GIVEAWAY! Watch out for my discussion with A Dark and Stormy Book Club this Saturday about The Murder of Vincent Van Gogh

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Can Vincent van Gogh’s ear be rescued from the towering haystack of mainstream mythology?

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Finding one’s way to the true Vincent van Gogh, it turns out, is like searching for a needle in a haystack. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough information, but the opposite: there’s so much hay that it’s all-too-easy to get muddled and mixed up.

Take the ear narrative.  Even the newspapers of Van Gogh’s day couldn’t agree on whether he was Polish, whether he carried the severed ear holding it against his head, or wrapped in a newspaper, or what exactly he said to Rachel when he gave it to her. No one is certain who Rachel was either. A prostitute or a “respectable” cleaning girl?

To be fair, finding one’s way to the truth about anyone isn’t necessarily simple, or easy. Even those who have their hearts on their sleeves – on social media for instance – aren’t necessarily telling us who they are, as much as who they wish us to see. In a real sense, Van Gogh’s frenetic output of expressionist art was like so many Facebook posts, telling the world where he was, and what he saw. He was also very fond of selfies; even after cutting off his ear, he wasted little time in painting himself wrapped in a bandage.  In fact he did so twice, both times the bandaged ear facing towards the viewer.

Because of the mystery surrounding the ear [primarily why he did it], many have turned to these painted selfies as “self-harm” notes. It makes sense to do that, even if the analysis sometimes gets a little kookoo. That’s what I want to expose here: the experts trying to reconcile art history with a true crime scenario.

In a previous post, I provided a glimpse of my analysis of the bandaged ear portraits. In this blog, I want to look at the myth surrounding Still Life with a Plate of Onions.  This painting [below], was executed around January 7th, 1889, very soon after Van Gogh cut off his ear and was discharged from hospital. Take a good, long look at it. What does it say to you about self-harm? Does it say anything?

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Now,  if you click on the YouTube clip below, it opens at 39:09, precisely the moment the Van Gogh’s Ear documentary interrogates the heresy of this particular still life.  Check it out.

BBC: We’re now closer than ever before to the true picture of what drove Vincent, the night he cut his ear. And there’s also evidence, in the paintings, for what was really on his mind…it has proved a mine of clues for experts, as to Vincent’s state of mind that night…

According to the Kröller-Müller Museum, an hour’s drive south east of Amsterdam, which today holds Van Gogh’s Still Life with a Plate of Onions, the objects in the painting are:

…the plate of onions, the pipe with tobacco, the bottle of wine or absinthe, the pot of coffee, the calendar with the burning candle, the stick of sealing wax, the box of matches, the book Annuaire de la santé about good nutrition and hygiene and a letter from Theo.

The BBC quotes the museum, which holds the second largest collection of Van Gogh’s art [90 paintings and over 180 drawings] prevaricating over the portent of the letter from Theo. That letter, painted upside down, is the reason – they say – Van Gogh sliced off his ear. In it, Theo [GASP] tells his brother he’s decided to marry Johanna.

Think about that for a moment. Has one of your siblings ever announced their plans to get married? How did you react? Ever want to cut off your ear because someone else is getting married?

The Kröller-Müller Museum reckon Van Gogh’s reaction to this news was to cut off his ear. It doesn’t really ring true, unless one throws a large helping of madness into that theory. So that’s what they do; he was mentally unstable and this news drove him over the edge. Gauguin just happened to be there. See, the argument goes, Van Gogh had a reason to cut off his ear, but another part of that reason was that he was beyond reason. See, it doesn’t make sense.

The myth is sticky because it’s based to some extent on truth. Theo was Vincent’s patron, so Theo getting married, meant there was a potential threat to his patronage. But here’s where the art history psychology turns to crap. At the same time Theo was Vincent’s patron, he was also sponsoring Gauguin. If Theo was struggling to pay anyone’s bills, he wouldn’t have consented to pay Gauguin’s way as well as his brother’s – board, lodgings, paint supplies.

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If there was a reason to cut off his ear, it would be a letter from Theo saying, Hey bud, sorry, no more money. Please get a real job. In the hundreds of letters they exchanged, that never happened. Theo kept the faith in his brother until the very end. Theo didn’t waver when the older Van Gogh admitted himself to an asylum, nor when Theo actually married, nor even when the couple had their first child.

A better signal for Van Gogh that finances were being stretched, would have been a letter to Gauguin, from Theo, saying, Hey bud, sorry, no more money. Please wrap up at the Yellow House and good luck. 

In The Murder of Vincent van Gogh, I make the case that by cutting off his own ear, Van Gogh actually incurred massive expenditures for Theo – medical, the exorbitant cost of sending a telegram, and the expense of Theo having to travel down from Paris to Arles [from the north of France to the south] to come to the aid of his brother.

In his letters, after the ear incident, to Theo and Gauguin, Van Gogh was extremely anxious about these “unnecessary” expenses, and accusatory to Gauguin, telling him he should never have sent a letter to Theo, let alone summoned him all the way to Arles [Theo only stayed a day or two before returning to Paris].

If the older brother was worried his brother might shortchange him, then cutting off his own ear, and ratcheting up the financial damage certainly wasn’t helping that cause. So why do it?

Because he was mad?

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If he was mad why was he so conscious of the debits and credits in the Van Gogh Bros bank account? If he was so irresponsible to cut off his ear, would he really care about the cost of a telegram? Do mad people routinely sit down and churn out meticulous, handwritten letters, day after day, with carefully executed sketches alongside?

I don’t want to cover too much of that territory here. The museum is correct in that every painting does reveal the psychology of the artist. Where they’re mistaken, I believe, is firstly in selecting Still Life with a Plate of Onions as the best painting to analyze his psychology, and secondly, in their subjective interpretation of  the painting itself.

In my view, there couldn’t be more direct on-the-chin insights than in the two bandaged-ear self-portraits. These should be the first and second priorities to figuring what the artist is saying about his psychology as it was in Arles, in early January, 1889.

It’s not that Still Life with a Plate of Onions isn’t symbolic. The real issue is what do the symbols mean?

Sometimes we don’t see the symbols for what they are, we see what the symbols mean through our own filters. And so whatever narrative you’re fed, that’s going to fuel your bias when viewing his art.

The better way to interpreting the art is to know the narrative of the artist inside out, and also to contextualise his use of symbols in other paintings. It sounds complicated, but yellow, for example, is an identifying symbol. Size suggests importance and priority. Lights, like the sun, stars or a candle, indicate revelation or truth, or the Life Force.

With that in mind, let’s re-examine Still Life with a Plate of Onions.

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I appreciate the Kröller-Müller Museum interpreting this to mean Van Gogh returned from hospital, and set out the simple things on a table, in order to order his mind, settle himself, anchor his identity in simplicity. The perception is skewed, contaminated with the idea that Van Gogh was mad, and that his minded needed ordering.

I have another theory. Just as the self-portraits with the bandaged ears aren’t about a madman settling himself, neither is this still life. What’s being communicated isn’t an artist painting something in order to calm himself down, what he’s doing is painting a not-so-sublte accusation. He’s pointing the finger at the person who sliced off his ear, and his none to happy about it.

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Paul Gauguin’s self-portrait is titled Les Miserables. He has himself ensconced in Van Gogh’s Yellow House, with flowers buzzing irritatingly, mockingly around him. Meanwhile his friend, Émile Bernard, looks on, perhaps green with envy, or like a stamp sitting on the edge of an envelope. Gauguin looks bitter and moody in this portrait. Gauguin dedicated this self-portrait to Vincent van Gogh, apparently identifying with Victor Hugo’s anti-hero, a man who remains true to his personal morality despite being vilified by society. Bernard would later accuse Gauguin of stealing his ideas, and later returned the favor, painting a self-portrait of himself, with Gauguin watching him from a picture on a wall.

On one side of the table is an empty bottle of wine, on the other, a large green jug. Right in front of the bottle, is Van Gogh’s pipe. Van Gogh was rather attached to his pipe, he insisted on smoking it even after he’d been shot – that happened eighteen months after this painting.

On the other side of the table, beside the green jug, is a candle. Now, if you look at the chairs painted by Van Gogh in December 1888, just a month earlier, and a few days before he lost his ear, those paintings are also highly symbolic.

Van Gogh portrays Gauguin through rich tones of green and brown. On the cushion of the chair that symbolises Gauguin is an erect candle – the same blue candleholder is depicted in both executions. On Van Gogh’s chair, his pipe. The pipe and tobacco is right in front of the empty bottle of wine, representing Van Gogh.

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In the still life, what I see, is the empty bottle of wine, and that side of the table, representing Van Gogh. The other side, represented by the green and brown jug, and the candle, is Gauguin. Make sense? So far so, good, now – what about the rest?

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In the center of the table is a plate with four onions. Two artists, two smelly onions. Two onions are in the plate, and two, outside of it, one on the one side, the other on the other.

The onions inside the plate sort of have their heads leaning in opposite directions, an indication that the artists’ temperaments – towards life and art – were diametrically opposite. I may be reading in too much, but the two onions in the plate and the two onions outside, going their separate ways, seems to be symbolic of the artists being on the same plate, so to speak, and then, having too much on their plates, causing them to depart. And yet, in a sense, they’re apart while still on the same plate…

There’s a lot more to say about that, and the pact of silence the two reached after the incident, but let’s deal with the onion laying on the book, Annuaire de la santé, which the museum says is about good nutrition and hygiene.

The onion on the side of the plate is almost like an ear on the side of the head. The significance, in my view, of the book, echoes the significance of Van Gogh painting books in other works, including the painting he executed after his father’s sudden death.

This one:

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The bible in that painting, is a tribute to his father, a respected Protestant minister. The little, scrabby book in the corner, is a little dig at dad’s legacy. We can see, even in the trauma of his father’s death, Van Gogh’s not above adding his two cents. This is Van Gogh placing himself in proportion to his father, even in death.  His father’s book is enormous, dour and authoritative, Van Gogh’s is small, but an enervated yellow. Van Gogh’s father disapproved of him, and so the little book by Emile Zola, is like a modest rebuttal. A little like getting in the last word.

Van Gogh also painted books in his famous Portrait of Dr. Gachet, though curiously, the painting believed to be a fake, excludes them. Once again, everything is there for a reason, including the toxic digitalis plants, their significance explained in detail in The Murder of Vincent van Gogh.

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Through these analogous works, I’m simply trying to emphasise that Van Gogh inserting a book, or books into his paintings, isn’t for fun. The books say something about his philosophy about life, and in this instance, completely missed by the historians, museum and art experts is a book about health and hygiene. What is the father of expressionism, a guy flowing with words and expressing himself in symbols and colors, what’s he saying through this book?

Van Gogh places his modest little onion on that voluminous book, while Gauguin’s enormous onion with a huge plume, hugs the edge of the plate while a few black roots worm out of its rear.

Van Gogh seems to be saying: I’m basically a healthy guy, mentally and physically, empty bottles of wine notwithstanding. And since the huge health book casts a blue shadow, and even nudges directly against Theo’s letter [which is also in opposition to the direction of the book, like the onions in the plate], he seems to be suggesting conflict regarding his health. The letter is moving away from Van Gogh’s version of himself, and yet moving in his direction, like an arrow.

What? Suggesting conflicted versions about his mental health? That may seem an obvious contention, obviously there was controversy around Van Gogh’s health at the time of the ear incident. Well, it’a a lot more obvious than it seems. Van Gogh’s reinforcing the idea that he was healthy – mentally and physically – while Gauguin was calling him a lunatic. Van Gogh was healthy – he was taking long walks daily into the countryside. Was he a lunatic? Well, he wasn’t always easy to get along with, and he wasn’t always sober.

Let’s examine the painting one last time. Is there anything else that stands out?2637

Perhaps the most obvious message is the size of the kettle. It’s the biggest object in the painting, although there’s some subtlety in it. The pot seems smaller because it’s right at the back, the furthest away from the viewer, but it’s because it’s far away that one must intuit it’s actual size compared to everything else.

Most of the green pot is hidden under the rim of the table, and for that matter, so is most of what’s inside it.  It’s really the only object, besides one edge of the bottle of wine, that’s so completely obscured.

Is there any significance to the handle of the candleholder, and the handle of the pot, facing the same way, with the front pointing towards the same side of  the plate as the large, extravagant onion? Away from the book? Away from Theo and for that matter, Van Gogh himself? I think there is.

Last by not least is the stick of sealing wax. Sealing wax – used to seal letters. Why is it on the far side of the table, not beside the letter? Notice the matches, the sealing wax, and the light of illumination are all on Gauguin’s side of the table.

For those uncertain of the history between Van Gogh and Gauguin, Gauguin got the last word [and then some] on the whole ear incident. He got the last word with Theo, and because he headed to the art capital [Paris], he also got the last word with the art establishment.

When Van Gogh died, Gauguin didn’t pitch up either, but once again, he got the last word, reiterating that Van Gogh was a madman whom he didn’t wish to associate himself with. Gauguin maintained this narrative throughout his own life, while also crediting himself as a seminal influence on Van Gogh.

The sealing wax is emblematic of sealing someone’s fate. Gauguin’s departure from Arles sealed the fate of Van Gogh’s dream to start a Southern Studio. But even Van Gogh had no idea to what extent his fate had already been sealed when he executed this painting.

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Within days he was kicked out of the Yellow House, and banished from the town of Arles. After all the bad press regarding his ear, the entire town became agitated and riled up. Gossip and rumor took over.

The folks residing near the Yellow House in Place Lamartine gathered a bunch of signatures, which they handed to the mayor. They succeeded in having Van Gogh booted out of town for being a clear and present danger to society.

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With nowhere else to go, Van Gogh  admitted himself to an asylum. How many mad people do you know of, who’ve done that? To understand how this happened, one must be aware of Van Gogh’s options: they were very limited. But you didn’t get rid of Vincent van Gogh that easily. He’d figured out that it made economic sense to be a patient, since patients could hang around for free while they were receiving treatment.

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Van Gogh was treated as a patient in that he could stay there, but wasn’t regarded as a regular nutter. As such, he could come and go, and paint pretty much when it suited him, which was a fairly good result given the precarious circumstances he found himself in.

Eighteen months later, however, he was dead, and with him, the true story about what happened to his ear, and why, disappeared into thin air.

 

 

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Starry Night Over the Rhône was painted in Arles, a 1-2 minute walk from Van Gogh’s Yellow House studio. Van Gogh executed this picture in September 1888, before Gauguin arrived.

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Maddening Money Matters – Excerpt from The Murder of Vincent van Gogh

“[Gauguin] created a life for public consumption as part of his campaign to make his exhibitions – and therefore his future – a success.” ― Nancy Mowll Mathews

There was one thing, and only one, besides them both being artists, that Vincent and Gauguin had in common. They both had money difficulties. In a way, Vincent had an easier career, given the almost uninterrupted patronage of his brother. For Gauguin it was much tougher, especially since he came from privilege, even worked as stockbroker, and then suddenly had to deal with the effacement of poverty.

Gauguin did sell some of his works, including three pictures in 1888, but overall, he only became popular and successful after his death. I have already mentioned Gauguin was bitter, suffering with advanced syphilis and penniless at the time of his death, so much so he was driven to attempt suicide. The question is, was Vincent similarly twisted and tortured by the rigours of failure and moneylessness?

Although Vincent didn’t have it easy, the main difference with Gauguin was that Vincent had been struggling for far longer. He was used to it. He was a self-effacing kind of guy. One might even go so far as to say martyrdom was a default setting for Vincent. Is there any artist who worked as hard, or as long, for his art as this one?

In a December 2014 article published in Vanity Fair, the word “martyr” is mentioned four times. These instances are worth close and careful study:

…The chief purveyor of the suicide narrative was Van Gogh’s fellow artist Émile Bernard, who wrote the earliest version of artistic self-martyrdom in a letter to a critic whose favor he was currying… Boosted by the gripping tale of his final act of martyrdom, Van Gogh’s celebrity took off like a rocket…[Ultimately]Vincent chose to protect them as a final act of martyrdom.

The article ends with a quote from the curator of the Van Gogh Museum no less, saying that what happened to Van Gogh is “self-evident”:

“Vincent’s suicide has become the grand finale of the story of the martyr for art, it’s his crown of thorns.”

One could also argue that Vincent chose struggle and hardship [in the same way that he volunteered for treatment at Saint-Rémy], while Gauguin did his best [or is it worst] to avoid these hardships. One artist avoids effacement like the plague, the other is self-effacing to the point of martyrdom.  But if this is true, then Vincent was a lot more resilient in life than he’s given credit for. Well, resilient people don’t kill themselves.

Money forms an important backdrop to the ear incident, the shooting in Auvers and our new theory of resilience. We know how fraught the financial situation was leading up to that fateful Christmas in 1888. We’re less clear on how money played into the dynamics eighteen months later, or indeed, for the decades following his death.

Since we are dealing with the world’s most valuable artist, with canvases that today are worth tens of millions, it’s vital we investigate both ends of this spectrum – how Vincent dealt with having no money, and how and why the world decided he should be worth more than any other artist. Was he really a martyr, in the absolute sense, he’s been made out to be?

 

There seems to me to be the same inversion at work here, where the madder and more troubled the artist, the more valuable his work [as it applies to Vincent van Gogh]. The mirror provided by interminable financial struggle reflects his obsessive commitment and mad frustration. The poorer he was, the greater the struggle, the more valuable, and valiant, his efforts. Conversely, if Vincent was less mad, less of a martyr, and not quite as deprived as he’s depicted, then his story is less inspiring and his art “self-evidently” less impressive, and less valuable.

Now let’s test the authenticity, and the portent, of the money narrative.

A Peek inside the Purse

More than half of Vincent’s correspondence to Theo contains references to the word “money”. A handy tool in the webexhibits archive, allows one to track the instances money comes up in their correspondence. It comes up in 372 letters. At a glance one can see that…

The Murder of Vincent van Gogh is available for purchase here.

How and Why I chose Van Gogh as a True Crime Investigation

I didn’t plan on writing a book about Vincent van Gogh, in fact, if anything, I planned not to. I was on holiday after writing Slaughter, a 522 page behemoth of a book, and an incredibly draining book that squeezed a lot out of me. A lot of emotion, a lot of psychological focus, it basically hollowed me out to write it. So, when I took time off after Slaughter, I meant it.

Part of the holiday from writing involved re-balancing, especially fitness. I gained a huge amount of weight while nailing Slaughter down,  and the alarm bells rang when I went over 100 kilograms – the first time ever. So I used my time off by day, to hit the gym, squash courts, tennis courts and getting back into regular Park Runs. By night, I ended up watching some of the documentaries I’d put on the back burner. One of them was Loving Vincent.

I’d seen the previews, and read some of the reviews, so I expected to be impressed by this film, the first fully oil-painted animation motion picture. What I didn’t expect, was the plot of the film. It was a true crime investigation set in the France of Van Gogh’s day, occupied by the same characters, a year after his death. It was the last thing I expected, but it certainly piqued my interest.

After the film raised a number of serious problems with the mainstream narrative [all rooted in historical fact], I trusted Loving Vincent to resolve the various riddles it had presented along the investigative/speculative journey. When it didn’t, I felt cheated, and I wasn’t the only one, but I felt something else. I saw there was clearly the machinations for a true crime case here, only, I wasn’t sure if I pursued them, what they would point to, if anything.

And so, simply being curious, I started watching more documentaries, just for fun, and reading what I could find online. The more I watched, the more it became a kind of addiction. It was very compelling. I was very surprised how much uncertainty and controversy there was around the major milestones in Van Gogh’s life history: the murkiness around the ear slicing, the mystery surrounding his madness, and best [or worst of all], the strange intrigue surrounding his death.

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In this extract from Lust for Life, published in 1934, and itself a derivative from another book on Van Gogh’s letters, the author claims that apart from a few exceptions, his narrative “is entirely true”. It wasn’t even close. The film version, which appeared in 1956, perpetuated and reinforced Stone’s mistakes.

It was laughable just how wrong early authors like Irving Stone got the story, but it made sense that someone very early on screwed up, and that the world ran with the screwed up version of events. It really surprised me that Van Gogh’s art never became what it is today because it – the art – was able to stand on its own. Instead, it was the stories – especially his letters – surrounding the art, that seemed to give it added value. So how much were these stories true, and particularly the film Lust for Life, which set Van Gogh up in the American market? How true were they?

Lust for Life depicted Van Gogh as a suitably miserable, suicidal wretch. What the author and filmmakers were doing, though, was reverse engineering the end [the suicide] to fit the narrative. So they cherry-picked quotes and incidents that matched the suicide narrative. Van Gogh being Van Gogh, that wasn’t hard to do.  And so, this was how Kirk Douglas portrayed Van Gogh – as so lonely, so much of an outcast, he’d sit alone while the town partied, tear his hair and burst into tears…

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Lust for Life, the almost “entirely accurate” early version, also depicted crows flying into Van Gogh’s alleged last painting, literally colliding with the artist and the canvas, leading Van Gogh to change it from a wheatfield, to Wheat field with Crows. Then, immediately after that horrible experience, Van Gogh scribbles a suicide note [which the wind blows away one imagines], and shoots himself.

There’s a serious problem with this incredibly dimwitted portrayal – it’s the question of how Wheat field with Crows magically made its way back to the artist’s room after he shot himself? Did he paint it, shoot himself, then carry the art work back to his room, careful not to get any blood on it?

See, if Irving Stone was any kind of decent true crime writer, he’d have thought these things through. Nevertheless, the mythology stuck, and so today, the mainstream seem to think Wheat field with Crows [also titled Wheatfield with Crows] is the last painting Van Gogh painted [it’s not], and so it’s heavily symbolic – those crows meant he was telling the world what he meant to do.

In reality, Van Gogh’s art equipment disappeared at the same time the gun did, which is why mystery surrounds where the shooting happened. Why would that be a mystery, unless someone else was hiding something…

Also, the Lust for Life scenario depicting a suicide note is false. Yes, we’d expect an expressive letter-writing machine like Van Gogh to write a suicide note, only, there isn’t one. Why not?

No suicide note. The weapon – gone. The painting equipment he’d taken with him that day – also gone. And then the forensic evidence. Why would someone who wanted to kill himself, prolong his agony by shooting himself in stomach, and from a really weird angle? If he’d made a mess of the first shot, why not shoot himself again, properly?

Fullscreen capture 20180430 224506Fullscreen capture 20180430 224509Fullscreen capture 20180430 224627Fullscreen capture 20180430 224610Okay, so things were a bit dodgy, and didn’t quite add up, but Van Gogh said he cut off his ear, and said he’d shot himself. Why would say that if he hadn’t? That was the pertinent question that deserved an authentic answer. To get to it would require a deep dive, and that would take time and effort.

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And so I dug some more. There were plenty of resources that simply recycled what other  resources said, just as Lust for Life [the film] recycled the dodgy narrative of the book. As I unearthed more and more dramatisations, and older narratives, I realised just how unsettled and uncertain the Van Gogh narrative was.  It had been evolving, swinging like a pendulum from one narrative to the next, one scientific discovery, one witness version to the next. What was needed was to integrate all of this information, and filter through it in search of something that held together, something that made sense.

Since I’m no art historian, I didn’t think that was something I particularly felt like doing. And if this wasn’t true crime, what was the point in establishing exactly what happened on the night he cut off his ear?

As I absorbed more and more information, again, just because I found it interesting, I began to see – intuitively at least – the possibility that if Van Gogh didn’t cut off his ear, then the madness and suicide narrative might be bogus too. All three narratives sort of reinforce one another. If you remove any of one of them, the others become quite shaky. And so, I wondered if – theoretically – it was possible to disprove any of them and thus all of them…

There was something else about Loving Vincent…a particular character that had given me an uneasy feeling. And it turned out, this sinister aspect to the narrative wasn’t cinematic license by the filmmakers, many other authors and eyewitnesses mentioned the same thing.  So there was this mismatching behavior at the scene of the suicide/murder…what did it mean?

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I started researching the ear narrative. This was easy to do, because Bernadette Murphy had written a book, which also had a companion documentary explicating her findings.

Murphy basically showed how the ear narrative evolved, from Van Gogh slicing off the whole thing, to a large piece, to a small piece…  So what had actually happened? It seemed a pointless investigation, because Van Gogh had said he’d cut off his ear – did it really matter how much ear? Well of course it did – the more ear he cut off, the more mad he had to be, right?

As I followed the various rabbitholes I realised how much research material there was on this case. I’d expected pretty much everything to be very general hearsay, but since this is the world’s most expensive artist, I was happy to be proved wrong. And so, this was the game changer for me. The archive of evidence, versions, testimonies, was like Mount Everest. For the kind of true crime interrogation I like to do, you need a mountain to mine through, to strip down to the precious, essential ores, to expose those hidden veins of glittering gold.

I was surprised to find forensic reports and police statements. But more than anything, more precious than anything, was the virtually daily archive from the artist himself – through his letters, and through his paintings.

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Since I’d written a long-form series of magazine articles profiling more than a dozen South African masters, including my great grandfather, I knew I was up to the task of analysing Van Gogh’s art. I had no idea where such an analysis would take me, but the psychological train had left the station, and I was very curious where it was heading…

Remember the sinister fellow I referred to above? He sketched this picture [below left], of Van Gogh dead, on his deathbed. In this sketch you can see the side of his face missing the ear [his left ear]. The artist was a shitty artist, which is why you tend to see what you want to see.  Some people see the ruined flesh where there’d been an ear, others see the curve of the pinna. Thanks to Bernadette Murphy’s research [published in 2016] she unearthed a sketch laying this matter to rest. Sort of. The physician who treated Van Gogh produced this sketch [below on the right], clearly showing that pretty much all of the ear was sliced off.

Murphy didn’t seem particularly interested in who sliced the ear off, and even less interested in the suicide versus murder narrative. But she’d done enough for me to have a few vital pieces to set up the framework of a psychological puzzle. In another narrative, Van Gogh: The Life, [published in October 2011], more psychological puzzle pieces were proffered.  The prize-winning investigative journos cunningly and compellingly disproved the suicide narrative, thus opening the door to an alternative. Again, I don’t think their version works, but their theory disproving the suicide narrative indicated I wasn’t alone in making an educated guess that that narrative was bogus.

Incidentally, even Wikipedia won’t commit itself to suicide these days, as an explanation for Van Gogh’s death.

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But why be so vague about it? Either he killed himself or “others” killed him? That’s quite a big “or” for one of the world’s most famous, beloved and most valuable artists?

Again, the hurdles remained: why would Van Gogh lie about his ear, and why would he lie about killing himself…

The fact that these questions could be juxtaposed side-by-side were a vital psychological clue, the significance of which only became explicit later. Forensic evidence proved to be extremely compelling against the suicide scenario – not only had Van Gogh been shot in the stomach, but downward, away from the heart… Why would anyone do that? Because they were mad?

The more I read, the more shaky the whole narrative was becoming. I was sure I could disprove the suicide narrative, and confident there was a case that Van Gogh hadn’t cut off his own ear. I’m not going to go into that here, because the whole Gauguin scenario is a huge can of worms in and of itself. The stickier thing was the mad-tortured artist narrative. How did one deal with that, because, after all, Van Gogh’s life speaks for itself, and so does his art…  That, of course, was the solution.  In order to interrogate his madness, how crazy he might have been, or how sane, meant digging through those letters, examining those paintings chronologically, and working through the meat and potatoes of Van Gogh’s life.

I started The Murder of Vincent van Gogh suspecting I’d hit a dead-end that would send me back the way I’d come, with my author’s tail between my legs, and an apology. But the intuitions I set out with, bore unexpected fruit. I produced a compelling scenario that identifies a murderer, a motive and a context that resonates deeply with Van Gogh’s reality, and the contextual reality of his time. It makes sense psychologically, and explains the many odd things related to the artist’s final hours and death.

In the JonBenet Ramsey case, I suspected the problem wasn’t the caliber of research, but the lens that was shaping all of it. Was the same thing corrupting the truth here?

I considered the possibility that art historians and prize-winning researchers were simply too unfamiliar with true crime to be able to contribute meaningfully to it, which meant, maybe, I could. Many who are very close to true crime remain baffled by it, including lawyers, court reporters and some shitty true crime authors.  Was that the case here, or was being an arrogant shit?

The book has been edited by a Dutch-based editor familiar with Van Gogh’s story, but who was nevertheless blown away by the findings. So was I, and that’s not trying to blow a horn, I think anyone who approached this case through the lens of true crime, integrated the information and interpreted it, leaning on the shoulders of Naifeh-Smith and Murphy for some support [and knowing when not to], would have reached the same conclusion.

I do believe the evidence clearly supports the fact that Van Gogh didn’t kill himself, but was intentionally and deliberately murdered. The ear incident mirrors this; Van Gogh didn’t cut off his ear, someone else sliced it off. And finally, Van Gogh wasn’t mad. I’d hoped to disprove at least one of these three narratives, I didn’t expect to field a narrative smashing all three bogus skittles.

When the book was finished I couldn’t help feeling a hollow sense of why? Not why was he murdered, why lie about it? It occurred to me that the world 130 years ago, and across that span of time, hasn’t changed much when it comes to being economical with the truth. I use that word deliberately. How come the true story around the world’s most expensive artist has been hidden for so long? Who stood to gain from manipulating the masses into thinking Van Gogh was madder, more tortured and suicidal than he was, when he wasn’t? Well, can’t you guess?

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If Vincent van Gogh didn’t cut off his ear, who did?

24sun3web-master768Some people reckon Vincent van Gogh was the original king of selfies. In Paris, in 1886 he did around eleven self-portraits, the following year [still in Paris], he churned out another seventeen. In Arles, in 1888 and early 1889, he produced just five, two of them with the famous bandage around his severed left ear.

Over the next year, while in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, his selfie output dropped even further, to just three. This is strange, because if there was a time for introspection, it was during those interminable months alone in the madhouse. But unhappy people, like unhappy artists, tend to be camera shy, not so? In the final two months of Vincent’s life, in Arles, he didn’t paint a single self-portrait either. But what does all this have to do with severed ears?

500x0Given the controversy surrounding “the ear incident”, Van Gogh’s 35-or-so self portraits are a valuable archive. Does he paint the side of his face missing the ear after December 1888? Does he see himself as mad? What is he saying?

When we examine the two self-portraits painted within days of losing his ear, we notice a few things different about them. For one, he’s wearing strange headgear – a blue beret – in both post severed ear selfies. In all his self-portraits, there are about eleven where he depicts himself wearing a hat of some kind, in other words, a hat features in a third of of his self-portraits. The hats are invariably yellow straw hats, used by the artist when he was outdoors as a sun shield.

All the Arles selfies are drawn showing Van Gogh’s left side, while all of those painted afterwards [just three], in Saint-Rémy, are painted from the right.

In The Murder of Vincent van Gogh I go into a lot more detail about the circumstances and psychology of Van Gogh leading to the ear incident at Arles, and the aftermath. I won’t be doing much of that here. What I want to highlight here is one fairly obvious fact, and it has to do with Vincent’s housemate in the Yellow House, for just on two months in Arles – Paul Gauguin.

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The whole scenario of the two artists who don’t know each other, suddenly living with one another cheek by jowl in a foreign city, reminds me of Meredith Kercher and Amanda Knox in Perugia. And look how that ended. Kercher was stabbed to death in the throat of her own room, and Knox emerged as a suspect, but ultimately dodged being found guilty of Kercher’s murder.

The time scale is also similiar;  just as Kercher had spent several weeks in Perugia settling down and getting orientated before Knox pitched up, Van Gogh did the same in Arles. Then Knox arrived and within about six weeks Kercher was dead, and the entire villa [a bloodbath] had to be abandoned by everyone. The same happened to the Yellow House. The main difference is Knox wasn’t allowed to leave, while Paul Gauguin did, two days after the ear incident.

The mainstream narrative holds that Van Gogh cut off his own ear. There’s been some uncertainty about how much ear – the whole ear [meaning he was very mad], a piece of ear [meaning he wasn’t so mad], or someone else carved off the ear with a rapier [meaning he wasn’t mad at all, just horrible to live with].

How mad was #VincentvanGogh?

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The best source for what really happened to Van Gogh’s ear, however, is Van Gogh himself. He does write about it, but once again, I dealt with that in detail in The Murder of Vincent van Gogh, including the latest historical evidence related to the ear narrative.

What I will say is there’s a strange arrangement between Gauguin and Van Gogh after the incident, where both artists sort of agree not to talk about it [Gauguin doesn’t honor the agreement and goes behind Van Gogh’s back, telling everyone who will listen what a lunatic his former housemate is…]

There’s also the issue where Gauguin exits the Yellow House and bugs out to Paris taking two of Van Gogh’s most prized paintings – his depictions of sunflowers. [One would later be auctioned for tens of millions of dollars, a new world record in its time, eclipsing the previous record by a factor of 4]. Van Gogh was clearly pissed off by this, which is why he wrote to Gauguin asking for them back, and bitching to Theo about the whole deal. So there’s lots of intrigue, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on those self-portraits painted just after the ear incident. It couldn’t have been fun; it was mid-winter and the wound under those bandages was probably still throbbing and oozing blood. An artery had been severed near the top of the pinna, which almost caused the artist to bleed to death.

It all seems to be in the eyes, doesn’t it? In the left image, notice how the horizon between red and orange actually directs the viewer to the line of Van Gogh’s eyes, as does the smoke from his pipe. The smoke over the crimson background also seems to be suggesting “things aren’t always what they seem.”

A quote from my latest book The Murder of Vincent van Gogh.

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But look closer at the other portrait, and there’s a suggestion in the Japanense picture at the rear, that she is pointing towards the eyes.

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At this scale it’s clear it’s not the hand or fingers of the Japanese lady at all, but the open beak of bird, perhaps a stalk, crying out in the direction of Van Gogh’s blazing green eyeball. And that’s the other thing – the green.

Going through Van Gogh’s self-portraits, these two have an abundance of green, don’t they. Van Gogh’s actually clothed in it, even the wall behind him and his face, in the second image, is green.

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Could all that green, even the green in the eye of the beholder, have anything to do with that expression: being green with envy? And yes, the English idiom translates to Dutch.*

Er zit iets zwarts in het groen van je oog.///There’s something black in the green part of your eye

Remember, these were two artists living side by side and clearly, not getting along. Van Gogh said as much in his letters to Theo, and Gauguin made no bones about it either.

Did Gauguin and #VincentvanGogh get along in the Yellow House?

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So the two artists didn’t get along because Vincent was mad, or was Gauguin mad [angry] because of…well, envy? I’m not the only one casting these aspersions, though…

What pray tell did Gauguin have to be envious about? Well, Van Gogh’s motivation for one. He felt it was becoming a competition, and certainly outputwise, and on the spectrum of inspiration, Van Gogh was streets ahead. Van Gogh also had a patron, in his brother, who basically paid his brother’s way so he could paint to his heart’s content. Interestingly, Gauguin arrived in Arles as another sponsored artist, sponsored by Theo, but falling short perhaps in their eyes, and who knows, perhaps his own too.

Much of this has a mirror dimension in the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case. There has been speculation that Knox was jealous of Kercher, who was a more likable and attractive girl, more settled, more socialized, and had the lion’s share of friends and if she wanted, boyfriends. Knox was later the prime suspect in Kercher’s murder, but was at pains to argue that she and Meredith had been friends to the end. Like Gauguin, Knox wasn’t at home but sleeping somewhere else when the incident in question happened, and both were the “last to know” something had happened.

Here’s the mainstream depiction of Van Gogh cutting off his own ear. It’s preceded, of course, with a row with Gauguin. In Gauguin’s version of events Vincent actually approached him with a razor. Gauguin merely turned around, looked at Vincent, prompting Van Gogh to turn tail, run home and cut off his ear. But does that really ring true?

While researching The Murder of Vincent van Gogh it was easy to get caught up and distracted in the various versions of Van Gogh. In the above depiction the filmmakers seem to have forgotten the events took place just before Christmas in 1888; midwinter in Arles, and a miserable period otherwise, when the Mistral blows through the twisting streets like nobody’s business. So there is no way Van Gogh would be walking around without a shirt on.

Over the past 130 years, there have been countless versions of the ear incident; from art historians, biographers and documentary filmmakers to journalists and authors – everyone has a theory. None of these folks are true crime aficionados though, and none of them are approaching these incidents [the gouged ear and the his death] as criminal incidents. Why not? The French police arrived on the scene on both occasions precisely because a man’s blood was spilled. And even in suicide, it’s important to establish a motive for murder; the murder of the self is still murder, there’s still a motive.

Turning to those self-portraits, what does Van Gogh say about the whole deal? What does he say beyond a look in the eye?

Incredibly, earlier that same month, December 1888, the month of the ear incident, Van Gogh painted two chairs; one symbolizing himself, the other symbolizing Gauguin. This is not in dispute. Van Gogh’s chair is modest, simple and plain [like the man], Gauguin’s is sort of lavish, earthy and has an exotic feel about it. Van Gogh’s chair feels like yellow straw, much of it has a golden vibe about it, Gauguin’s chair [and the wall behind it] is a rich green. It’s important to see the original colors of these art works, because after more than a century, the colors have faded, concealing the original intent, the original code, embedded in the paintings.

Now it’s important to note, the chairs were painted in December before the ear incident, and both chairs were emblematic of the artists. Look at how green Gauguin’s chair is. The seat is a puffy cushion in rich green and gold lint. Behind the chair is a forest green wall.

When Van Gogh painted a portrait of Gauguin, he also used green [on his coat, and the wall] to personify Gauguin. He also has Gauguin turned away from him, preoccupied with his own thoughts, his own world…

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Now look at the self-portraits after the ear incident. For the first time in any of his portraits, Van Gogh is clothed in a really thick, green coat. Look closer and the green coat has specks of gold in it. Van Gogh may have agreed with Gauguin, in their letters, not to talk of the incident, but the self-portraits, when the emotions were still running high, speak volumes. The injured Van Gogh looks out, but how much of his green eyes are Van Gogh’s eyes, and how much are they a reflected green [off the room, and his coat]. In other words, he’s not only clothed in Gauguin’s envy, but how the world sees him, is through Gauguin’s disparaging [and envious] eyes…

If these contentions are true, if Van Gogh didn’t cut off his own ear, if Gauguin sliced it off with one of his swords, then we have to ask: was Van Gogh as mad as he’s been made out to be? Was he even mad to begin with? And if he wasn’t mad, was he suicidal?

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Unfortunately the clip above cuts off before Van Gogh [played by Andy Serkis] refers to being driven to the heights of his art, by his illness. What did he mean by “illness”? Madness, or something else?

The Murder of Vincent van Gogh is available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited at this link.

Van Gogh Murder Final

*Van Gogh was a bookworm, and wrote to Theo about enjoying Shakespeare. The “green with envy” idiom originates from Shakespeare’s Othello, a work Van Gogh was undoubtedly familiar with.

 “Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

 

Vincent van Gogh’s letter to Theo, January 1882, outlining his rows with ‘Pa’ and ‘Ma’

You mustn’t think that I’m sending the letter back to insult you, but I find this the quickest way to answer it clearly. And if you didn’t have your letter back, you wouldn’t be able to understand what my answer refers to, whereas now the numbers guide you. I have no time, I’m waiting for a model today.
Because I have only a little time, I knew no better means of answering your letter than to answer one thing and another like this, point by point.
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(1) I didn’t ‘contrive’ to do it, on the contrary, when Pa was here,1 Mauve, Pa and I talked about my renting a studio in Etten – spending the winter there – coming back to The Hague in the spring. Because of the models and because I’d arranged to work there, and it was beginning to go well.
All the same, I’d have liked to prolong my stay in The Hague a bit, since I was here anyway, but nonetheless I seriously intended continuing my studies of the Brabant peasant types. And when I was crossed in realizing that plan, after M. had been consulted and I had already written to him about the studio in question (a shed which needed some repairs), I couldn’t suppress my anger.
Please remember one of my letters to you in which I wrote to you in broad terms about my plan to continue those studies.2 I mean the letter in which I asked you to say a few heartfelt words to impress upon Pa and Ma how important my work in Etten was to me &c. I remember the words I used: it really would be too bad if a whim of Pa were to make me give up work which is now progressing so well and which I’ve been working on for months. Think about it yourself – despite Mauve’s help, I’m in far more trouble here than at home, and I truly don’t know how I’ll get by.
2) That expression that I contrive to make Pa and Ma’s life miserable is actually not yours, I’ve known it for a long time as one of Pa’s Jesuitisms, and also told Pa and Ma that I considered it a Jesuitism and didn’t take the slightest notice of it.
Pa regularly comes up with some such saying if someone says something to him that he doesn’t know how to answer, and says, among other things, ‘you’ll be the death of me’, while calmly reading the newspaper and smoking his pipe. So I take such expressions at their face value.  1v:3
Or else Pa gets incredibly angry and is used to people being afraid, and it surprises Pa if people don’t give way to his anger.
Pa is very easily hurt and irritable and full of obstinacies in domestic life and is used to getting his way. And the category ‘the conventions and rules of this house’, which I’m supposed to observe, includes literally everything that comes into Pa’s head.
3) ‘Fighting with an old man isn’t difficult &c.’ Because Pais an old man I’ve spared him a hundred times, and tolerated things that are well-nigh intolerable. Well, this time it wasn’t fighting but simply saying ‘enough’, and because he wasn’t listening to reason and common sense I said it outright for once, and it’s very good indeed that Pa has finally heard one thing and another spoken plainly that others sometimes think as well.
4) That it won’t be put to rights quickly. For appearances’ sake I straightened things out by writing again to Pa to say that I’d rented a studio, that I also wished him a happy New Year, that I hoped that in that new year we should no longer fight in that way or in any other manner. I’m not doing any more about it, I don’t have to do any more about it. If this last scene were the only one of its kind, it would be different, but it was preceded by other scenes, when I’d said to Pa, in a calmer yet resolute way, many things that His Hon. systematically brushed aside one by one. So as regards those things I said in anger, I think the same things in a calmer mood, only then I refrain from saying them out of diplomacy or I say them in another way. But all diplomacy abandoned me when I got angry, and, well, now I’ve finally said it. I’m not asking for an apology, and as long as Pa and Ma take this attitude I won’t take any of it back. If, later on, they possibly become a bit more humane and sensitive and fair, then I’ll be glad to take it all back. But I doubt if that will happen.

5) That Pa and Ma can’t stand it if there’s bad blood &c. That’s true inasmuch as they create a desert around themselves and are making their old age miserable, even though it could be good and satisfying. But as to those expressions, ‘I can’t stand it’, ‘this will be the death of me’, ‘my life is a misery’, I no longer take any notice, because it’s only a mannerism. And if they don’t change, I fear, as I already said, that they’re in for many miserable and lonely days.
6) That I’ll regret it &c. Before things got as bad as they are now, I felt a great deal of remorse and sorrow, and tormented myself because things were going so badly between Pa and Maand me. But now that it’s come to this, well, so be it, and to tell you the truth I’m no longer sorry but can’t help feeling relieved. If I realize later that I did the wrong thing, yes, then of course I’ll regret it, but I still don’t exactly see how it would have been possible to act otherwise. When someone tells me in no uncertain terms, ‘leave my house, the sooner the better, within the half-hour rather than the hour’, well, old chap, then I’m out in less than a quarter of an hour, and won’t come back again either. It really is too bad. For financial reasons, and so as not to cause you or anyone else any more trouble, I wouldn’t have left so easily of my own accord, you surely understand that, but now that they and not I said ‘go away’, well, the path I must take is clear enough.  2r:4
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7) As far as Mauve is concerned – yes of course I’m very fond of M., and sympathize with him, I like his work very much – and I consider myself fortunate to learn something from him, but I can’t shut myself up in a system or school any more than Mauve himself can, and in addition to Mauve and Mauve’s work, I also like others who are very different and work very differently. And as far as me and my own work are concerned, perhaps there’s a similarity sometimes, but certainly also a distinct difference. If I love someone or something, then I mean it, and there is definitely passion and fire sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that I systematically find only some people perfect and all the others worthless – God forbid.
8) Free-thinking: actually that’s a word I loathe, though I’m sometimes forced to use it for want of something better.
9) The thing is that I’m doing my best to think things through and try to take reason and common sense into account in what I do. And it would be totally inconsistent with that if one wanted to reduce someone to nothing. So it’s entirely true that I sometimes said to Pa ‘do consider this or that fully’, or ‘this or that doesn’t hold water in my opinion’, but that isn’t trying to reduce someone to nothing. And I’m not Pa’s enemy if I tell him the truth for once, not even when I said it angrily in salty language. Only it didn’t help me at all, and Pa took it badly. Does Pa mean that I said that the morality and religious system of the clergymen and academic notions aren’t worth tuppence to me since I’ve learned many of their tricks, then I certainly won’t take it back, because I really mean it. It’s only in a calm mood that I don’t talk about it, but it’s something else if one tries, for instance, to force me to go to church or to attach value to it, then of course I say it’s absolutely out of the question.images
10) Does Pa’s life count for nothing? I already said that if I hear someone say ‘you’ll be the death of me’, and all the while that man is reading his newspaper and half a minute later starts talking about goodness knows what advertisement, then I find such an expression rather inappropriate and unnecessary and pay no attention to it. As soon as those words or suchlike are repeated to others, who then start to look upon me as something of a murderer or even a parricide, then I say, such calumnies are neither more nor less than Jesuitisms. So there you have it. Besides, now the murderer has left home and so, in a word, I take no notice of it, and I even think it ridiculous.
11) You say ‘I don’t understand you’. Well, that I certainly believe, because writing is actually an awful way to explain things to each other. And it takes a lot of time, and you and I have rather a lot to do. But we must have a bit of patience with one another until we see and speak to one another again. 2v:5
12) Write to me again. Yes of course, but first I have to agree with you on how.
Do you want me to write in a sort of business style, dry and formal and picking and choosing my words and actually saying nothing?
Or do you want me to go on writing just as I’ve been doing recently, telling you everything that pops into my head without being afraid to let fly, without mincing my words or holding back.
I prefer to do the latter, namely write or say plainly what I mean.
And now I’ll end my direct answer to your letter because I still have to speak to you about drawing &c., and I prefer to talk about that. Please bear with me if I pretend for the time being that Pa and Ma don’t exist, it would have been much better if I’d spent this winter in Etten, and it would have been much easier for me, particularly for financial reasons. If I were to think and fret about it, it would make me despondent, so that’s it, it’s over. Now I’m here and I have to manage somehow. If I were to write to Pa about it again, it would be adding fuel to the flames, and I don’t want to get so angry again, and I’m throwing myself with all my might into life and things here, what else can I do? Etten is lost and Het Heike, but I’ll try to regain something else instead.
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Now I thank you very much indeed for what you sent.
I don’t need to tell you that I really have a great many worries besides. Naturally my expenses are more than in Etten and I can’t set to work with half as much energy as I should like and should be able to if I had more at my disposal.
But my studio is turning out well. I wish you could see it, I’ve hung up all my studies, and you must send back the ones you have because they might prove useful to me. They may be unsaleable, and I myself acknowledge all their faults, but they contain something of nature because they were made with a certain passion.  2v:6
And you know that I’m now struggling to make watercolours, and if I become adept at it they’ll become saleable.
But Theo, you can be certain that when I first went to Mauve with my pen drawings and M. said, you should try it with charcoal and chalk and brush and stump, it was damned difficult for me to work with that new material. I was patient and it didn’t seem to help at all, and sometimes I grew so impatient that I trampled on my charcoal and was wholly and utterly discouraged. And yet, a while later I sent you drawings made with chalk and charcoal and the brush,3 and I went back to Mauve with a whole batch of such drawings which of course he criticized, and rightly so, and you too, but all the same I had taken a step forward.
Now I’m going through a similar period of struggle and despondency, of patience and impatience, of hope and desolation. But I must plod on and anyway, after a while I’ll understand more about making watercolours.
If it were that easy, one wouldn’t take any pleasure in it. And it’s exactly the same with painting. Moreover, the weather is bad, and this winter I haven’t yet gone out for pleasure. Still, I enjoy life and, in particular, having my own studio is too wonderful for words. When will you come and have coffee or tea with me? Soon I hope. You can stay here too, if necessary, that would be nice and companionable. And I even have flowers, and a couple of boxes of bulbs. And I’ve also acquired another ornament for my studio, I got a great bargain on some splendid woodcuts from The Graphic, some of them prints not of the clichés but of the blocks themselves. Just what I’ve been wanting for years.
The drawings by Herkomer,4 Frank Holl,5Walker,6 and others. I bought them from Blok, the Jewish bookseller,7 and chose the best from an enormous pile of Graphics and London News for five guilders. Some of them are superb, including the Houseless and homeless by Fildes 2r:7 (poor people waiting outside a night shelter)8 and two large Herkomers and many small ones, and the Irish emigrants by Frank Holl9 and the ‘Old gate’ by Walker.10 And especially a girls’ school by Frank Holl11and also that large Herkomer, the invalids.12
In short, it’s exactly the stuff I need.
And I have such beautiful things with a kind of restfulness in my house because, old chap, even though I’m still a long way from making them so beautifully myself, still, I have a couple of studies of old peasants and so on hanging on the wall that prove that my enthusiasm for those draughtsmen is not mere vanity, but that I’m struggling and striving to make something myself that is realistic and yet done with sentiment. I have around 12 figures of diggers and people working in the potato field,13 and I’m wondering if I couldn’t make something of them, you also have a couple of them, including a man putting potatoes in a sack.14Anyway, I don’t know what yet, but whether it’s now or later, I must do it sometime, because I took a look at it this summer, and here in the dunes I could make a good study of the earth and the sky and then boldly put the figures in. Though I don’t value those studies so very much, and hope of course to make them very differently and better, but the Brabant types are distinctive, and who knows how they might be put to use. If there are some among them you’d like to keep, then by all means, but I’d very much like to have back those you don’t value. By studying new models I’ll automatically become alert to the mistakes in the proportion of my studies of this summer and, taking that into account, they can easily be of use to me. When your letter took so long to arrive (for because it went first to Mauve I got it even later), I had to go to Mr Tersteeg and he gave me 25 guilders to last until I received your letter. Perhaps it would be good if I, with your knowledge, or you, with my knowledge, were to settle a few things with Mr T. Because you understand, Theo, I must know as definitely as possible where I stand, and I have to work it out in advance, and know that I can or cannot do this or that. So you’ll be doing me a great favour by entering into a definite agreement, and I hope you’ll write to me about it soon.
Mauve has promised to recommend me for an associate membership of Pulchri,15 because there I’d be able to draw from a model two evenings a week and would have more contact with artists. Later on I’ll become a regular member as soon as possible. Well, old chap, thanks for what you sent – and believe me, with a handshake,

 

Ever yours,
Vincent
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3 weeks after supposedly sawing off his own ear, Vincent van Gogh wrote this letter…

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh
Arles, 17 January 1889

My dear Theo,

Thanks for your kind letter and also for the 50-franc note it contained. Even though you yourself might be able to answer all the questions at the moment, I do not feel capable of it. I want very much, after consideration, to find some solution, but I must read your letter again, etc.

But, before discussing what I might spend or not spend during a complete year, it might help us to go into the expenses of the current month alone.

It has been altogether lamentable in every way, and I should certainly count myself lucky, if at last you would give some serious attention to the way things are now and have been for a long time.

But what is to be done? It is unfortunately complicated by lots of things, my pictures are valueless, they cost me, it is true, an extraordinary amount, even in blood and brains at times perhaps. I won’t harp on it, and what am I to say to you about it?

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the present month and not talk of anything but money.

On December 23 I still had in hand one louis and 3 sous. The same day I received from you the 100-franc note.

These are the expenses:

Given to Roulin to pay the charwoman for the month of December 20 frs.

The same for the first fortnight in January 10 frs.

Paid to the hospital 21 frs.

Paid to the attendants who dressed the wound 10 frs.

On my return paid for a table, a gas heater, etc, which had been lent me and which I had taken on account 20 frs.

Paid for having all the bedding washed, the bloodstained linen, etc. 12.50 frs.

Various purchases like a dozen brushes, a hat, etc., etc., say 10 frs.

So on the day or the day after I came out of the hospital, we have already arrived at a forced expenditure on my part of 103.50 francs, to which must be added that on that first day I had a joyous dinner with Roulin at the restaurant, quite cheerful and with no dread of renewed suffering.

In short, the result of all this was that by the 8th I was broke. But a day or two later I borrowed 5 francs. That barely takes us to the 10th. I hoped for a letter from you about the 10th, but, this letter did not arrive till today, January 17th, the time between has been a most rigorous fast, the more painful because I cannot recover under such conditions.

I have nevertheless started work again, and I already have three studies in the studio, besides the portrait of Dr. Rey, which I gave him as a keepsake. So there is no worse harm done this time than a little more suffering and its attendant wretchedness. And I keep on hoping. But I feel weak and rather uneasy and frightened. That will pass, I hope, as I get back my strength.

Rey told me that being very impressionable was enough to account for the attack that I had, and that I was really only anaemic, but that I really must feed myself up. But I took the liberty of saying to M. Rey that if the first thing for me was to get back my strength, and if by pure chance or misunderstanding it had just happened that I had had to keep a strict fast for a week – whether he had seen many madman in similar circumstances fairly quiet and able to work; if not, would he then be good enough to remember occasionally that for the moment I am not yet mad.

Now considering that all the house was upset by this occurrence, and all the linen and my clothes soiled, is there anything improper or extravagant or exorbitant in these payments? If I paid what was owing to people almost as poor as myself as soon as I got back, did I do wrong, or could I have been more economical? Now today on the seventeenth I at last received 50 francs. Out of that I am paying first the five francs borrowed from the patron at the café and the ten meals taken on credit during the course of last week, which makes 7.50 francs.

I also have to pay for the linen brought back from the hospital and then for this last week, and for shoe repairs and a pair of trousers, certainly altogether something like 5 frs.

Wood and coal owing for December and to be bought again, not less than 4 frs.

Charwoman, 2nd fortnight in January 10 frs.

______

26.50 frs.

Net amount left me tomorrow morning after settling this bill 23.50 frs.

It is now the seventeenth, there are still thirteen days to go.

Ask yourself how much I can spend in a day? I have to add that you sent 30 francs to Roulin, out of which he paid the 21.50 rent for December.

There, my dear boy, are the accounts for this present month. It is not over.

Now we come to the expenses caused you by Gauguin’s telegram, which I have already expressly reproached him for sending.

Are the expenses thus mistakenly incurred less than 200 francs? Does Gauguin himself claim that it was a brilliant step to take? Look here, I won’t say more about the absurdity of this measure, suppose that I was as wild as anything, then why wasn’t our illustrious partner more collected?

But I shan’t press that point.

I cannot commend you enough for paying Gauguin in such a way that he can only congratulate himself on any dealings he has had with us. Unfortunately there again is another expenditure perhaps greater than it should have been, yet I catch a glimpse of hope in it. Must he not, or at least should he not, begin to see that we were not exploiting him, but on the contrary were anxious to secure him a living, the possibility of work and…and…of decency?

If that does not obtain the heights of the grandiose prospectuses for the association of artists which he proposed, and you know how he clings to it, if it does not attain the heights of his other castles in the air – then why not consider him as not responsible for the trouble and waste which his blindness may have caused both you and me?

If at present this theory seems too bold to you, I do not insist on it, but we shall see.

He has had experience in what he calls “banking in Paris” and thinks himself clever at it. Perhaps you and I are not curious at all in this respect.

In any case this is not altogether in contradiction with some passages in our previous correspondence.

If Gauguin stayed in Paris for a while to examine himself thoroughly, or have himself examined by a specialist, I don’t honestly know what the result might be.

On various occasions I have seen him do things which you and I would not let ourselves do, because we have consciences that feel differently about things. I have heard one or two things said of him, but having seen him at very, very close quarters, I think that he is carried away by his imagination, perhaps by pride, but…practically irresponsible.

This conclusion does not imply that I advise you to pay very much attention to what he says on any occasion. But I see that you have acted with higher ideals in the matter of settling his bill, and so I think that we need not fear that he will involve us in the errors of the “Bank of Paris.”

But as for him…Lord, let him do anything he wants, let him have his independence?? (whatever he means by that) and his opinions, and let him go his own way as soon as he thinks he knows it better than we do.

I think it is rather strange that he claims a picture of sunflowers from me, offering me in exchange, I suppose, or as a gift, some studies he left here. I will send him back his studies which will probably be useful to him, which they certainly won’t be to me.

But for the moment I am keeping my canvases here and I am definitely keeping my sunflowers in question.

He has two of them already, let that hold him.

And if he is not satisfied with the exchange he has made with me, he can take back his little Martinique canvas, and his self-portrait sent me from Brittany, at the same time giving me back both my portrait and the two sunflower canvases which he has taken to Paris. So if he ever broaches this subject again, I’ve told you just how matters stand.

How can Gauguin pretend that he was afraid of upsetting me by his presence, when he can hardly deny that he knew I kept asking for him continually, and that he was told over and over again that I insisted on seeing him at once.

Just to tell him that we should keep it between him and me, without upsetting you. He would not listen.

It worries me to go over all this and recapitulate such things over and over again.

In this letter I have tried to show you the difference between my net expenses, directly my own, and those for which I am less responsible.

I have been miserable because just at this moment you have had this expense, which did no one any good.

Whatever happens, I shall see my strength come back little by little if I can stick it out here. I do so dread a change or move just because of the fresh expense. I have been unable to get a breathing spell for a long time now. I am not giving up work, because there are moments when it is really getting on, and I believe that with patience the goal will at last be reached, that the pictures will pay back the money invested in making them.

Roulin is about to leave, as early as the 21st. He is to be employed in Marseilles. The increase in pay is microscopic, and he will be obliged to leave his wife and children for a time; they will not be able to follow him till much later, because the expenses of a whole family will be heavier in Marseilles.

It is a promotion for him, but it is a poor consolation that the Government gives such an employee after so many years work.

And in point of fact, I believe that both he and his wife are heart broken. Roulin has often kept me company during the last week. I quite agree with you that we mustn’t meddle with medical questions, which do not at all concern us. Just because you wrote a line to M. Rey saying that you would give him introductions in Paris, I understood you to mean Rivet. I did not think I was doing anything to compromise you by telling M. Rey that if he went to Paris, I’d be pleased if he took a picture to M. Rivet as a keepsake from me.

Of course I did not mention anything else, but what I did say was that I myself should always regret not being a doctor, and that those who think painting is beautiful would do well to see nothing in it but a study of nature.

It will always be a pity, in spite of everything, that Gauguin and I were perhaps too quick to give up the question of Rembrandt and light which we had broached. Are De Haan and Isaäcson still there? Don’t let them get discouraged. After my illness my eyes have naturally been very sensitive. I have been looking at that “Croque-mort” [undertaker] of De Haans, which he was good enough to send me the photograph of. Well, it seems to me that there is a real touch of Rembrandt in that figure, which seems to be lit up by the reflection of a light coming from the open tomb in front of which the croque-mort is standing like a sleepwalker.

It is done with great subtlety. I myself do not try to get effects by means of charcoal, and De Haan has taken for his medium this very charcoal, again a colourless substance.

I should like De Haan to see a study of mine of a lighted candle and two novels (one yellow, the other pink) lying on an empty chair (really Gauguin’s chair), a size 30 canvas, in red and green. I have just been working again today on its pendant, my own empty chair, a white deal chair with a pipe and a tobacco pouch. In these two studies, as in others, I have tried for an effect of light by means of clear colour, probably De Haan would understand exactly what I was trying to get if you read to him what I have written on the subject.

Although this letter is already very long, since I have tried to analyse the month’s expenses and complained a bit of the queer phenomenon of Gauguin’s behaviour in choosing not to speak to me again and clearing out, there are still some things that I must add in praise of him.

One good quality he has is the marvellous way he can apportion [divide up and share] expenses from day to day.

While I am often absent-minded, preoccupied with aiming at the goal, he has far more money sense for each separate day than I have. But his weakness is that by a sudden freak or animal impulse he upsets everything he has arranged.

Now do you stay at your post once you have taken it, or do you desert it? I do not judge anyone in this, hoping not to be condemned myself in cases when my strength might fail me, but if Gauguin has so much real virtue, and such capacity for charity, how is he going to employ himself?

As for me, I have ceased to be able to follow his actions, and I give it up in silence, but with a questioning note all the same.

From time to time he and I have exchanged ideas about French art, and impressionism…

It seems to me impossible, or at least pretty improbable, that impressionism will organize and steady itself now.

Why shouldn’t what happened in England at the time of the Pre-Raphaelites happen here?

The union broke up.

Perhaps I take all these things too much to heart and perhaps they sadden me too much. Has Gauguin ever read Tartarin in the Alps, and does he remember Tartarin’s illustrious companion from Tarascon, who had such imagination that he imagined in a flash a complete imaginary Switzerland?

Does he remember the knot in a rope found high up in the Alps after the fall?

And you who want to know how things happened, have you read Tartarin all the way through? That will teach you to know your Gauguin pretty well.

I am really serious in urging you to look at this passage in Daudet’s book again.

At the time of your visit here, were you able to notice the study I painted of the Tarascon diligence, which as you know is mentioned in Tartarin the lion hunter?

And can you remember Bompard in Numa Roumestan and his happy imagination?

That is what it is, though in another way. Gauguin has a fine, free and absolutely complete imaginary conception of the South, and with that imagination he is going to work in the North! My word, we may see some queer results yet.

And now, dissecting the situation in all boldness, there is nothing to prevent our seeing him as the little Bonaparte tiger of impressionism as far as…I don’t quite know how to say it, his vanishing, say, from Arles would be comparable or analogous to the return from Egypt of the aforesaid Little Corporal, who also presented himself in Paris afterward and who always left the armies in the lurch.

Fortunately Gauguin and I and other painters are not yet armed with machine guns and other very destructive implements of war. I for one am quite decided to go on being armed with nothing but my brush and my pen.

But with a good deal of clatter, Gauguin has nonetheless demanded in his last letter “his masks and fencing gloves” hidden in the little closet in my little yellow house.

I shall hasten to send him his toys by parcel post. Hoping that he will never use more serious weapons.

He is physically stronger than we are, so his passions must be much stronger than ours. Then he is a father, he has a wife and children in Denmark, and at the same time he wants to go to the other end of the earth, to Martinique. It is frightful, all the welter of incompatible desires and needs which this must cause them. I took the liberty of assuring him that if he had kept quiet here with us, working here at Arles without wasting money, and earning, since you were looking after his pictures, his wife would certainly have written to him, and would have approved of his stability. There is more besides; he had been in pain and seriously ill, and the thing was to discover the disease and the remedy. Now here his pains had already ceased.

That’s enough for today. If you have the address of Laval, Gauguin’s friend, you can tell Laval that I am very much surprised that his friend Gauguin did not take a portrait of myself, which I had intended for him, away with him to be handed over. I have another new one for you too.

Thank you again for your letter, please do try to realise that it will be really impossible to live thirteen days on the 23.50 francs which I shall have left; if you could send 20 francs next week, I would try to manage.

With a handshake, I will read your letter again and will write you soon about the other things.

Yours, Vincent