It will invite the question that hangs over his whole achievement, both as a painter and — almost as extraordinary — as an artist in words. What was the matter with Vincent van Gogh? And whatever it was, did it help or hinder him? In other words, were his mental problems integral to his gift, or just one of the many difficulties under which he laboured? His mental state certainly was serious. Under the circumstances, it was indeed unlikely that in 1889 the military authorities, even the French Foreign Legion, which he seemed to have in mind (Van Gogh had long hankered after the brilliant North African sun), would have taken him on.
He did not want this fresh ambition, Van Gogh added anxiously, to be taken as “a new act of madness” or an attempt at self-sacrifice. But, he pointed out sadly, his mental state “not only is but always has been distracted”. What he needed, he felt, was to live in circumstances “where I must follow a rule” — as in hospital or the army — only then could he feel “more tranquil”.
Less than a week later, on May 8, he was admitted by his own wish to the mental hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at St Rémy. He remained there for just over a year, before leaving to live under the care of Dr Paul Gachet in Auvers-sur-Oise, north Paris. There he shot himself through the chest on July 27, 1890 and died two days later, aged 37.
The poignant tragedy of his life has produced two contradictory images of the man. In the public mind, not surprisingly, he features as the archetypal “mad artist”, working in a frenzy of inspiration, drinking heavily, behaving wildly. On the other hand, art historians generally prefer to emphasise a different Van Gogh: an intellectual, thoughtful man whose work was the result of careful planning and whose letters, recently published and retranslated in a magisterial new edition (Thames & Hudson/Van Gogh Museum) reveal an eloquent and brilliant mind.
There is truth in both of these pictures. Van Gogh did, indeed, act strangely — according to evidence submitted by his neighbours in Arles, he carried out mild assaults on the local women, lifting one unexpectedly right off her feet. Fellow artists, such as the Scotsman Archibald Hartrick, who knew him in Paris, considered Vincent harmlessly “cracked”.
Van Gogh did drink too much. He says as much himself, on more than one occasion. During the scorching summer of 1888 — the period when he painted the ripe wheatfields on the plain outside Arles and later the sunflowers — he keyed himself up to that “high yellow note”, he later admitted, with a mixture of coffee and alcohol.
It is true that he worked at an astonishing rate. Some painters — Lucian Freud, Ingres — work slowly, while others, David Hockney, for instance, are much faster. Van Gogh produced pictures at recordbreaking speed. He boasted that the first version of L’Arlésienne — a portrait of Madame Ginoux, wife of the owner of the local café — was “knocked off in one hour” (later amended to 45 minutes) in early November, 1888.
When at work, he complained, his mind was stretched by the “dry calculation” of “balancing” the colours, “like an actor on the stage in a difficult role — where you have to think of a thousand things at the same time in a single half hour”. Afterwards, the only thing that “comforts and distracts — in my case as in others — is to stun oneself by taking a stiff drink or smoking very heavily”.
On December 22, 1888, the night before the final, ear-slicing explosion in the little house they were sharing, Paul Gauguin confided in a letter to a friend that he considered Van Gogh to be a similar case to the American writer Edgar Allen Poe, a “nervous temperament” become “alcoholic” because of his sorrows. All of this sounds like familiar bohemian behaviour. On the other hand, as the letters and sketches that will be on display at the Royal Academy make clear, Van Gogh’s work was thought out, often in advance, with supreme clarity. Madame Ginoux had been his landlady for months, and doubtless served him many drinks, so he had had ample time to consider how to paint her before he actually did so in that burst of furious energy.
Furthermore, Van Gogh was a reader and a deep thinker. He was an avid reader of novels — Zola, Balzac, Dickens and the Goncourt brothers. He devoured newspapers, journals and articles on Tolstoy, Petrarch, Boccaccio and Wagner. All in all, art historians have tended to consider Van Gogh’s mental problems an irrelevancy and concentrated on analysing his work and words. It is difficult, they point out, to make a firm diagnosis in a man who has been dead for 120 years.