In October 1888 Paul Gauguin travelled to Arles in the south of France to join his friend Vincent van Gogh. Gauguin had been reluctant to leave Brittany but pressure (in the form of a continual stream of letters) from both Vincent, and Vincent’s brother Theo, had eventually broken his resolve and van Gogh welcomed him to the tiny ‘Yellow House’ which Vincent imagined would eventually be the focal point of a community of artists. The explosive mix of two different (but equally obsessive) temperaments, together with their mutual fondness for excessive drinking, led to predictable conflict and the exacerbation of van Gogh’s increasingly febrile moods. By late December Gauguin was planning to leave Arles and Vincent became depressed by the prospect of a return to solitude. An argument on 23 December proved to be critical in terms of van Gogh’s mental health. He famously took a razor and severed his ear lobe which he then presented to one of the town’s prostitutes.
The stricken painter was found the next day in his bed covered in blood and was admitted to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Arles suffering from delirium. Theo, alerted by a telegram from Gauguin, travelled by train to Arles on Christmas Day to find his brother in bad shape. ‘There is little hope’ he wrote ‘If it must be that he dies, so be it, but my heart breaks to think of it’. However, he recovered and discharged himself on 2 January 1889. But little more than a month later he was back in hospital, exhibiting paranoid symptoms. At this point his immediate neighbours became alarmed and petitioned the police to make sure that he was kept under lock and key. Although confined to a cell for much of the time he was allowed to bring his painting materials into the hospital.
Unable to return to the Yellow House, van Gogh made the decision to enter an asylum, housed in a former monastery, in the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, twenty-four kilometres to the north of Arles. ‘As a painter I shall never amount to anything now’ he wrote, ‘I am absolutely sure of it’.
Theo had arranged for two adjoining rooms to be prepared for Vincent. One had ‘greenish grey paper and … curtains of sea green’ and the other would serve as a studio. As soon as he arrived he stated to paint – he believed that only by continuing to paint would he be able to stave off the onset of further periods of dementia. He painted the garden seen through his window and later the surrounding landscape seen from the garden. And he painted this self-portrait – surely one of the most breathtaking examples of the genre in western art.
Vincent appears against an astonishing backdrop fashioned from waves and vortexes of pale greens and blues (perhaps he used the wallpaper in his room as the basis for his palette). The same colours invade Vincent’s suit which shows distinct signs of a willingness to morph with the forces emanating from behind his left shoulder. But in contrast to the agitated psychedelia of the background the artist’s visage is still – like the calm at the eye of a storm. His face somehow stands proud from the surrounding swirl, his features exquisitely modelled in fine daubs of raw paint, his beard and hair form a beautiful complementary counterpoint to the dominant pastel greens. He seems assured; he accepts his fate. He confronts us; we are pinned by his penetrating stare. Despite the deep anguish of his current circumstances, perhaps deep in his soul, regardless of his occasional protestations to the contrary, he knows that his art will live on.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Further reading: Self Portrait 1887
1889 Camille Pissarro: Apple Picking at Eragny-sur-Epte, Dallas, Museum of Art
1889 Giovanni Segantini: The Fruits of Love, Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste
1889 Philip Wilson Steer: Knucklebones, Ipswich Borough Council Museums