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Wednesday Jul 29, 2009

Rooming with Vincent

On this day, Vincent van Gogh died in Auvers-sur-Oise, France in 1890.

From An Artist Empowered:

To be fair, the image of Vincent in the popular culture as the mad artist may be mostly misleading. In an essay on van Gogh’s masterpiece Starry Night, art history professor Albert Boime portrays a different picture of the Dutch painter who would come to represent the epitome, or the cliche, of the deranged artist. At times lucid, coherent, and productive, van Gogh also endured delusions, hallucinations, blackouts, and he had also cut off his own ear—which seems good reason for concluding that he was mentally ill.

However, it appears that far from being the isolated lunatic on the fringe, van Gogh was a practical and methodical artist with a healthy sense of his times, coupled with an interest in science, astronomy, poetry, and literature. As Becky Hendrick, in her fine book, Getting It, puts it: “He was a great painter in spite of his mental illness, not as a result of it.”

Van Gogh wasn’t mad when he painted or wrote letters, especially to his brother, Theo, which were clear, pragmatic, and mindful of his mission as an artist. One could argue, as Boime does, that Vincent was less mad and more a victim; he suffered seizures that were most likely brought on by a form of epilepsy; he didnt recall cutting off his earlobe, and this frightened him.

On July 27, 1890, van Gogh left for a nearby field (earlier that month in the fields he had painted vast stretches of wheat, crows, and turbulent skies) where he shot himself—which might be explained away by a seizure, but not why he had a pistol with him. (He died two days later.)