“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt.” – Yann Martel, Life of Pi.
In early 1888, Van Gogh moved from Paris to the town of Arles in the south of France. In his letters to his brother Theo, he praises the clarity of its light, the vivid colours of its landscape, and its rustic lifestyle.
Arles was literally a breath of fresh air after the hurly-burly of Paris, invoking a calmer frame of mind in which to live and paint. Van Gogh soon came up with the idea of creating an artists’ community there, a “Studio of the South”. He rented a dilapidated four-room house and invited others to join him.
Paul Gauguin accepted the invitation, arriving in Arles in late October 1888. Temperamentally and artistically unsuited, the two painters soon fell out and in a fit of anger Van Gogh cut off his ear with a razor. (It used to be thought that he removed only the lobe, but in Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story (2016), Bernadette Murphy reveals evidence that he cut off his entire ear.)
Vincent spent the next few months in and out of the hospital in Arles, sometimes in an isolation cell. And in the spring of 1889, he voluntarily committed himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy, a small town north of Arles. But he continued to paint and in early 1890 began to receive favourable attention from art critics.
Van Gogh eventually left the asylum, spending his last months at Auvers-sur-Oise, where he suffered melancholic attacks that one day led him to shoot himself in the chest. With Theo at his side, he died a few days later from an untreated infection resulting from the wound.
Michel Foucault, author of Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1964), said, “…if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal, then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing.”
One of Van Gogh’s last self-portraits was done in 1888. It is not the image of a madman, but of someone who is simply “not like everybody else”, whose demons may (or may not) be discernible in the brooding eyes that seem to stare at the viewer and are actually staring at the painter’s mirror image. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent once wrote:
“They say – and I gladly believe it – that it is difficult to know yourself, but it isn’t easy to paint oneself either. For the time being, I am working on two portraits of myself – since I have no other models – for it is high time for me to paint some figures. One of them I started the first day I got up; I was thin and pale like a ghost. It is dark blue-violet, the head whitish with yellow hair, in other words, an effect of colour. But since then I have begun another one, three quarter length on a light background. You will see when you put up the portrait with the light background that I have just finished… that I look saner now, even much more so. I am inclined to think that the portrait will tell you how I am better than my letter and this will reassure you.”