133 years ago today, Vincent van Gogh shot himself on July 27, 1890. He was only 37 years old. This blog will focus on the often powerful works of art he created during his last months in Auvers, France where he died. Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is among them.
Why did Vincent commit suicide? Numerous articles and books have been devoted to finding the reason. Was it his mental illness that had been plaguing him for the past couple of years? Or the increasing anxiety that his brother Theo, who ran an art gallery in Paris and was Vincent’s sole source of income, would no longer be able to support him? Theo was now married and struggling to support his wife and new son. Or was it Vincent’s discouragement at the lack of recognition of his art by both the public and critics? Or a combination of all of these factors?
(Note: In recent years, there has been speculation that Vincent might have been shot by others.)
Whatever the cause, Van Gogh continued creating until the end. His inspiration was the town of Auvers, just 20 miles from Paris where Vincent resided from May 20 until his death in late July.
Vincent, though, had only been recently released from the mental asylum of Saint Remy on May 16, and was to be under the care of Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. Gachet had had some experience working with mental patients but probably he was just as interested in Van Gogh as an artist. For Gachet was a painter himself and avid collector of the works of Impressionist Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne, a pioneer of modern art. During the 1880s, Gachet had been a neighbor of the two artists who had lived and painted in the surrounding countryside.
Van Gogh was friendly with Gachet, yet he confided to Theo that the physician is “sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say, just as much.” Vincent’s reaction is evident in his two compelling portraits of Gachet, painted with “the heartbroken expression of our time.” *Ironically, the first version sold for almost $80 million nearly a century later.
Google the Two Dr. Gachets
Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890, Private Collection
Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890, Musee D’Orsay, Paris
When Vincent wasn’t spending time with Dr. Gachet, he was exploring the local sites, including Auvers’s main church which he would recreate as a vision in blue, violet, ultramarine, and orange. Yet, it is not only the striking colors that electrify The Church at Auvers: the wavy movement of the church’s outlines and the short uneven brushstrokes of the ground add to the emotional intensity of the painting. Has a small earthquake recently hit the otherwise peaceful town?
Google: The Church at Auvers, 1890, Musee D’Orsay
Van Gogh was moved too by another building in Auvers that he captured in White House at Night, referred to in a letter to Theo. Is that lonely star a a sole survivor of Van Gogh’s most famous painting, Starry Night, done in Saint Remy just the summer before?
Google: White House at Night, 1890, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
The next work of art, Daubigny’s Garden, set in the backyard of the widow of the nineteenth century landscape painter, Charles Francois Daubigny, may seem calmer in its feeling: a hidden oasis of roses and lilac bushes behind the Auvers church. Or is it?
Google: Daubigny’s Garden, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
But perhaps above all, it was the endless wheat fields outside of Auvers that moved Vincent to painting a series of dynamic works of art, vibrating with energy and beauty.
Google: Wheat Fields After the Rain, 1890, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
House at Auvers, 1890, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Yet, these same fields could arouse darker emotions resulting in very different creations. One of them has usually been identified as Wheat Field Under Thunderclouds, a haunting interpretation of an infinite world where the earth and sky merge on the distant horizon. Have you ever seen such strange clouds?
Google: Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Another is the legendary Wheatfields with Crows, almost mythic in its reputation as Van Gogh’s final work of art. Is it a vision or hallucination? Are the crows an ominous sign of Vincent’s impending self-destruction?
Google: Wheatfields with Crows, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
However, Wheatfields with Crows, would have been done by July 10 over two weeks before Van Gogh’s death eliminating it as a candidate. But does it matter?
Vincent was probably shot on Sunday evening, July 27. Mortally wounded with a bullet in his side, Vincent was able to stagger to the local inn where he had been staying. For more than 24 hours he lingered, while Theo, Dr. Gachet, the innkeeper Ravoux, a fellow Dutchman Anton Hirschig, and possibly others kept vigil, over the still conscious Vincent. He died at 1:00 a.m. on July 29; according to Theo, his last words were “I wish I could pass away like this.”
In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.