Vincent van Gogh is on my mind again these days. Those Don McLean lyrics—“Starry, starry night, Paint your palette blue and grey, Look out on a summer’s day, With eyes that know the darkness in my soul”—are playing over and over again in my head. (1)
I have always loved van Gogh’s artwork—who isn’t moved by the sadness of Old Man in Sorrow, the humility of The Potato Eaters, the swirling shades of blue in Starry Night, or the striking beauty of his Irises—and, as a psychologist, I’ve long been intrigued by what demons may have plagued him. A few years back, in an Abnormal Psychology class I was teaching, I used van Gogh as a vehicle for studying the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); there was no shortage of literature about van Gogh’s troubled 37 years of life and my students, like others, provided an impressive array of possible psychiatric diagnoses.
Who knows why someone—known only through books and artwork—invades your thoughts. But in van Gogh’s case, I trace his recent emergence back to several factors:
A highly anticipated exhibition, Van Gogh Up Close, has just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (February 1 – May 6, 2012) and will later open at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (May 25 – September 3, 2012). I am so excited that we have tickets for the Philadelphia show!
A new book, Van Gogh: The Life, is resting in my stack of books-to-read. The authors argue, apparently quite persuasively, that van Gogh did not die at his own hand. Van Gogh, from his hospital bed, told police and brother Theo that he shot himself, a view that was perpetuated by Irving Stone’s 1934 Lust for Life and one that has long seemed a befitting end to his tormented life. Can’t wait to read it!
It’s February. For some weird reason I always remember that the 20th of this month marks the day that van Gogh arrived in Arles in 1888. Physically exhausted but inspired—craving a quieter life filled with the “Japanese” light he so admired, planning to establish an artists’ community in the South of France, and hoping to create a new form of art—he left the Impressionists of Paris. Just a year later, in February 1889, van Gogh would be admitted to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Arles for the third time after his row with Gauguin and his now infamous mutilation of his ear. Shortly thereafter, in May 1889, exhausted and now emotionally defeated, he would admit himself to the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
And finally, two weeks ago, a friend sent me a video about van Gogh.(2) Barbara and our family of three were part of a larger group of friends that stayed together in a very large home—un mas—in St. Rémy, very near Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. It was a wonderful trip with one of the highlights certainly being a tour of the hospital—still currently a psychiatric facility—where van Gogh had sought treatment for a full year and where he had painted so many of his now famous works.
I was telling another friend, an artist, about the convergence of the van Gogh things—the book, the exhibit, all the articles detailing the book and the exhibit, the significance of the month of February, the video, and now Starry, Starry Night playing in my head—and she, who is planning a trip to St. Rémy next fall, remarked that she did not know that it was in that city that van Gogh was hospitalized for so long. When I told her that she and her family could go visit the hospital, she nearly fell off her small chair in Ceres Bakery, where we were having lunch.
So, today, I thought I would write about van Gogh’s year in St. Rémy for my artist friend. What else can I do when van Gogh seems to be everywhere this month?
On May 8, 1889, van Gogh took the train to St. Rémy where he checked himself into the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. He would not leave until May 16, 1890. Although he experienced several severe periods of depression and “violent attacks” in which he was not productive, he was able to produce nearly 150 paintings and more than 100 drawings, including some of his most famous works. Starry Night (1889), Irises (1889), and Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889) are among those he painted while in the hospital.
The previous fifteen months in Arles had seen van Gogh gradually spiral downward—physically, emotionally, and psychologically—ultimately ending in the now infamous episode of mania in which he violently argues with his house mate Paul Gaugin, cuts off part of his ear, gives it to a prostitute, and is admitted to the hospital in Arles. Two more hospitalizations in Arles follow as well as a petition by his frightened neighbors that he, le fou-roux (the crazy redhead), could not return to his beloved Yellow House. With Gaugin having returned to Paris, Joseph Roulin (his only close friend in Arles and the subject of van Gogh’s painting by the same name) having moved to Marseilles, van Gogh, in a period of lucidity, took the advice of his pastor to check himself into an asylum in St Rémy, 18 miles (30 km) northeast of Arles.
On April 30, 1889, van Gogh wrote to his sister, Wil, “I am going to an asylum in St Rémy, not far from here, for at least three months. In all, I have had 4 major attacks, during which I had no idea what I said, what I wanted or what I did, not to mention the three times before when I had fainting fits for inexplicable reasons, being quite unable to recall what I felt at the time.” At least, in the hospital, he would not have such easy access to absinthe, which he regularly consumed in excessive quantities, or turpentine and paint, both of which he is said to have downed on occasion.
Van Gogh had two small adjoining rooms which, as usual, had been arranged by his brother Theo; one served as a studio and the other his living quarters. As in all the rooms, the windows were barred. Van Gogh wrote to Theo on May 1889, “I have a small room with greenish-grey paper and two sea-green curtains with a design of very pale roses, brightened with touches of blood red. The curtains, probably the legacy of some deceased and ruined rich person, are very pretty in design.”
Van Gogh began painting immediately. Being initially confined to the grounds of the asylum, his work consisted mostly of the garden, particularly irises and lilacs, hospital corridors, and what he could see from his window, poppy and wheat fields. Later when he is able to leave the grounds, he paints his famous cypress trees, mountainous landscapes, and olive groves as well as Starry Night. When forced indoors due to weather or confined indoors following what van Gogh referred to as his “aberrations,” he “re-painted” some of his earlier pieces and also produced three self-portraits.
By early September, 1889, van Gogh wrote to Theo, “Work is going very well, I am discovering things I have sought in vain for years, and, aware of that, I am constantly reminded of that saying of Delacroix’s you know, that he discovered painting when he had neither breath nor teeth left. Oh well, with my mental illness, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and tell myself that it doesn’t stop one from carrying on one’s trade as painter as if nothing had gone wrong.”
In mid-December 1889, around the same time that he had slashed his ear just a year earlier, van Gogh experienced another “attack.” It took just a week to recover, but more attacks would follow in the months to come.
As 1890 began, Theo and his wife had their first child, whom they named Vincent. Van Gogh’s work finally began to achieve some critical acclaim and, in March, he sold the one and only piece he would sell in his life time, The Red Vineyard (1888), which he painted in Arles. Nevertheless or perhaps irrespective of this positive feedback, van Gogh had another “attack” in March, the worst and the longest he may ever have had. He did not emerge from it for over a month.
By May, he readily accepted Theo’s arrangements for him to return to Paris for a family visit and then to go on to Auvers-sur-Oise, just outside Paris, where he would seek treatment with Dr. Paul Gachet, a homeopathic therapist and patron of many other artists. Only a little over two months after he arrived in Auvers, he died of gun shot wounds to the chest, long thought to be self-inflicted, a view now challenged by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their new book, Van Gogh: The Life.
Today the hospital, Clinique Saint-Paul Hall and van Gogh, still provides short-term inpatient psychiatric treatment; it is devoted to the care of women and, we were told by our guide, specializes in treating women who suffer from depression. Not surprisingly, art therapy is an integral part of the treatment.
Visitors who wish to see where van Gogh was hospitalized are welcome. You can see his room, recreated to look as it did when van Gogh slept in it, complete with the tiny bed reminiscent of the type he would have slept in. “Austere” might be the best way to describe what his quarters probably looked like—such a stark contrast to the surroundings in which his paintings now hang. His Irises and Wheat Field with Cypresses, both painted while staying in the room you can stand in, fetched $53.9 million in 1987 and $57 million in 1993, respectively.
You can also see the kind of tub in which he would have endured his hydrotherapy—a full immersion in water for extended periods of time, either warm (thought to be a soothing experience to calm patients) or quite cold (thought to “shock” clients into a quieter mood or to invigorate them, depending on your view). The tour guide we had said that van Gogh received the “cold” treatment. Note (in the photo) that the wooden cover on top of the tub–with a hole for the patient’s head—could be “locked” in place to ensure that the patient complied with the treatment. Although not as inhumane as other forms of psychiatric treatment at that time, neither was it an effective therapy for psychiatric disorders.
From his room, around the building and garden, and along a path outside the hospital building, visitors can see copies of his paintings displayed in the locations in which he probably stood, with his easel, to paint what he saw in the 19th century. In many cases, it hasn’t changed much! It is a very interesting experience.
There is, naturally, a gift store; but, unlike so many other purely commercial endeavors one is obligated to pass through toward egress from a museum or historic property, this one is definitely worth a detour to visit. It features artwork produced by the patients in the hospital. Like Lou Salome’s daughter, I also purchased a painting (although my painting was not framed, so it was a little easier to get home!). No one in my family likes it—my piano teacher always averted her eyes—but I love it.
The Office of Tourism has all the information one needs to visit van Gogh’s Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. At one time, they organized tours; but the last time we were there, they no longer offered this service. (I suggest you inquire anyway as these things are always changing in small towns and cities.) The last time we were there, just a few years ago, visitors, upon paying a small entrance fee at the hospital grounds, were given a map and guide to explore van Gogh’s quarters and to walk in his footsteps at our own pace.
As I wrote in an earlier post, there are several reasons to visit St. Rémy. Definitely among my top reasons—to go out of your way to visit St. Rémy—would be to visit Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, where one of the world’s most brilliant artists sought treatment for his psychiatric ailments and where he painted some of his most famous works. Van Gogh is said to have created about 150 paintings and around 100 drawings during the year he resided there. The grounds are a peaceful and lovely antidote to a busy holiday schedule.
And while you are in St. Rémy, do stop by Joel Durand’s chocolate shop, and, if you are there on Wednesday, go to the Market….well, if it’s Wednesday, you will find yourself in the market as it engulfs the center of St. Rémy. Glanum and Les Baux, not far from Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, are two other top draws. I’ll write later about olive oil and good places to eat.
St. Rémy is about 30 miles (51 km) from Lourmarin, where we hang our hats.
By the way, the song is still playing.
1. If you want Starry, starry night to play in your head, click here:
2. If you would like to see the video that my friend Barbara sent me, click on image below…