WARNING!! This following chapter is on the cusp of being stream of consciousness writing. Not really, but it is as close as I allow myself to come to such a thing. It is not my favorite type of writing and I understand that sometimes it can be difficult to read. I know what you are thinking. You can’t change styles like this in the middle of a project. James Joyce did it all the time, so I’m going to do it too.
Chapter 7: Lust for Life
I don’t know much art history. I did know that an artist by the name of Vincent Van Gogh had been on my mind lately. Ever since Jesse told me that somebody actually bought the picture (the veracity of that claim has since been called into question by his wife) that is hanging in Kelly’s salon I have thought about Van Gogh. He is perhaps the most successful artist of the last 100 years. His paintings consistently break records when they go to auction.
For all of that success, he only sold one painting when he was alive. That is one of only three things I know about Van Gogh. I know that fact, I know that he cut off his ear, and I know that he killed himself. That is really all I know about the man.
I was thinking that now I had tied Van Gogh. True I’m not a painter, but I had now sold one piece of art to a stranger. The same as Van Gogh. I had tied Vincent.
I knew that I wanted to know more about him. I was standing in Border’s holding Rebecca’s birthday present. I decided to get her a book of Van Gogh’s work after she had showed me an elephant sculpture she had painted in the spirit of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” the evening before.
I had picked up a book published by Taschen that included images of every one of Van Gogh’s existing paintings. It was now that I was considering picking up a copy of a biography on the man. I didn’t really need a book for myself. I had borrowed a copy of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” from Jon at work. He warned me that the book was too boring for a person to complete.
I knew it was a short book and figured I’d be finished with it by the time I decided it was too boring to read. I had been reading the book off and on now and had not caught any kind of natural rhythm with the book. I think it was because the book was written in a difficult style. It was not quite stream of consciousness, but the entire book is written in a manner where one person is just telling a story. In dialogue. The book is literally 100 some pages of one guy speaking.
I decided to pick up a copy of Derek Fell’s “Van Gogh’s Women”. I opened it to read a little bit of it. I instantly found my rhythm with this book and finished it in one weekend.
This was somewhat problematic for anybody that surrounds me. I have this annoying habit of telling everybody around me all about any book I read when I really enjoy the book.
People who were around me after I read this book frequently had to endure a 21st century man’s vernacular, describing the life of a 19th century genius. Often people would amble up on me and ask a simple question about “what I’ve been up to?” They would frequently got a response that was something like this:
“I’ve been reading this awesome book on Van Gogh. Man his mom really screwed him up. Vincent was the oldest child in the family but he wasn’t the first born. His mom gave birth to a still born baby. She also named that baby Vincent. 1 year later she gave birth to Vincent. When I mean 1 year later, I mean 1 year later. He was born 1 year to the day that his older stillborn brother was born. His mom named him after his older brother. His older brother was buried on their land. Every day Vincent played outside he would play next to a grave stone that carried both his name and his birth date.
If that wouldn’t screw you up enough, his mother got hardcore into something called ‘Replacement Child Syndrome’. This is when somebody loses a child and then they have another child to replace that child. They never love the replacement child as much as they loved the first child because the first child was perfect in death and a living person can’t attain perfection.
Even after his mother messed him up, I think he still had a few chances to be happy. His old man was a minister, so he decided to become a minister. He didn’t make it though because his grades were terrible. He refused to learn Greek and Latin because he considered them dead languages and he didn’t see what good it would do him to learn languages that he wasn’t going to preach in.
He still got a chance to serve God though. His church gave him a job as a missionary in a poor coal mining town. He could have been happy there, but the Church canned his ass. They didn’t like the fact that he dressed like his congregation and was dirty like his congregation. Plus he gave up his bed to a sick woman and lived in a shack and slept on a bed of straw on the floor. They might have been okay with some of his more unorthodox ways, but he also supported and tried to help organize unions for the coal miners. They got rid of him.
This really changed the way Van Gogh thought about God. He looked for other ways to serve God and began to get serious about his art work as a way to serve God.
He moved back in with his parents. As fate would have it, his cousin Kee and her son Jan were staying with them. Kee was a recent widow. Vincent fell in love with his cousin and tried to put the moves on her.
She flat out told him ‘No! Never! Never!’ She moved out and went back to live with her parents because even in 19th century Holland, hooking up with your cousin is just gross.
Vincent wasn’t about to give up though. He followed her to her parents’ house. When she refused to meet with him, he met up with her dad AKA his Uncle. When his Uncle wouldn’t let him talk to Kee, Vincent held his hand in a lamp and burned his hand, stating that ‘he would only talk to her as long as he could hold his hand in the lamp’.
His Uncle quickly put the lamp out and probably wandered what kind of sick bastard his nephew had turned into. Vince was still burned pretty badly, so his Aunt and Uncle helped bandage him up and then found him a hotel for the night.
Then Vincent started getting into prostitutes. The man loved the prostitutes. Prostitutes and absinthe and something to paint. That was all Vincent lived off of for large chunks of his life.
He got over Kee quickly enough when he started hooking up with a prostitute named Sien. When he found her she was pregnant and living in the streets. Vincent gave her a place to live and got her medical attention. You are probably thinking ‘how does a man without a job support himself, let alone a pregnant prostitute’. Vincent’s brother Theo was supporting them. Theo would support Vincent his entire life.
Theo was an art dealer in Paris. He tried to sell Vincent’s artwork, but nobody would buy. Two reasons for that. Two sad reasons really. The Paris Salon was basically the word on what art was worth buying. Royalty and rich folk do have a long history of needing other people telling them what is good and what isn’t. The Paris Salon hardly ever displayed anything that wasn’t from a dead artist. If the Salon wouldn’t display your work, nobody would buy it. To sell enough paintings to feed yourself, you already had to be dead.
Plus people didn’t trust Theo. People thought that he was just trying to push his brother’s work on them because he was his brother. People couldn’t believe their eyes. They wouldn’t spend money on what they believed to be nepotism. People just wouldn’t believe Vincent was any good because his brother tried to sell his paintings and he was still alive. The first problem Vincent took care of eventually.
Even though Vincent took Sien out of the street and provided her with medical attention, as soon as she had her kid, she went back to whoring. Vincent didn’t like that very much. After his mom screwed him up, Vincent really spent the rest of his life trying to find a woman to rescue and he thought he had found that in Sien, but rather than have a normal steady life with Vincent, she’d rather whore.
Vincent left Sien and moved back in with his parents. That didn’t go so well, since Vincent’s dad was a minister and Vincent considered the God of the clergy to be dead. Although he did paint the “Potato Eaters” at this time, nothing went very well and Vincent moved to Antwerp to take art classes. This didn’t work very well either. His instructors thought he worked too quickly and didn’t like his use of colors. They made him go back to the beginner’s class.
Van Gogh wasn’t going to take that. Can you imagine how clueless his teachers had to be? They had perhaps the greatest painter in history in their class and they busted him down to the beginner class. I guess that is consistent with our education system as well though. The most dangerous thing in the world is passion. It makes people uncomfortable to be around people that are passionate about anything. Apathy is the virtue of our day. It sure isn’t cool to care, that’s for sure.
Somewhere during this time frame, I think Vincent had his second chance at happiness. He hooked up with a lady named Margot. Margot was 12 years older than Vincent. This caused quite a ruckus. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, her family objected to her being with a much younger man. The family had them break it off. She was so dejected by the situation that while she was walking with Vincent she took some poison to try to kill herself. Vincent rushed her to a doctor and she lived, but she was sent away to recover and one of Vincent’s chances at happiness was squashed.
Shortly after that, one of Vincent’s models got knocked up. He was accused of being the father, but he wasn’t. His model did reveal to him the identity of the father, but Vincent refused to divulge the name to the church leaders, so he got the boot from that town.
Also somewhere in here, Vincent’s dad died. Some of his brothers and sisters blamed Vincent for this death because Vincent had punched the old man during a fight. However that punch was months before his death, but Vincent’s family was nearly as crazy as he was. After Vincent’s death, his sister Wil spent the rest of her life in an insane asylum. Another brother moved to South Africa and killed himself. A whole family of crazy.
Vincent told them where to go and he moved to Paris to live with Theo. This probably made Theo happy. For once he only had to pay rent at one place, but I doubt that Theo cut Vincent’s stipend. I just don’t think that Theo rolled like that.
While he was in Paris Vincent met all sorts of artists. He even got into pointillism for a small period of time, but the most important person he met was Gauguin.
>Paul Gauguin. That dude was kind of a horse’s ass. He was a wealthy man with a wife and 5 kids. He was in the stock market or some kind of financing, but he lost everything. His family was poor and he didn’t stick around. He took off and decided to become an artist. Like Van Gogh, he wasn’t financially successful while he was alive, but he did well enough to support himself. He never went back to his wife and kids though. In fact, he moved to Tahiti and married a 13 year old chick before he died. Dude was just a prick.
Despite that, Vincent developed a man crush on Gauguin. Nothing gay, but he really thought the world of him. Plus Gauguin really liked the prostitutes and absinthe as well. In fact, they would later go onto share a favorite prostitute named Rachel, but I don’t want to put the cart in front of the horse here.
Vincent ended up moving to the south of France to the town of Arles. He befriended a mailman and moved into a yellow house. Vincent wasn’t very well received in Arles. People would throw things at him while he was painting. They would stand in his way while he was painting. People from Arles were pricks.
Vincent still loved it there though. He wanted Gauguin to move in with him. He wanted to start an artist’s colony, with Gauguin as the master. His wish was granted and Gauguin moved into the yellow house with him. It wasn’t what Vincent dreamed it would be. Gauguin couldn’t stand how messy Vincent was. Everything was a mess. The house, Vincent, and Vincent’s art supplies. I will say to Vincent’s credit, any time he came home from a night of whoring and had too much absinthe and he puked on his bedroom floor, there isn’t any record that he didn’t clean all that up.
Gauguin was kind of prick though. He berated Vincent for his lack of technique and using emotion in his paintings. Their time together was not easy. Even though Gauguin thought that he was the superior painter and let everybody know it, he would write a book where he talked at length about how he helped Vincent, it just wasn’t true. When they separated Gauguin’s style changed. Vincent’s didn’t. Vincent clearly influenced Gauguin more.
There disagreements were awkward. Vincent would get angry and stop talking for long stretches of time. Gauguin would wake up in the middle of the night and find Vincent standing over him. Then Vincent would just go back to bed.
The relationship boiled over. Gauguin walked out on Vincent after a heated debate during supper. Gauguin was walking down the streets of Arles when Vincent came up behind him with a blade. Gauguin struck a defensive posture. Vincent ran off into the night.
Vincent then cut off his ear and took it to the 15 year old prostitute that he and Gauguin favored, Rachel.
Vincent decided to commit himself to a mental asylum in Saint Remey. Vincent spent about a year in the asylum. When he got out he went to visit Theo. Theo had married a woman by the name of Jo. She would become very important to Vincent’s legacy. She had a baby and they named the child after Vincent.
Vincent struck up a relationship with Jo through writing. When he got out of the asylum he went to Paris to see his namesake and meet Jo in person and see Theo. Didn’t turn out to be so happy though. Theo was suffering from syphilis. Theo liked to go whoring as well. Theo never passed syphilis on to Jo though. Something about having it for more than two years. Theo was in bad health and was recently demoted, perhaps for always pushing his brother’s art on people. The syphilis was also working on his brain to some degree and Theo was physically abusive to Jo. Plus little Vincent wasn’t in good health either.
Theo didn’t really have the money to keep supporting Vincent. This lead to a huge fight with Jo, but in the end they never cut Vincent’s stipend.
I should point out that ever since Vincent was in the asylum he had swore off prostitutes and booze. This was a big change for Vincent because he really thought that the absinthe and the prostitutes really helped him with his art. Probably didn’t though. It was during this time that he did some of his most famous works, such as “Starry Night”.
Vincent left Paris for Auvers. Vincent badly wanted Theo to move his family to Auvers with him because he thought it was the bad Paris air that was keeping them all sick.
In Auvers Vincent was under the care of a Dr. Gachet. This quack considered himself to be somewhat of an artist. He was also very fond of artists. It seemed like an ideal situation, but it was Gachet that may have finally drove Vincent to kill himself. I believe that Vincent had one last chance at happiness. Gachet had a daughter named Marguerite. She was smitten with Vincent. Vincent thought she was pretty swell as well. Vincent would paint pictures of her where she was dressed like a bride.
Gachet would have none of it though. He put the smackdown on the relationship. Which was sad because Marguerite would live to be 70 something and would never marry. I don’t know if she had a happy life, but I feel like her old man put the smackdown on any chance she had at happiness as well.
Vincent wrote to Theo that they couldn’t trust Gachet any longer because “When the blind lead the blind, they end up in the ditch”.
Vincent wandered out into a field and fired a bullet into his chest. This is somewhat controversial because nobody knows where Vincent got the gun. Nobody ever found the gun. What is known for sure is that Vincent didn’t die right away. He got up and went back to his room where he suffered for two days before passing.
Theo came to his bedside and waiting with him until he died. His last words were ‘I wish it were all over now’.
At his funeral, Gachet eulogized him by saying: ‘He was an honest man and a great artist, and there were only two things important to him: humanity and art.’
Something else that is up to debate is whether or not this was a suicide. Vincent had a history of harming himself physically when he faced rejection. It is possible that Vincent was just trying to transfer his emotional pain to physical pain. He shot himself in the stomach. Even for 19th century medicine, this wasn’t a guaranteed death. It is possible he was shooting for his heart, hoping to break it one last time.
I don’t know his motivation, but within 6 months Theo died as well. He was buried next to Vincent. This left Jo with a baby, no income, and a huge collection of Vincent’s art that was pretty much worthless.
I think this is fascinating. Jo had a brother Andre. He looked at Vincent’s art and told her that it was worthless and she should just burn it. How close was the world to losing such beauty. Jo was smarter than Andre. She offered Vincent’s art to his living relatives, but they all said they didn’t want any of it. She didn’t quit though. She moved to Amsterdam and opened a boardinghouse to support herself. In her spare time she organized exhibitions of Vincent’s work. This time he caught on. Within 10 years the name Van Gogh and artistic genius were synonymous.
Oh yeah, when Vincent died, Gauguin was in Tahiti. He wrote a letter that said, ‘In these circumstances, I don’t want to write the usual phrases of condolence – you know that he was a sincere friend; and that he was an artist, a rare thing in our epoch. You will continue to see him in his works. As Vincent used to often say – Stone will perish, the word will remain. As for me, I shall see him with my eyes and with my heart in his works.’
Maybe Gauguin wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Could anybody that wrote such beautiful words be that bad.”