Van Gogh: Touched by Fire and Pain

Van Gogh: Touched by Fire and Pain

When people think of Vincent Van Gogh’s visionary art, the first painting that comes to mind is A Starry Night, 1889, the painting memorialized by Don McLean’s song. Everyone knows he lived a tortured life, ending it by suicide at age 37.

My two great passions, art and mental health, come together in Van Gogh. I recently finished reading The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence, by British art historian Martin Gayford. The book chronicles Van Gogh’s life in the Fall of 1888, letters to his brother and others, his relationship with Paul Gauguin and Gauguin’s letters (This period was also the subject of an excellent, ground-breaking exhibition organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, about 20 years ago.)

Questions linger:

The Bedroom at Arles, 1888, The Art Institute of Chicago

Did his art arise because of his illness or in spite of his illness?

Were his most productive works done during periods of intense mania?

Did his unique vision come from certain hallucinations?

Or was it produced in the depths of despair?

Although van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime, other artists like Gauguin and Émile Bernard easily recognized his genius. His brother, Theo, also his art dealer, displayed kindness towards him, always supporting him financially. When Van Gogh began as a painter, about 10 years before his death, he had already failed in other professions. By the time he shared the “Yellow House” with Gauguin in Arles, some of Gauguin’s paintings had already been sold. Van Gogh was more prolific than Gauguin, but he hadn’t sold a thing. It is not unusual for an artist to face rejection and still persevere, so we can’t pin his mental state on the problem of rejection. Fortunately, he described his works in detail to his brother in the letters.

Gayford checks out the evidence in his paintings against the evidence in letters, his life events, Gauguin’s letters and historical records. To my surprise, the book describes Gauguin as particularly patient with his housemate, despite the weird behaviors.

What happened between Van Gogh and Gauguin?

Van Gogh moved to Arles early in the year, but Gauguin didn’t arrive until October. Van Gogh had a head start, and he already knew the neighbors, people like the Ginouxs, innkeepers; the Roulins, the postmaster, his wife and children, and the grocer next door. Both men frequented bars and prostitutes, but Gauguin didn’t drink much. Vincent had the dream of starting an art colony there.

A Starry Night, on the Rhone, 1888, Musée d’Orsay

To see what may have led to the final incident, one should look at the painting Van Gogh was working on at the time of the falling out. “La Berceuse,” meaning the woman who rocks the cradle” is a portrait of Madame Roulin, whom he painted at least five times. According to Gayford, a book Pierre Loti’s book about Icelandic fishermen inspired this painting.

Van Gogh imagines the lady as a Madonna-like figure, rocking the cradle which is held by a string and stands outside of the painting. How very strange, but both Van Gogh and Gauguin were inspired by Symbolist poetry, and symbolism is definitely the intent here. Colors need not reflect visual reality, but can express feeling. Here, complementary colors of red and green, which appear opposite each other on the color wheel, set the tone. Except for the lady’s enormous bosom, the painting appears flat, The hands are jagged and crooked. Madame Roulin gave birth to her third son a few months earlier. The string of the cradle may allude to this fact, but she looks detached from it. Van Gogh was a very literary man, but what was he thinking?

La Berceuse, 1888-1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

La Berceuse is not a good bedtime story, but it had a great deal of influence on later art such as that of Matisse. It is one of five versions he made in December 1888 and finished in January 1889.

On December 22, Gauguin wrote a long letter describing to a friend his challenges with Van Gogh, but claimed that he would stay. After supper on December 23, Gauguin left the yellow house and Van Gogh followed after him, blade in hand. Although Gauguin’s own accounts vary, he would never return. Vincent cut off the lower part of his ear that night and bled profusely. He enclosed the ear, delivered it to a brothel, and marked it for a woman named Rachel, saying “Guard this object carefully.” He returned home and went to sleep.

Postmaster Roulin nursed him back to health and his family was informed. At this time, according to Gayford, p. 228, his mother wrote to Theo, “I believe he was always ill and his suffering and ours was a result of it.”

What do we know of his mental illness in light of today’s knowledge?

Van Gogh was known to have a form of epilepsy, but it wasn’t his primary problem. He drank heavily and people found him especially strange and scary when he was drunk.

Because Van Gogh cut off his ear, some people believe he was schizophrenic. Psychosis that is permanent generally refers to schizophrenia. It can take the form of visual or auditory hallucinations. Those who support the schizophrenia diagnosis believe he was trying to stop auditory hallucinations. However, that hypothesis doesn’t explain why he cut off only part of his ear and why he delivered it to Rachel. The message intended for Rachel, as well as the meaning of La Berceuse, would make sense to him, but not the outside world.

In the 1800s mental illnesses were not classified as they are today, but we would see his highs and lows as most characteristic of Bipolar I. Gayford firmly argues this position, saying that Van Gogh had hallucinations and made associations that didn’t fit with reality. Vincent identified emotionally with Hugo van der Goes, a highly gifted 15th-century Netherlandish painter who also had a fit of madness and attempted to kill himself.

The Red Vineyard, 1888, The Pushkin Museum, Moscow, the only painting sold during Van Gogh’s lifetime

It’s true that many creative people who touch us deeply are also touched by a fire within. Writers Edgar Alan Poe and Ernest Hemingway are often named as other great geniuses who suffered from Bipolar Disorder. They also drank heavily and ended their lives tragically. The “unruly genius,” Caravaggio, certainly belongs in this category, too. The Romantic tradition of the early 1800s celebrated an affinity between madness and creativity, as with Goya and Beethoven, who became deaf and more depressed as they aged. (I have not yet read Kay Redfield Jamison’s book about this, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. My sources at the end of this article.)

Contrary to popular belief, those who suffered from mental illnesses in the 1880s — at least where Van Gogh lived — were not treated poorly. Cold bath therapy rather than heavy pharmaceuticals, were the treatments of his day. And Van Gogh’s doctors respected him; they wanted him to paint.

Timeline and Treatment, 1889

Van Gogh recovered quickly and he completed La Berceuse in January.

January 5 – Dr. Félix Rey came to see him. According to the doctor, Vincent spent much time explaining his paintings to the doctor. He continued La Berceuse around this time.

On February 3, he wrote to his brother Theo: “I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophesy…”

February 7 – He was back in the hospital in Arles with a new doctor. Dr. Deloy wrote that Van Gogh was in a state of overexcitement and spoke in incoherent words. He thought people were trying to poison him.

February 17 – He had recovered. But in the meantime, the inhabitants of Arles petitioned the mayor to have him sent away, either to his family or to an asylum. Thirty residents signed the petition, naming him a public nuisance. Women and children were scared of him, and one dressmaker claimed he grabbed her. They complained of his excessive drinking.

March 23 – Painter Paul Signac came to visit him and suggested he move to Cassis, a port on the Mediterranean

Irises, 1889, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, painted while at the asylum in Saint-Rémy

May 3 – He voluntarily entered the Saint-Paul de Mausole Asylum in Saint-Rémy, thirteen miles from Arles. The building, a monastery from the 11th century, is open to the public today. He was treated well here under the care of Dr. Peyron. He was encouraged to paint and produced some of his best-known works here, including A Starry Night, Irises and many views of fields and cypress trees.

June – Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star which looked very big.” He painted A Starry Night during this period but regretted it: “once again I allowed myself to be led astray into reaching or stars that are too big — another failure — and have had my fill of that.”

He continued working at the asylum for the rest of the year. While not allowed to drink at all, he was very productive.

Timeline and Treatment, 1890

January 16 – He was in an important exhibition in Brussels and received a good review

In the first four months of the year, he had several attacks and spent most of the time in a state of withdrawal.

May 16 – He left Saint-Rémy, and was taken under the care of a homeopathic doctor, Dr. Paul Gachet and went to see his brother in Paris.

May 19 – He moved to a small village outside of Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise, under the care of Dr. Gachet.

June 8 – He had a reunion with his brother, Theo. Dr. Gachet pronounced him cured.

Early July — The darkness returns again.

July 27 – He shot himself in the chest but survived. (Recent accounts suggest that he was killed by others, a view suggested in the movie, At Eternity’s Gate, 2019.)

July 29 – He died at 1:30 a.m.

Vincent’s Artistic Output Seen Against His Illness

Many artists take time to reach greatness, to find their inner self or their best artistic expression. That was the case with Vincent. The paintings we most admire today were done in 1888, 1889, and 1890, while he was in Arles and Saint-Rémy. Works for this period are more unified, more visionary and hold together well. It is easy to see that he finally found his style in the South of France, even if it was where his madness emerged most profoundly.

As for producing art during periods of mania, we must look into his years of output. In his short lifetime, he wrote, 2,140 letters and created more than 3,000 works of art, 860 of them oil paintings. He averaged 96 paintings per year, compared with Monet who averaged 42, Cézanne who averaged 23, and Rembrandt who averaged 15. Each of the other artists was as intense, fanatic about painting and driven as Van Gogh. Artists of their caliber, like Van Gogh, responded to a deep inner necessity, a “calling,” which could not be ignored.

(I thank Russ Ramsey, for the following information, the source listed on bottom, pp 138-141):

Number of paintings per year:

1881- 2, 1882 – 14, 1883 – 18, 1884 – 52

1885 – 143, 1886 – 93, 1887 – 118

1888 – 169, 1889 – 134, 1890 – 108

Self-Portrait, 1887, The Art Institute of Chicago

How did he keep up this frenetic pace? Was he in manic phases when he did the most work? I believe so. He did 42 paintings in June 1990, the month before he died. During the first four months of 1890, he painted only 18 canvasses. Remember he had several episodes during this time, and I would assume they were deep, crippling depressions. Bipolar I is known for periods of intense highs and lows. When he was high, he could channel the energy into painting. When he was very, very low he couldn’t work at all.

Another sign of mania is in the brushstrokes, In his time, only Vincent Van Gogh used single strokes loaded heavily with paint, never mixing or blending. His paint was extraordinarily thick and heavy. There’s no room for error with this method, or the errors are part of the painting. No wonder he worked so quickly. When his genius was at its height, the texture of his paint mimicked the actual texture of the subject, as in his beard from the Self-Portrait, above, or in his Sunflowers, below. 

Two Cut Sunflowers, 1887, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Judging Him by the Standards of Today

I had wondered if drinking absinthe, legal at that time, had something to do with Vincent’s hallucinations and mood swings. Gayford refutes this notion. Today much mental illness is brought out by substance abuse, a problem that can be prevented. That probably not the case of Van Gogh, whose sister Jo was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In fact four of six children in the Van Gogh family appear to have suffered from mental illnesses of varying degrees. His may have used alcohol and absinthe to self-medicate. There exists a notion that drug use can enhance creativity, which may or may not be true. Even Baudelaire, who experimented with hashish in the 19th century, denied the idea that it was helpful for anything.

Would Van Gogh have done such incredible work if he had been medicated, as would be suggested today? Some people with Bipolar I refuse to take medications because they like the manias and don’t appreciate the flattening of moods. I think that in Van Gogh’s case, he could have lived longer with today’s medications, but he would not have lived as long in the hearts of future generations.


Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence

Russ Ramsey, Rembrandt is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art Through the Eyes of Faith

Ingo F Walther and Rainer Metzger, Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings

Martin Bailey, The Sunflowers are Mine

I don’t pretend to have expertise on Bipolar I Disorder, but I’ve read Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind, and Terry Cheney ‘s Mania. Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America confirms the belief that treatments of the mentally ill in 19th century France were not lacking compassion and were often better than the treatments of today.

We must thank Van Gogh for all his letters, for the artists and the sister-in-law, Jo, who saved his work. His letters are widely translated; and’ a new volume was published this year, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Martin Bailey wrote a book explaining about Van Gogh at Saint-Rémy, Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum.

My other blogs about Van Gogh:

This one includes a photo from his asylum window and works he did in Auvers:

Torrents of Rain and Gusts of Wind

JULIE SCHAUER has taught in the art and art history departments of a number of colleges, including COD, Northern Virginia Community College, the Corcoran College of Art and Design and George Mason University. She has BA in Art History from Northwestern and an MA from the University of Virginia.

Looking for Peace?  Go to the Noguchi Museum

Looking for Peace? Go to the Noguchi Museum

In 1985, sculptor and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi opened a museum of his work in an industrial building in Long Island City, New York.   It’s a place to go for a zen experience, especially after all the stressors that continue to rip our world apart. Reservations are limited, but if you can buy the $10 ticket ahead of time, it’s only a short trip from Manhattan, close to LaGuardia Airport.

In art, I look for a way to make sense out of life, to find beauty or joy, and hopefully find a place of rest. Noguchi does the latter for me, which is especially needed during difficult times.  Though Noguchi used art to protest nuclear war and destruction, his work brings us to a place where we put rhetoric to rest, unlike activist artists of today who scream with anger and miss the mark of meaningful communication. 

Useless Architecture, on exhibit until May, 2022. On the right is Roof Frame, 1974-1975, made of steel for an exhibition at Pace Gallery

Noguchi is first and foremost a landscape architect, but also a furniture designer and sculptor. It’s not surprising that he studied with Brancusi.  They were similar souls. A current exhibition at the museum is called Useless Architecture. But what is “useless architecture” is “useful sculpture.”

Many of his sculptures are upright, rough and irregular. They remind me of the monumental stones of ancient Britain and Europe, called menhirs. Like the menhirs, they’re raw assertions of strength with the overlay of a human imprint.

To Bring to Life, 1979, basalt

But other sculptures are like the dolmens, formed when the upright stones hold horizontal stones. According to Britannica, “Dolmens represented the first real attempt by the settlers to organize and shape the landscape around them“ End Piece resembles a dolmen. It also combines many oppositions: wood and stone, rough and/or polished, linear or curved, straight or angled, vertical and horizontal. When you ponder it, these contrasts reflect the oppositions that make up life, oppositions that need to be brought into harmony.

End Piece, 1974, steel and granite

We absorb Noguchi and the meanings of his works through silence. They’re imperfect, but feel “right.” Though Noguchi’s sculpture is architectural, it is not architecture.

Noguchi’s body of work replicates how mankind fits into nature — but readjusts it for a comfortable fit. The best of artists are able to teach us how to see, both the inner and outer worlds, and to bridge our gaps of understanding. One sculpture of a steel-cut trapezoid with a suspended rock in the center says it all. The museum sent me the name of the piece, Costume for a Stone. The combination of natural and manmade materials, common to so much of Noguchi’s work, works beautifully here.

Costume for a Stone, 1982. Granite and hot-dipped galvanized steel. The combination of natural and manmade materials is common in Noguchi’s work.

Circles repeats a theme Noguchi sculpted over and over again.  An upright pink granite circle is called Sun at Noon; nearby is a black circle called Midnight.  Circles have no beginning or end; they’re the Alpha and the Omega, the symbol of God, a representation of perfection.

Sun at Noon, 1969, French red marble and Spanish travertine

There’s another pink sculpture nearby that resembles a snake. Noguchi called it Magic Ring, I’m reminded that life is a journey, The journey is not predictable, but it can take you to places of magic.

Magic Ring, 1970, Persian travertine

Noguchi said, “If sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between the rocks, and between the rock and a man.”  

I was curious about a piece called Sentinel.  Noguchi made the stainless steel sculpture specifically for an exhibition at the Pace Gallery in 1975. The name suggests that it is standing guard somewhere.  All parts of it to fit into the proper place: the horizontals, the verticals and two circles.  

Sentinel, 1973, stainless steel, made for an exhibition at Pace Gallery, 1975

Noguchi know humanity’s place in the natural order of the things, which is one reason why he was so horrified with the prospect of atomic destruction, a subject that is on exhibition on the 2nd floor of the museum now. There’s a model for a monument to the victims of Hiroshima, a project that was never built. It would have been a magnificent arch set off in a symmetric line, with the victims’ names underground. Most of Noguchi’s own life was split between the US and Japan,

His father was Japanese poet, his mother an American writer. He was born in Los Angeles, in 1904, but raised primarily in Japan. His spent his life between the two countries. Then when the US was at war with Japan, he voluntarily interred himself in Arizona. I have written previously of his sculpture in Smithsonian Collections.

Why should we go to this museum? — to make peace with the most impossible of situations. “Due to war, Noguchi also knew the pain of belonging to nations that were bitter enemies, and he produced artworks imbued with an earnest desire for peace,” according to the Noguchi Museum website.  He is an artist who moves me to another frame of mind.

Noguchi bought an old photogravure studio and designed the building to accommodate his museum. It was across the street from his studio.

“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” Brings Top Quality to Washington

Andrea Pisano, relief from Giotto’s Bell Tower in Florence, 14th century

One of the things I appreciate most about living in Washington is the quality of its art exhibitions. A National Museum for Women in Arts (NMWA) exhibit,“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” brings some of the best images from Italy in Washington.  This magnificent show dedicated to the mother of Jesus has a Botticelli, two Della Robbias, a Michelangelo and a Caravaggio.  It’s almost better to see it in Washington, DC, than in Italy, because so many of the most beautiful images are brought together in one place.  However, the exhibition is only going to be there one more week, until April 12.

The exhibition also has a significant number of early Italian sculptures, a stained glass window and even an image made in India.  Paintings and sculptures come from several museums in Florence, Rome, Milan and Paris. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has loaned several pieces to the exhibition, which stand up in quality with some of the best in Italy.  Furthermore, NMWA added paintings from its own collection.
Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, c. 1480

The exhibition begins with the late Gothic period/early Renaissance. Above all, it captures one aspect of Mary that is most appreciated, her motherhood.  In  Andrea Pisano’s beautiful blue and white relief sculpture from the 14th century bell tower of Florence Cathedral (above), Mary is tickling the baby Jesus.  Italian artists at this time broke from the medieval and Byzantine artists by bringing Mary down to earth.  She is just like any other mother and Jesus is just your typical baby, no longer a miniature adult with an imperial demeanor.  They  have fun and are very playful.  He’s a true Italian bambino.

If anything to notice about this exhibition, it’s about love. There’s so much love.  Some images are incredibly sweet, such as a Madonna by the Master of the Winking Eyes (see bottom).  In this painting and others, Mary wears coral jewelry, a symbol of protection.  In an iconic Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, Mary shows the Baby Jesus a book as he looks up at her.  He holds three nails, foreshadowing His death, while her eyes hints of the sadness in knowing what will come.  Yet the sweetness and love in Botticelli’s imagery is heavenly.  Botticelli’s Mary is both a loving earthly Mother and an ideal of beauty that belongs in the perfect world of heaven.  
A spectacular painting in the show is by Botticelli’s teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi.  In his image, Jesus pulls his mother’s veil and snuggles very closely.  Jesus stands on a ledge and Mary holds him in a niche behind.  Lippi’s Madonna and Child does what Renaissance art strove so much to do — bridge that gap between the earthly and heavenly.  He also creates an illusion of three-dimensional depth into space which reaches into our space so convincingly. 
Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child (detail)

Fra Filippo Lippi was a priest by accident.  Orphaned as a child, he raised in a monastery, and raised to be a priest.  It wasn’t what he was meant to do. He fell in love with a nun, Lucretia Butti, and had a son who grew up to be the marvelous painter Filippino Lippi. The Pope gave Lippi a special dispensation to leave the priesthood and get married.  Lucretia and Filippino were probably the models for his Madonna and Child.

The Michelangelo in the exhibition is a well-known drawing from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. Its beauty is amazing even though it’s an unfinished masterpiece.  Mary is nursing the Baby Jesus.  Michelangelo drew the baby Jesus with a great degree of light and shadow (chiaroscuro), to make him far more three-dimensional than the image of Mary.  I’m reminded that as an infant, Michelangelo was sent to live with a stone cutter whose wife became his wet nurse.  His own mother didn’t have enough milk to feed him.  It is said that living with the stone cutter for the first few years of life primed Michelangelo to become a sculptor.   His baby Jesus is very sculptural.

Michelangelo, Madonna and Child, from Casa Buonarroti, Florence, c. 1520-25


There’s an Artemisia Gentilleschi painting I had never seen previously.  She’s holding out her breast for Jesus, offering to nurse him.  She looks  down at Jesus very lovingly. He stops to think about it ,rather than jumping right to her breast. Artemisia Gentilleschi is the first female artist to have achieved an international reputation.  Her own biography. is very compelling. 

Orsola Maddalena Caccia, St. Luke Painting the Virgin

One of the artists I had never heard of is Orsola Maddelena Caccia, a prolific painter who also was a nun in the 17th century.  There are six large paintings of hers in the exhibition, each with an elaborate iconography.   Her St. Luke Painting the Virgin reminds us that many of the stories surrounding Mary are purely imaginative.  Much of what is painted about Mary’s life is the result of popular legends.   

This exhibition is significant and scholarly for a number of reasons.  It delves into the meaning behind the imagery.  It also reveals significant stories in Mary’s life and the lives of the artists who painted her.  The NMWA blog has much good information about the symbolism.  It also can teach viewers a great deal about the Renaissance and Baroque styles of art, particularly in Italy.  

However, I appreciate the exhibition mostly for other reasons. When we look at these Madonnas and we see the maternal love, we know that Mary’s message is that she can be mother to all of us.  One doesn’t need to be Christian or even religious to understand that the love between a mother and her child is a universal truth.  

The NMWA used images from its own collection to enhance the show,  pieces by Elisabetta Sirani and Sofonisba Anguissola.  The museum continues to make a significant contributions to the community, to promote women artists from around the world and to cultivate relationships with significant donors. Generous donors and supporters of NMWA underwrote the cost of insuring individual works of as they traveled from Europe.  The result of their gifts is that Washington has put on another exhibition of universal importance and appeal.

At the National Gallery, there’s another exhibition about the Italian Renaissance in Washington, Piero di Cosimo.  It taps into a completely different aspect of the Renaissance, the rebirth of interest in classical mythology.    

Master of the Winking Eye, Madonna and Child, c. 1450

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016