By Kerry Lee
“I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek Oracle on his tripod.” – Vincent van Gogh
Some have suggested these are the words of a madman. Some have opined they are the words of nothing but a peasant. In my mind, this missive was delivered by a brilliant artist and innovator who was completely aware of his foibles, follies, moments of mania, and especially the hole of his abysmal depression. I discovered Vincent van Gogh my first year at university, when I enrolled in an Art Survey course. I had visited many natural history museums across the country, interested in becoming an archaeologist, but I had never been to an art museum. I found myself fascinated with the Impressionists during that beginner’s course. I was particularly attracted to the work of van Gogh, especially his self-portraits.
The Chicago Art Institute, just a two-hour drive away, owned one of van Gogh’s self-portraits, painted in Paris in the spring of 1887. During the university’s winter break, I took the train there. Shyly, I stepped into the room where this particular Vincent resided. There were numerous Impressionist painters represented in the gallery—Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Lautrec—but I had eyes for none but Vincent. After a few moments of sitting on the solid wood bench placed in the middle of the room, I realized I was holding my breath.
It was a surprisingly small thing, only 12 x 16 inches. Turned slightly to show the left side of his face—which was actually his right because he was looking into a mirror when he painted it, he wore his typically serious, intense, brow-furrowed countenance. After I had been sitting a few minutes, and when there was no one near the portrait, I got up and ventured as close as was allowed.
His soul peaked through those mournful eyes with a story to tell, but I didn’t know how to read it. I needed to see more of the self-portraits. In the Museum shop, I purchased my first of many books about him: The Complete van Gogh, by Jan Hulsker. This huge tome contained 2,170 illustrations—every one of Vincent’s artistic works in all mediums, including paintings, drawings, and graphic works, as well as the sketches in his letters. I studied each of the self-portraits carefully.
As my art education expanded, Vincent continued to enthrall me. On a trip to New York, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Self Portrait with Straw Hat, painted in Paris in the winter of 1887. The eyes in this portrait are fixed on something in the distance. Something in the future maybe. I detected a glimmer of hopefulness in this painting.
A couple years later, I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The portrait there was the first painting he completed after suffering a nervous breakdown in the summer of 1889. At the time, he was a voluntary patient at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, France (link to article). In a letter he wrote to his brother Theo, Vincent said, “They say—and I am very willing to believe it—that it is difficult to know yourself—but it isn’t easy to paint yourself either.” An understatement on both counts, I think.
By this time I also owned, among many books about Vincent, Vincent: A Complete Portrait, by Bernard Denvir, which has a small color plate and a neat description devoted to each of the self-portraits. It was still the eyes, the man peering out and begging for understanding, that continued to captivate me. I read more, learned more about him and the traumas in his life. What drove Vincent besides his desire to paint? Was it his desire for the unconditional love of a woman? But with the choices he made, he set himself up for failure in every relationship he embarked on. His first big love was his landlady’s daughter, Eugenie Loyer, who was engaged to another boarder. He tried everything to break up their relationship, but he was not successful. His sister-in-law, Johanna, wrote in her memoir,
“With this first great sorrow, his character changed. When he came home for the holidays he was thin, silent, dejected–a different being…he grew more and more silent and depressed, and also more and more religious.”
Another followed this disastrous relationship: Vincent fell in love with his cousin, Kee, who was widowed and had a small son. She was his first cousin—a liaison prohibited both by law and the Bible. She was also six years older than he, and summarily rejected him. Vincent believed his love for her helped keep his depression under control, however, and thus allowed him to focus on his painting, so he pursued her long after it was obvious he could not succeed. After a year of continued rejection, he moved to Den Hague, The Netherlands.
His next serious affair was with Sien. She was a prostitute: destitute, pregnant, and an alcoholic. There are many of Vincent’s drawings of Sien in the Hulsker book. They show her sewing, peeling potatoes, or holding a child. Her face is angular, and the harshness of her life can be read on its plains. In 1883 Vincent moved on. Another disastrous relationship followed. A love affair with an older woman, Margot Begemann, ended after her attempted suicide and ultimate rejection of him.
There were two more self-portraits residing in the U.S. that I hadn’t seen, but I was ready for a much bigger show. The Netherlands, the birthplace of Vincent van Gogh, was my next destination. Certainly I saw many other wonderful painting at the Haags Gemeetemuseum in Den Hague, but the self-portrait painted in 1886 is the one etched in my memory. Composed soon after his arrival in Paris, Vincent wears his usual fierce countenance, but he also appears more confident, self-assured, and hopeful, with a shiny strip of jaunty velvet sewn around the edges of his jacket. His painful relationships are behind him, his palette has lightened, and he has met many of the artists who were to become famous Impressionists.
After a few days visiting Den Hague, I took the train with great anticipation to Amsterdam. I checked into my hotel in the Museum quarter near the canal. Walking along the canal was chimerical. Bicycles everywhere. Long, flat houseboats on the canal. Tall buildings crushed together, leaning dizzily. Bright tulips, brick walks, green grass, and smiling faces. As I strolled, I realized I was searching for Vincent’s eyes in the crowds.
The first museum I visited in Amsterdam was the Rijksmuseum. There, Vincent faces forward in Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat. Painted in Paris in the winter of 1886, it is a radiant painting in blue and orange. He said at this time, “ The more ugly, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well-arranged, resplendent.” Successful in this, he is still unable to hide the storm that whirls behind the eyes, the eyes that bore into the viewer, sharply blue.
I explored Amsterdam for three days, letting the anticipation rise, before I stood in line on Paulus Potterstraat, waiting to purchase my ticket to the van Gogh Museum. It was a long line, and while I waited, I contemplated the fact that this whole museum was dedicated to one man: one of the most prolific painters in modern history.
I had learned a lot more about Vincent by this time. There have been various theories explaining his mental and physical conditions. His doctors believed he suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, and they treated it with the herb digitalis, which may have caused yellow halos in his vision. In order to counteract his seizures and anxiety, Vincent medicated himself with absinthe in great quantities, a drink very popular among artists at this time; unfortunately, thujone, a toxin in absinthe, aggravates epilepsy and manic depression. Manic depression could be a diagnosis for Vincent’s feverish pace of work—over 2,100 paintings and drawings in his mania—the mania that was complimented on the opposite end of the spectrum by his exhaustion, illness, and dark depression.
What was Vincent’s fascination with self-portraits? He said, “I deliberately bought a good mirror so that if I lacked a model I could work from my own likeness.” And also, “My intention is to show that a variety of very different portraits can be made of the same person.” He certainly did prove that.
With ticket clutched tightly in my hand, I entered the treasure house of one of the most famous painters in the world. I was still on my quest: what led to the madness behind those eyes? The eyes that were sometimes perplexed, often electrifying, and always enthralling.
Nine self-portraits were housed there, and my stomach tumbled in anticipation as I entered the museum. There was a staircase in the central hall that led to all floors. The atrium high above allowed the sunlight to flood and brighten all of the galleries. As I traveled the path from one gallery to the next, I was immersed in Vincent.
He was the second Vincent, actually. The first died at birth, and our Vincent was born a year later. He was what today is termed a “replacement” child. In van Gogh’s case, the replacement child syndrome was severe. His mother visited the grave of the deceased child with Vincent every Sunday, and she talked about the child who ‘would have been.’ Thus Vincent was the child who couldn’t measure up. He endured a whole lifetime of competing with an idealized child who never was. Because it is practically impossible for replacement children to please their parents, they suffer a life of frustration, confused about relationships and what can be expected from those relationships. This surely had a devastating influence on Vincent’s outlook on life. He was always searching for love that was never returned. He was always expecting the wrong person to be the right one for him, the answer to all of his longing for the love and approval he didn’t receive from his mother.
In Van Gogh’s Women by Derek Fell, I found more insight. Dr. L. Becker is quoted in the book:
“Vincent could never be good enough in his own right, and would always sense that something was wrong with him that couldn’t be identified. There was an impossible longing to know himself, which could never happen to because he was carrying around the ghost of his brother. He was condemned to be the longed-for other.”
I learned to respect van Gogh for his awareness of his madness and how desperately he wanted to understand it. When he felt his illness becoming overwhelming, he would check himself into a mental hospital for help in regaining control. Vincent felt badly about the things he did when he was unable to master his illness, but he realized he had a disease, not an excuse for his extreme behaviors. In 1889 he wrote a letter to his brother Theo, and said,
“What comforts me a little is that I am beginning to consider madness as a disease like any other and accept the thing as such, whereas during the crises themselves I thought that everything I imagined was real.”
Recently, some years after that first visit to the Chicago Art Institute and my tender footed glimpse of a van Gogh self portrait, I went back. I am older and have gained some years of experience and sapience. My own struggles have contributed to the shape of my life and my outlook. I’ve seen first hand what the effects of mental illness can have on an individual. I’ve witnessed the destruction wrought by uncontrolled depression and mania. I’ve attempted to comfort the inconsolable and abandoned.
Vincent was a man bereft; battling more demons than any one mortal deserves to be plagued with. The weight of his brilliance must have been a heavy burden to carry as well. I studied that 1887 self-portrait, as I had studied so many of them, and recognized the anguish in his eyes. I read the concentration in his deep brow and the exhaustion riding his cheekbones. I detected the fear tightening his lower lip. I will never be able to grasp the pain that lay behind those eyes, but I can respect it. That must appease me in my desire to understand him.
Literary Traveler Articles by the Author: Coffee and Bob Kaufman, Poet of the People
Related Literary Traveler Pieces: Van Gogh & The Dead in Arles, France; Auvers sur Oise: The Original Impressionist Landscape