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  • Jake Kendall

Vincent van Gogh: Sunflowers and Sanity

The artist who cut off his ear to impress a woman, the artist who ate paint from tubes, the artist who was snubbed in his lifetime and never sold a painting: these are the popular stories of Vincent van Gogh. Jake Kendall separates fact from fiction in his retrospective of the famed artist.

Vincent Van Gogh Sunflowers Self Portrait Vince
Illustration: The Pittsburgher

Towards the back of the chronologically-ordered National Gallery, behind the perennial crowd of observers and their camera phones, hangs probably the most famous painting in the United Kingdom: Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh.

Chances are you’ve seen reproductions of the image before: as a poster on a classroom wall, a feature in a documentary, or perhaps as the myriad offerings of gift shop tat you passed in the foyer. Seeing the Sunflowers for the first time in person however is something special. You see the bold use of yellow-on-yellow still dazzlingly vibrant over a century later. The application of paint is so thick in places that the painting emerges into a third dimension, the bulbs in particular are textured, weighty, and bristling. The brushstrokes are so bold that they can be followed. The sensation of following them can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It is almost as if van Gogh himself is there with you, in the room, in the painting. The Sunflowers feel almost alive.

Vincent Van Gogh Sunflowers, 1888
Sunflowers, 1888

Van Gogh’s enduring appeal lies in his unique visual aesthetic. Perhaps, more importantly, he endures because the art of van Gogh is driven by sincerity and urgency. This is intangibly evident in the Sunflowers; the emotion radiates from the canvas despite the seemingly undramatic choice of subject matter.

It is perhaps that implication, that intangibility of message, that invites us to mythologise about van Gogh. Suddenly we wonder, what is so compelling about a vase of flowers anyway? The popular stories flood back. The artist who mutilated his ear in a severely misguided attempt to impress a lady. The artist who ate paint from tubes in the cell of an asylum. The artist who was derided in his lifetime and never sold a painting. A man who eventually killed himself, who died a failure and was reborn as an icon of modern art. Mentally unstable and deeply sensitive, the poor, helpless thing.

This is the point at which we become complicit in the mass victimisation of Vincent van Gogh, the point in which he is cast as a deranged thing of pure emotion and raw talent. It is a tempting and easy narrative too, with plenty of evidence within his biography to help us construct it. Yet, like all easy narratives, it is a caricature – only half-true at best. Moreover, it does a great disservice to an artist whose work was irreplaceable and entirely unique, cheapening a highly passionate and intelligent person, just like the printing of a two-dimensional image of the Sunflowers onto a tea towel.

* * *

Those same attributes that make van Gogh a great artist – his sincerity and his urgency – were also the attributes that made him something of a problematic human being. Painting was in fact his second vocational calling. A Christian of deep and profound faith, the young van Gogh first saw himself as a missionary. As a young man he lived a life of extreme piety, eschewing material goods, and basic comfort. He subsided on bread and water and slept on stone floors. If he came to possess a thing, he gave it to someone in greater need. His father, Theodorus van Gogh, a pastor, secured him a role as a lay preacher in Borinage, Belgium. The Borinage Evangelical committee wasted no time in ridding themselves of this fanatic; they declined the chance to renew his contract citing the overly-zealous nature of the young van Gogh.

Long before the infamous ear incident, van Gogh’s attitude towards women was heartfelt, passionate, and deeply inappropriate. Aged 29, living then in The Hague, van Gogh fell for two women. The first was a woman named Kee. His advances towards her were disapproved of by his family and local community, partially as Kee had been only recently widowed. More crucially still, because she was also a van Gogh – Vincent’s cousin. He wrote passionately about her to his brother Theo, and, as always, it is through these letters that we are able to understand the true Vincent van Gogh. When Kee van Gogh rejected his advances, Vincent turned his well-meaning, yet fundamentally indecorous, libido in the direction of another woman. Her name was Christine Hoornik, a woman older than Vincent van Gogh, working as a prostitute. The affair further disgraced him socially. Writing to Theo, Vincent outlined a vision of compassion towards a woman “marked by suffering and misfortune. If the earth has not been ploughed, one cannot grow anything in it. She has been ploughed – and for that reason I find in her more than in a whole heap of the unploughed.” A sincerely meant sentiment, yet certainly an odd one, and one that Ms Hoornik may not herself have found entirely to her liking.

Love, compassion, empathy, and faith were all then profound values, held dearly by van Gogh, and with plenty of overlap between them. The culmination of all these feelings resulted in an intensive personality and often manifested in incongruous conduct, enough to ensure that normality was probably never an option for him. Yet if van Gogh could not share love, domestic or divine, through orthodox channels, he would work ceaselessly to find another way. The van Gogh family were art dealers. There were paintings and prints to copy and canvases and brushes readily available. Through experimentation and self-tuition Vincent van Gogh steadily developed an ability to draw and paint. In doing so he would preach a deeply personal relationship to God and nature, and give purpose to his meandering and tumultuous life.

* * *

The story of van Gogh’s development as an artist is well known. His early work in his native Holland recalled French realist influences, chiefly that of Millet whose prints were popular and widespread at the time. His journey took him through Antwerp where he became quite taken with the work of Frans Hals and Peter Paul Rubens, both of whom were masters of those most van Gogh elements of painting, direct breathless brush strokes, and a bold use of colour. In Antwerp, van Gogh took lessons at the art academy, yet his formal entry submission was rejected and van Gogh found the students and instructors at the academy “hateful”. He resolved therefore to join his brother in Paris where he would find himself immersed in an aesthetic revolution of colour, feeling, and constant innovation.

There is no denying that the work of the Impressionists had an immediate impact on his painting. Here was a city and culture open to new ideas and new styles of painting. He made friends and acquaintances here too: artists and writers frequenting the bars of Paris exchanging ideas, sharing and critiquing work. Toulouse-Lautrec became a firm friend and admirer, painting a gorgeous portrait of the Dutchman, and once challenging someone to duel in defence of van Gogh’s reputation. Representation of subject became a secondary aim for the artist; now what mattered was the conveyance of mood, colour, and style. It was the perfect environment for the development of an artist known now as an expressionist in the purest sense. First to go was the Earth-brown that van Gogh had defaulted to in Holland. It was replaced by dabs of pretty blues against yellow, terracotta, and greens – soft and gentle, like pastels – similar to, but somewhat distinct from, the Impressionist work around him. Yet this was still not van Gogh; he had not found his voice.

Vincent Van Gogh Two Crabs, 1889
Two Crabs, 1889

Near the London sunflowers hangs a painting: Two Crabs. Against the mottled turquoise-green background, the crabs seem characterful, particularly the one on the left, displayed so that its underside is on show. Bits of the shell look almost like eyes. The crab seems strange, yet oddly charming. It is here that the other major influence on the van Gogh style feels acutely obvious. “My whole work is founded on the Japanese,” wrote Vincent to Theo. We see him once again learning through copying. He copied Flowering Plum Tree by Hiroshige, among others. Indeed, the popularity of prints and woodcuts across Europe meant that the influence of Japanese art was felt in the work of most artists in Paris at the time. Yet, while others decorated fans or included Japanese furniture in the backgrounds of their works, van Gogh took something deeper. The influence of Eastern art took his work a further step back from Western realism, into a world of bright vibrancy that borders on a kind of hyperreality, as evidenced in the Sunflowers.

In short, the fusion of Western modern art and Japanese styles synthesised perfectly in van Gogh’s art. Suddenly, a new aesthetic came naturally to him. Excited, van Gogh made plans to leave Paris, then very much the epicentre of modern art and European intellectual life, in solitary pursuit of a new type of painting down south, immersed in a world of bright colours and a deeper, closer connection to nature.

Vincent Van Gogh Flowering Plum Tree, 1887
Flowering Plum Tree, 1887

His friend and contemporary, Camille Pissarro, is often-quoted here. Remarking on his departure, Pissarro claimed that van Gogh “will either go insane or leave us all far behind.” It is a quote that fits poignantly into the tortured genius narrative, seemingly true on both counts. However, what is worth emphasising about the Paris years is that the style of Vincent van Gogh’s art did not form by anything resembling an accident. It was a rejection of realism and impressionism, a calculated style developed from study, experiment, and a real passion to create something new and meaningful.

* * *

In Arles, van Gogh attained a level of brilliance almost beyond comprehension. His output here was momentous: stars over rivers, yellow houses, cypress trees, portraits, self-portraits, irises, boats, and fields. Whenever van Gogh painted, he transcended the literal subject. Each canvas was unique, each one in some way a psychological self-portrait, each one an urgent message in a vision of hope and beauty. This extraordinary succession of masterpieces was painted at a relentless pace. He painted two or three canvases a day, the quality of the work breathtaking.

In 1888, van Gogh heard his friend Gauguin was in need of support. Vincent asked Theo to offer residency in Arles and, short of other offers, Gauguin accepted. A succession of paintings was made in anticipation of his arrival: Sunflowers – a bright manifesto of a new artistic style. Van Gogh was hopeful, and entirely unaware of the infamous disaster their cohabitation would prove.

Vincent Van Gogh Self Portrait, 1889
Self Portrait, 1889

Their relationship brought out the worst in each other. Gaugin was aloof, bored by provincial life, disdainful of his housemate. He painted a sneering portrait of Van Gogh at work before a row of sunflowers. The image upset Van Gogh greatly; he felt Gaugin had made him look like a lunatic. For his part, however, Van Gogh let his intensity and excitement get the better of him. He subordinated himself, declaring art to have a spiritual force, he made Gaugin the master of the house, and himself the sole acolyte in an order of one. Day and night he talked about painting and art theory with a maniacal single-mindedness that soon made Gaugin rethink the free living offered by the van Gogh family.

I have not lingered long on the relationship between van Gogh and Gaugin, largely because those months are much written about, have been adapted into film, and are readily available from a hundred better sources. Nevertheless the claustrophobic and combative residency culminated in Gaugin walking out of the yellow house. Gaugin would later write that as he departed, van Gogh pursued him carrying a knife – presumably the knife that he would use on himself shortly afterwards.

His letters to Theo never explicitly outline his thinking around this incident. Indeed, he may not have been thinking at all. Later, in the Saint-Rémy asylum, van Gogh would describe audio-visual hallucinations; he was drinking heavily too. However it is easy enough to see how Gaugin’s rejection of him would have felt like yet another entry in a litany of failed relationships, how van Gogh may have come to see himself as something fundamentally toxic and intolerable. That he turned to women in this moment has been misunderstood too. The earlobe was not a gift, was not part of some misguided courtship or a token of romantic obsession. Instead, van Gogh found affinity and trust among working girls; he saw them as marginalised, maligned, natural allies, and a place where an oddball such as himself could find refuge and affection. Still, the girls at the brothel alerted the police and committed him to medical care.

At the time, psychiatry was a discipline in its infancy. What mental ailments van Gogh suffered from precisely will never be known. Retrospectively various diagnoses such as depression and schizophrenia have been suggested, but, again, we will never know. In many ways though, the particulars do not matter. Van Gogh continued painting from Saint-Rémy, though he had lost the freedom to paint en plein air. He then painted from memory and imagination as much as anything else.

Vincent Van Gogh Blossoming Almond Tree, 1890
Blossoming Almond Tree, 1890

At Saint-Rémy, the van Gogh aesthetic darkened a little. There are more swirls and contortions. There is the gloomy image of Prisoners’ Round, the dark whirling sky of Starry Night, even his self-portraits of this era emerge from abstracted shimmering backgrounds. However, there were also beautiful images of hope, perhaps most notably the Blossoming Almond Tree painted as a gift to Theo on the birth of his son. The son was named Vincent after his uncle, and from Saint-Rémy, the artist was deeply touched to be named the boy’s godfather.

Saint-Rémy was a voluntary institution. During his time there he suffered from some bouts of anxiety and mania; he repeatedly ate paint from the tubes, claiming that it would complete the coalescence of art and artist. Despite this, van Gogh remained polite, compliant, and fully articulate. He seemed to want nothing else but to paint. Eventually he suggested to his therapist that the distressing location and situation he was in might actually be causing these attacks and requested a discharge so that he might travel to Paris and rejoin his family. The doctors were sufficiently impressed by his behaviour, his articulateness, and his willingness to accept his condition. Deciding he was neither mad, nor a risk to others, they assented and allowed van Gogh to return north.

* * *

The return to Paris was a bittersweet one. Works painted in isolation down in the south of France had been displayed in the capital. Contrary to myth, Vincent van Gogh was not ignored in his lifetime. True, his works were not yet selling, though he was talked of in artistic and intellectual circles across the city. Not all talk was positive of course, doubtless his exploits were already gaining him some notoriety, and yet van Gogh was indisputably a rising star. He did not reacclimatise to such a crowded environment. He moved to Auver-sur-Oise, a village on the outskirts of Paris, that could offer the right balance of rural tranquility with easy access to both the art world and his family. Crucially, he also struck up a friendship with a doctor named Gachet. Gachet specialised in melancholy, was interested in van Gogh’s art, and seemed a patient and compassionate therapist. He quickly gained van Gogh’s trust and, for a little while at least, Vincent van Gogh seemed contented and relaxed, while painting as prolifically as ever before.

Just as van Gogh never explained his reasons for cutting his ear back in Arles, neither did he explicitly state why on July 27, 1890, he elected to shoot himself in the chest. He survived the initial impact and saw his friend Dr Gachet and his brother Theo one last time. By all accounts he seemed calm, coherent, and considered. He was certainly not lost to the throes of mania; neither was he grandiose and pontificating on the artistic necessity of sacrifice and torment. His last words are reported to be simply, “I wish it was all over now.”

The van Goghs were entering a difficult period financially. Correspondence between Theo and Vincent explains the jeopardy Theo’s job was under, as well as Vincent’s expressions of guilt as he saw himself as his brother’s burden. He was also aware of the increased value placed upon the work of dead artists. Far from imagining that his work was doomed to perpetual obscurity, van Gogh wrote to Theo that there may well one day be a market for his works – though of course he would have never guessed the true extent of this premonition. In short, it is now believed that Vincent van Gogh’s suicide was less a product of an uncontrollable temperament, or indeed a romantic urge for melodrama, but was in fact a decision made of pure practicality. In one action, van Gogh could escape his growing fame, while repaying his family with a window of fleeting fame, and a bequeathment of paintings that could solve their collective problems. If it was a victory, it was perhaps a pyrrhic one. In the weeks that followed the funeral of his brother, a heartbroken Theo succumbed to delirium and passed away. Theo outlived Vincent by only six months and was buried beside him in Paris.

The story does not end there of course. Theo’s widow, Jo, inherited the complete works of Vincent van Gogh and made great efforts to promote his work and spread his name. If his act of suicide had some small hope of augmenting interest in his name, the reality exceeded any of his wildest expectations. The formula of a compelling story coupled with hundreds of new and exciting masterpieces made Vincent van Gogh the biggest name in modern art almost overnight. Private buyers scrambled to buy his paintings. Public galleries beseeched the family for the chance to display examples of his work in their collections. The National Gallery in London was one such institution, and taking into account its international reputation and visitor numbers, the van Gogh family decided to gift great examples of his work. Among the gifted canvases, they gave a signed copy of Vincent’s Sunflowers.

And so we are back to where we started. I think it appropriate not to conclude on a note of death, or mania, but on the art. Sunflowers is the quintessential van Gogh. “They are my flower,” he once wrote to Theo, and he is right. A sunflower in a vase wilts so quickly that only an artist comfortable working at speed can capture something of them. They are part of a tradition of Protestant Dutch imagery; the believer follows the light, just as the sunflower moves with the sun, and so van Gogh has succeeded in infiltrating modern art with his faith. The Sunflowers also represent a moment of happiness and hope in his thwarted life; the canvas bulges and pulses with that emotion. With the right eyes, you can see they are alive somehow, that Vincent van Gogh lives. ▲

Jake Kendall fell in love with art history while working at the Ashmolean Museum in his hometown of Oxford. He is currently studying his MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. You can follow his work and shameless self-promotion @jakendallox if you like.

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