Van Gogh’s Finale

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows (1890), oil on canvas, 51 x 103cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam]

The esteemed art historian and journalist Martin Bailey – noted for his expertise on Van Gogh – has completed his trilogy of books on Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers & The Artist’s Rise to Fame succeeds Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence and Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum. This final book examines the last few weeks of the artist’s life. It was an intensely productive period, during which the artist completed 70 paintings in 70 days.

When Van Gogh was recovering slowly in the asylum in Saint Rémy, he was in need of a place to stay when he departed. It was Pissarro who recommended to Theo Van Gogh as a suitable place Auvers-sur-Oise. Pissasso had stayed in Pontoise, near the village, and knew the local doctor, Paul Gachet. Gachet was an amateur artist and printmaker and had an interest in assisting artists. On 16 May 1890 Van Gogh took the train from Saint-Rémy to Paris to see Theo, Jo and their baby son. After staying a few days in Paris, visiting art exhibitions, meeting people and buying art supplies (on Theo’s money), Van Gogh travelled to Auvers-sur-Oise, met Dr Gachet and took up lodgings at Auberge Ravoux. The Ravoux’s café and lodging house was officially “Café de la Mairie”. Van Gogh’s attic room was small, with only a skylight for natural light, although he could use a storeroom for materials and finished pictures. The cost of bed and board was 3.50 francs.

Bailey describes Gachet’s peculiar collection: Florentine stained glass, Impressionist paintings, human skulls and casts of the decapitated heads of executed prisoners. The dark rooms crammed with furniture, books and curios made a strong impression on visitors. He painted the doctor’s portrait, complete with yellow-jacketed novels and a sprig of foxgloves, grown as a medicine; the doctor appears melancholy and detached. (Van Gogh considered him a strange character.) He also painted his garden at least twice, one including the doctor’s daughter. Another painting of Maguerite Gachet at a piano used a canvas typically used for landscape. The double-square format (1:2 proportion, 50 x 100 cm) was one that Van Gogh took up as a tribute to Daubigny, whose favourite format it had been for landscapes. Daubigny lived in Auvers and had died in 1878. Daubigny’s widow still lived in his house when Van Gogh stayed in the village.  

Bailey includes vintage photographs and postcards of places and people in Auvers that Van Gogh knew or painted. The many illustrations – all well-chosen – make reading a fast experience, which is quite appropriate given the hectic pace of the subject’s last weeks. He was painting so fast that he ran out of canvases and had to use a tea towel to paint on. One of the reasons Van Gogh did not sell paintings was that he was willing to give them away. Gachet did not have to pay for his “26 Van Gogh paintings, 14 drawings, 3 prints and a letter with a drawing.” The Van Goghs and almost 50 paintings by Cézannes and Pissarros owned by Gachet would be valued today at over a billion dollars.  

In artistic terms, it is hard to pinpoint anything characteristic of the Auvers period outside of an increase in green hues and a slightly darker tonality, due to the cloudier northern climate. He took as subjects picturesque rural cottages, gardens, wheatfields and the local church. Ears of Wheat (1890), with the absence of horizon or sky and the repeated marks and patterning filling the picture plane, verges on abstraction. There were flower paintings (perhaps on rainy days, when painting outside was impossible) and portraits.

Although it is a common misconception that Van Gogh’s last painting was Wheatfield with Crows (1890) – probably because of the iconic scene in the biopic Lust for Life (1956). His last completed painting was of tree roots. It recalls his curious paintings of caves. The caves and roots both seem to frame portals to the underworld. Only in 2020 was the spot identified. It was depicted in the vintage postcard of a bank next to a road close to the artist’s lodging.

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Tree Roots (1890), oil on canvas, 50 x 100 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam]

The standard account of Van Gogh’s suicide was that he left his lodgings late in the evening of 27 July (“just after 7pm”) and walked towards the chateau. Standing by the walls, isolated, he shot himself through the chest – a fatal wound. Finding himself still alive, he managed to walk back to his lodging. When the Ravouxs realised he was injured, they summoned a local doctor and Dr Gachet. Theo was summoned from Paris. He arrived in time to comfort the painter in his last hours. He died in the early hours of 29 July. Bailey recounts the touching scenes from the hasty funeral on the following day.  

Bailey investigates the question of the artist’s death. In 2011 the Smith-Naifeh biography of Van Gogh presented an alternative story about that fateful 27 July 1890. They recount that late in life, René Secrétan, who was a schoolboy who visited Auvers in 1890 and had known the painter. Secrétan said that he had borrowed the pistol from the owner of the Auberge Ravoux (where the painter was staying) in order to play cowboys and Indians. He had seen the painter painting near the walls of the chateau. He had tussled with the painter – whom he often taunted – and the gun went off. Van Gogh had staggered back to Auberge Ravoux and had refused to implicate the boy, intimating that it was the result of a suicidal act.

Bailey is sceptical. He points out that Secrétan did not say the gun went off in scuffle but that Van Gogh took the gun – then killing himself, on purpose or by accident. “The very limited forensic evidence about the wound has so far failed to resolve the debate.” He gives five reasons for favouring suicide as a cause of death: “suicidal tendencies, Cor’s death and Wil’s depression, Theo’s problems, Vincent’s last words, everyone at the time believed it was suicide”. Van Gogh had self-harmed (the famous ear-slashing attack in December 1888 caused such blood los that he almost died) and contemplated suicide before. Van Gogh’s brother Cor committed suicide in South Africa in 1900 and his sister Wil suffered complete mental collapse in 1902, subsequently diagnosed as dementia (possibly schizophrenia); so, there was serious mental instability in the family. Van Gogh was under the impression his brother was on the verge of quitting his job (or being fired) – imperilling not only Theo’s own livelihood but also Van Gogh’s soul source of income. Actually, the crisis had been averted, but Theo had inexplicably failed to mention this to his brother. Van Gogh, in his last hours, seemed resolved to die, never saying anything otherwise. Theo, Gachet, Ravoux, the police and the painter’s friends all believed the shooting was a deliberate suicide. On balance, Bailey’s defence of the suicide theory is more persuasive than the Smith-Naifeh accident/manslaughter theory.

Barely had Van Gogh been buried when Theo attempted a posthumous exhibition, eventually settling on a display in his Parisian apartment. He was quickly overtaken by tertiary syphilis, dying less than six months after his brother. Bailey wonders whether or not by the May 1890 meeting Theo had known his condition and fate (syphilis was then untreatable and usually fatal) and whether or not information had been transmitted to Van Gogh, effectively warning him that his sole income was threatened. I suspect not. Considering how generally frank the brothers were, it seems letters would have contained explicit references or allusions. Knowing Van Gogh’s precarious emotional, health and financial situation, I believe that Theo did know (or suspect his condition) but chose to conceal that grisly news from Van Gogh and Jo.

The story of Van Gogh’s rise to fame is well known and often recounted but (as with every account) there are new details. Bailey suggests that the reason there are few mentions in the Van Gogh correspondence of press articles about Van Gogh in his lifetime is that he was unaware of some of the pieces. This seems very surprising, considering Theo’s central position in avant-garde art in Paris. Even more remarkably Gachet never wrote anything substantial on Van Gogh, despite his intentions. His notes (both memoirs and any medical notes) were destroyed or lost. The publication of the letters (in 1914), in tandem with a number of group and solo exhibitions, brought Van Gogh to worldwide fame by the early 1920s. By then, the Expressionists had already mined Van Gogh for the emotionally expressive use of colour, brushwork and exaggeration.

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Garden in Auvers (1890), oil on canvas, 64 x 80 cm, private collection, France]

Bailey discusses the trade in fakes and the problems of attribution – there are waves of attribution and deattribution, as experts seek to assert their taste and knowledge. There is kudos in being scrupulously rigorous in exclusion and in being perspicuously open-minded. He includes a gallery of shame, comprising four book covers featuring fake Van Goghs. He provides examples of paintings that have been denounced only to be reinstated. Garden in Auvers is one painting that is seen as atypically decorative and was hobbled by doubts, making it difficult to sell. Now authenticated by the Van Gogh Museum, the painting is commonly accepted. He also discounts the famous myth that a Japanese businessman (Ryoei Saito) with cremated with his Portrait of Doctor Gachet (1890) – a black joke, apparently.   

Bailey makes a judicious, informative and passionate companion for those of us seeking to understand Van Gogh’s last days. Bailey’s masterful familiarity with artist, art and artistic and social setting pays off. The text is effortlessly readable, thoughtful and well-sourced. The images are rich and rewarding. Highly recommended.

Martin Bailey, Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers & The Artist’s Rise to Fame, Frances Lincoln, 21 September 2021, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., £25/$40, ISBN 978 0 7112 5700 0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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