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Last Sunday [December 23] at 11:30 p.m. one Vincent vaugogh [sic] painter, of Dutch origin, presented himself at the maison de tolerance, no. 1, asked for one Rachel [a prostitute], and gave her . . . his ear, saying “Guard this article carefully.” [You will remember me, verily I tell you this] . . . the police went next morning to this person's house, and found him in bed giving no sign of life.—Forum Républicain, Arles, France, December 30, 18881(p268)
On January 7, 1889, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) returned home to the Yellow House following his notorious ear-cutting episode. The nature of his recovery in the hospital suggested to his doctors a diagnosis of larvate (mesial temporal lobe) epilepsy with hallucinations aggravated by poor diet, alcohol and absinthe abuse, and chronic stress.2The police initially assumed that Vincent was dead because they saw blood on towels in the lower 2 rooms of the Yellow House. He had cut off the lower part of his left ear, probably severing the left posterior auricular artery. His housemate, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), alarmed when Vincent was behaving strangely the evening before, had slept at a local hotel. When he arrived at the Yellow House around 7 AMon the morning after the ear-cutting episode, shortly after the police, he was arrested and accused by an officer of killing Vincent. However, when they all entered Vincent's room, it was soon clear that he was still alive but sleeping deeply. Gauguin left the house without talking to Vincent and contacted Theo van Gogh, Vincent's loyal brother and Gauguin's art dealer. Theo arrived from Paris that evening but, realizing there was nothing further that he could do, made arrangements with a local Dutch Reformed Church pastor to monitor Vincent's hospital progress and report back to him.1Theo returned to Paris on that Christmas day. Gauguin refused to visit Vincent in the hospital in Arles and returned with Theo to Paris; Vincent and Gauguin were never to meet in person again.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch. Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Japanese Print, 1889. Oil on canvas, 60.5 × 50 cm. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London (http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/gallery/580145e8.html).
Vincent's self-injury was precipitated by his fear of being abandoned by Gauguin. It was not the first time that Vincent injured himself when he experienced rejection. When Cornelia (Kee) Vos-Stricker rejected him, he held his hand over the funnel of an oil lamp, saying to her father, “Let me see her for as long as I can keep my hand over this flame.” When Gauguin indicated to Vincent that he would be leaving, Vincent tore a sentence from a local newspaper, Gauguin said, and “put it in my hand”; it read, “the murderer takes flight.”3(p274)Gauguin's departure ended Vincent's dream for a new Studio of the South in Arles. There Vincent had hoped to establish a colony of artists attuned to the times who would introduce an art that would console the downhearted just as religious art had done in earlier centuries; he hoped to re-establish the religious sense in art. Vincent wrote to his sister that in the modern portrait, the radiance of the halo would be replaced by coloration to reveal the inner light of the subject.4Vincent did not seek to establish a new approach to art, as did the impressionists; rather he sought to modernize it. His painting Still Life With Open Bible and Zola's La Joie de Vivre,5completed after the death of his father, the Reverend Theodorus van Gogh, demonstrated his transition away from traditional Christianity to the values expressed in modern novels like those by Émile Zola.
Vincent had come to Arles the previous February (1888) with a long-standing interest in Japanese art. He and Theo were regular visitors at the shop of Siegfried Bing, the main Japanese art dealer in Paris. It was at Bing's that they began their collection of the more than 400 Japanese prints that today are treasures of the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Vincent developed his sense of Japanese art by copying 3 Japanese woodblock prints on an enlarged scale using his own coloration. These are exact replicas of Flowering Plum Tree(silhouette of part of the stem and a few branches), Bridge in the Rain, and Oiran(a Japanese courtesan/prostitute). The first 2 are based on prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, and the third is a reproduction of the cover of the May 1, 1886, double issue of Paris Illustrésolely devoted to “Le Japon.”6The Courtesanis from a print by Kesai Eisen (Figure 1). Vincent placed a decorative border with Japanese characters on the first 2 he copied, and on the third, he surrounded the elongated female figure with several characteristic Japanese images (frogs, reeds, water lilies, herons) borrowed from other Japanese prints. He also painted a portrait of his friend Père Tanguy, whose philosophy of life he shared, with Japanese prints in the background. Thus by the time he arrived in Arles, Vincent was well acquainted with Japanese art. Moreover, he wrote to Theo on June 5, 1888, that it was not necessary to go to Japan to paint when the south of France was its equivalent:
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch. Oiran (The Courtesan) (After Eisen), 1887. Oil on canvas, 60 × 105 cm. van Gogh Museum
(Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam (http://www3.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/index.jsp?page=2122&lang=en).
I wish you could spend some time here [in Arles], you would feel it after a while, one's sight changes: you see things with an eye more Japanese, you feel colour differently. The Japanese draw quickly, very quickly, like a lightning flash, because their nerves are finer, their feeling simpler.
In September he further idealized Japanese art, adding:
If we study Japanese art, we discover a man who is undeniably wise, philosophical and intelligent, who spends his time—doing what? Studying the distance from the earth and the moon? No! . . . He studies . . . a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants—then the seasons, the grand spectacle of landscapes, finally animals, then the human figure. . . . isn't what we are taught by these simple Japanese, who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion? [letter 542]7
The month before Gauguin arrived, Vincent proposed that they exchange self-portraits, a custom he attributed to Japanese artists. Vincent was impressed with Gauguin's self-portrait, which was signed les Misérablesand depicts Gauguin as a wretched victim of society.8(p32)Gauguin wrote that “it is the face of an outlaw, ill-clad and powerful like Jean Valjean [the hero of the Victor Hugo novel]
with an inner nobility.” Vincent wrote to Theo that Gauguin looked “ill and tormented in his portrait”8(p35)and suggested that Gauguin must cheer up and find serenity, a serenity he would help provide. Ironically it was Vincent who lost his serenity and became increasingly tormented after Gauguin's arrival.
In Vincent's self-portrait for Gauguin (Figure 2), he sought to present a sense of gravity and composure. In keeping with his hopes of establishing a kind of monastic artist colony, he painted himself as a simple Japanese monk worshipping the eternal Buddha. In ashen-green he painted his head shaved and his eyes slightly slanted like those of the Japanese. Vincent said he was depicting his determination for a new life devoted to his art and showed himself humbly awaiting his monastic superior, Gauguin. In anticipation of Gauguin's arrival in Arles, Vincent engaged in a furiously productive creative effort, completing some of his best-known works, such as his sunflower paintings, which he hung in Gauguin's room. He wrote to Theo that he was exhausted from his preparation for the older, more cosmopolitan artist and was working feverishly to complete works that would impress Gauguin:
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch. Self-Portrait as Japanese Monk (Dedicated
to Paul Gauguin), 1888. Oil on canvas, 61 × 50 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums/Bequest from the
Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class 1906/The Bridgeman Art Library
I am again pretty nearly reduced to the madness of Hugo van der Goes [melancholic Dutch artist admitted to an asylum in the 16th century] in Emil Wauter's [sic] painting. And if it were not that I have almost a double nature, like that of a monk and that of a painter, as it were, I should have been reduced, and that long ago, completely and utterly, to the aforesaid condition [of madness]. . . . I must beware of my nerves. . . .7(p90)
That fear of madness seemed fulfilled with the ear-cutting episode. Back in his studio in January, Vincent, facing a mirror, painted himself with a bandaged ear and with a Japanese woodblock print and an easel with a blank canvas. He painted his mirror image (he had cut the left ear, not the right). The colors are similar to those used in his earlier self-portrait as a Japanese monk but darker, and his face is more stern and reflective. The print he includes by Sato Torakiyo, Geisha in a Landscape, shows 3 geisha with Mount Fuji in the background (Figure 3). Geisha are artist performers, unlike oiran (prostitutes)! Vincent had turned to prostitutes after being rejected in his offer of marriage to Kee. He moved in with a pregnant prostitute (who served as a model) and her child, hoping to save her. Failing to do so, he had no lasting relationship with a woman after this. Perhaps geisha represent the hope of a different kind of relationship with women.
Sato Torakiyo, Japanese. Geisha in a Landscape, c 1870-1880. Colored woodblock
print, 60 × 43 cm. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The
Courtauld Gallery, London (http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/newsletter/spring_2005/van_gogh.shtml).
Despite recurrent bouts of a mood disorder in the ensuing months of his life, Vincent consistently returned to productive work and completed many of his best-known works of art. Did his art help modulate his mood and stabilize it? After an art critic suggested he emphasize abstract elements in his art, Vincent wrote to Theo that he must not do so. He must remain faithful to what he saw before him. He wrote that a focus on reality was “perhaps a remedy in fighting the disease which still continues to disquiet me” [letter to Theo, February 10 or 11, 1890; http://webexhibits.org/vangogh/].7
The final personal stressor for Vincent that occurred in 1890, the year of his death, may have been his realization after a visit to Theo and his new wife, Johanna, and son, Vincent (named after him), that financial support for him from Theo may be too much of burden for them. Was this fear of being a burden a precipitant to his apparently impulsive shooting of himself? That act of self-injury immediately brought Theo to his side. Vincent died, as he wished, in his brother's arms.9,10Theo died the following year. Aware of the depth of the bond between the 2 brothers, Johanna, who would later translate their letters, arranged 13 years later to have the bodies exhumed and reburied next to one another in adjoining graves. She planted ivy at the grave sites, ivy that over the years has grown into a pattern that links both graves together as one, intertwining the brothers again in death as they were in life.
Harris JC. Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Japanese Print. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(2):130–131. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2007.42
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