those, he couldn’t sell. No one knows where Vincent shot himself. The 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. One bullet. In the stomach or the chest, depending on which version you happen to read. Vincent managed to stagger back to his lodgings. He lit up his pipe and lay down in his bed, to die. Gachet was called but the bullet was too deep.
Infection set in as Theo was called and rushed to catch a train, to be there. Vincent van Gogh died in the arms of the brother to whom a last, unposted letter was found in his pocket. In it, Vincent describes a recently finished painting, called Wheatfield with crows. The letter said it depicted “vast fields of wheat beneath troubled skies,” adding “I did not have to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness.”
Theo van Gogh was destroyed over his brother’s death both physically, and mentally. A sharp decline ended six months later with the younger man’s death, at the age of 33. The cause of death was ruled dementia paralytica caused by “heredity, chronic disease, overwork, sadness.” He was buried in Utrecht and later exhumed at the request of his widow to be re-interred, next to his brother
As for Johanna herself, she inherited the vast bulk of her husband’s paintings and drawings and spent the rest of her life, promoting his work.
On March 17, 1901, eleven years after his death, 71 van Gogh paintings were shown at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, in Paris. A failure in life, Vincent’s work hit the art world, like an electric shock. Today some of the artist’s works number among the most expensive paintings, ever sold.
Post script: Theo’s great-grandson, also called Theo van Gogh, was a Dutch film and television director, producer, actor and author. Working from a script provided by Somali-born Dutch-American activist, feminist and former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, van Gogh produced a ten-minute short film called Submission, concerning the plight of women in Islam. Both van Gogh and Hirsi Ali received death threats to which Theo responded “nobody kills the village idiot”. He often used that term in describing himself. On November 2, 2004, Islamist Mohammed Bouyeri shot and stabbed the director while bicycling to work, leaving a note pinned with a knife to his dead chest, containing threats against Jews, the west, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.