Most of us know that Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most popular artists of all time, that he cut off his ear in some kind of passionate outburst, and that’s about it. That ear-lopping moment resounds to this day, causing us to peg Van Gogh as simply a talented, tortured soul. There is so much more to the story behind Van Gogh’s paintings than a struggle with mental health expressed in art. In fact, the only account we have of the ‘Vincent Incident’ was written by a man Van Gogh was arguing chronically with (and being driven up the wall by)—Gauguin—a guy inclined to distort stories to make himself look better. (By the way, it was just the earlobe).
For starters, let’s look at the ear event in the context of the man’s health. There has been much speculation about his mental health but it’s likely that Van Gogh suffered from Psychomotor Epilepsy, and had seizures characterized by elaborate and multiple motor, sensory, and/or psychic components (automatic mechanical, reflexive movements). According to a medical dictionary, “clinical manifestations may take the form of automatisms; emotional outbursts of temper, anger or show of fear; motor or psychic disturbances”. So the timing of that blowup with Gauguin in Provence might have been really bad. Vincent should get credit for committing himself to a local asylum sometime after his recovery from the ear damage, as he feared having another attack. He probably did not want to have to do a self-portrait without a nose.
Scholars generally agree that Van Gogh did not paint during bouts of insanity, not even during the aura that preceded his epileptic seizures.
So Van Gogh’s brilliance had less to do with madness, or his ear, and more to do with passion, and his eye.
Before he was an artist, Vincent was the son of a pastor, and a teacher. He expressed his passion in a love affair. When that failed, he became an evangelical missionary. Apparently, manic religious fanaticism led to his termination by the clergy. He began to express himself in drawings of peasants and miners. He admired their honest exchange of manual labor for their simple meals.
There was more heartbreak when he proposed marriage to a young, widowed mother. She laughed in his face. Did I mention she was his cousin? She ran off and hid out at her parents, perhaps sensing that Vincent was a little unstable. He begged to see her for just a few moments, just for as long as he could bear to hold his hand over a candle flame. As you can imagine, this clever idea did not score points with the folks.
Vincent was resilient enough to get his female artistic inspiration elsewhere. He let a pregnant prostitute named Sien move in. She became his model and his companion, and they provided each other with love and affection. As with the peasants, he was drawn to her in her misfortune. He identified with other struggling humans. A couple of years later, he moved on, but Sien and her two children stayed behind in the attic he’d converted into a studio.
A couple of very stimulating and relatively happy years occurred in Paris, where his brother, Theo ran an art gallery. Here he hobnobbed with many of the best writers and artists of the 19th century…all the great Impressionists, and intellectuals who also related to the plight of social outcasts. He painted wonderful views from the window of the apartment he and Theo shared in Montmartre.
Once he’d had enough of city life, he headed back to nature, seeking out the light and beauty of Arles in Provence. He was hugely inspired, and sought to “express the love of two lovers by the marriage of two complementary colours, their mingling and opposition, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tone.” He loved the contrast between the day and night climate, as expressed in his famous Sunflowers, and in Starry Night.
He had high hopes for an intelligent relationship with another artist who might share his appreciation of Provence when he was introduced by his art dealer brother to Gauguin, who was broke and needed the affiliation. Unfortunately, the two clashed from the start. Their tastes were radically different. Of course, they didn’t know then that there was plenty of room for them both in art history. There’s been some controversy about exactly how it happened, but probably one argument too many led to the ear incident. Van Gogh delivered the souvenir (souven-ear?) to a prostitute friend of his, and the rest is—well—art history!
Van Gogh painted or drew more than 300 pictures in the last couple of years of his life, at San Remy near the asylum where he had committed himself, and in Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, where he later placed himself in the care of another doctor. Because he was so prolific in the months before he ended his life, there is the perception that mania fueled his brilliant art. In fact, scholars believe his personal style simply progressed rapidly during this time.
Lonely and isolated, he died two days after shooting himself in the chest at the age of 37. He was ostensibly out shooting crows, which he thought were omens of death. In this case, they were.
By Susan Trembath