The Smoking Guns of Van Gogh

by M-Gillies
The house where Van Gogh lived.

Vincent van Gogh’s yellow house. “And my aim in my life is to make pictures and drawings, as many and as well as I can; then, at the end of my life, I hope to pass away, looking back with love and tender regret, and thinking, ‘Oh, the pictures I might have made!’” Vincent van Gogh

With an affinity for vivid colours and the ability to capture the essence of sadness and despair in his work, Vincent Van Gogh grew to become known as an iconic and highly influential painter. However, success and happiness escaped the post-impressionist Dutch painter as he spent the majority of his life plagued with a lack of self-confidence, anxiety and bouts of mental illness, which eventually led to his suicide at the age of 37.

Born in Holland in 1853, Van Gogh began his life aspiring to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a pastor. Despite a number of failed attempts at passing exams and his dismissal from missionary work, Van Gogh eventually began studying art in Belgium. It was through art that he strived to bring happiness by creating beauty.

While his work at first portrayed a very somber-toned genre of paintings, it was his visit to Paris, where bright colors began to dominate his life and reflect into his art. Finding influence from impressionist paintings, Van Gogh eased away from the dark palette that he started with and honed his skills with short brushstrokes and brighter colors.

Even after befriending a number of post-impressionist painters, particularly Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh’s nervous temperament, poor diet, insomnia and long hours painting throughout the day made him a difficult companion, as well as an adversary to his own health. Heavily indulging in absinthe and smoking, Van Gogh’s health quickly took a sharp turn for the worse.

In 1888, while living in Aries, Van Gogh and Gauguin took up residence together in the yellow house. However, egos clashed as the relationship between the two friends began to deteriorate. Frequent quarrels and excessive tension dominated both artists until December, when a frustrated Van Gogh confronted his friend with a razor blade. Panicked by the situation, Van Gogh fled to a brothel which he frequented regularly.

In the wake of his deteriorating mental health, Van Gogh severed his left ear and wrapping it in a newspaper, offered it to a prostitute named Rachel with a request to keep this object carefully. After staggering home, Gauguin found the artist passed out with blood staining his head and promptly brought him to a nearby hospital.

Shortly after being treated for his severed ear, Van Gogh began to voluntarily commit himself into an asylum on a regular basis.

In July 1890, Van Gogh had arrived back to his home. Making his way to his room with difficulty, the innkeepers asked if everything was all right. Van Gogh responded by explaining that he had tried to kill himself with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. While the bullet didn’t kill him, his injuries caused him to slip in and out of consciousness that night. The next day, Van Gogh’s younger brother Theo arrived to stay by his brother’s side as he slipped into a coma and died.

In a letter to their sister, Theo wrote, “He himself wanted to die. When I sat at his bedside and said that we would try to get him better and that we hoped that he would then be spared this kind of despair, he said, the sadness will last forever.”

During Van Gogh’s funeral service, his body was set out in the painter’s room surrounded by what fellow artist and friend Emile Bernard described as a halo of his last canvases and masses of yellow flowers, while his folded easel and paint brushes rested before the coffin. At three O’clock, Van Gogh’s body was taken to the hearse.

Six months later, Theo Van Gogh died at the age of 33. Having been diagnosed with dementia paralytica, his death was reported to have been from hereditary chronic disease, overwork and sadness. While an admirer of his brother Vincent, Theo spent many years offering encouragement and financial support to his brother. In 1914, his body was exhumed and reburied next to Vincent’s at the Auvers-sur-Oise.

July 29 marks the anniversary of Van Gogh’s death, and since then his work has seen incredible posthumous success.

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