Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin in 1988 with oil on jute. (Herald photo / provided)
Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin in 1988 with oil on jute. (Herald photo / provided)
At Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum the current exhibition is, “On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness,” which will run until Sept. 25. Van Gogh actually painted for only the last decade of his life (1880-1890). He died at the age of 37, so up to his 27th year he attempted numerous vocations, without success, with the ministry his most serious effort for a profession.

Among the artworks included in the exhibition is “Still Life with Onion” (1888) painted after Van Gogh recovered from the “ear incident.”

Also included from Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, is a portrait of Felix Rey, the young physician who treated Van Gogh after his ear injury. The show also includes the unfinished “Tree Roots,” the painting that Vincent was thought to be working on, on the day he allegedly shot himself.

Included in the exhibition is a payment receipt for an asylum stay and a February 1889 petition from the citizens of Arles, a town in southern France where Vincent had a series of nervous breakdowns. The petition requested that their mayor have the artist institutionalized.

At the Yellow House in Aries and in the Asylum at Saint Remy, Van Gogh experienced attacks of terrifying hallucinations followed by faintness and vertigo and then unconsciousness. Upon recovery he experienced memory lapses, amnesia and anguish. “I was so dejected,” he said, “that I had no desire to see friends or to work.”

Many years after Vincent’s death, scientists discovered that “latent” epileptic fits resemble fireworks of electrical impulses in the brain. William James called them “nerve storms” or “explosions” of abnormal neural discharges. These explosions may be what Van Gogh “observed” and painted in his “Starry Night” in 1889.

As Van Gogh’s posthumous fame and reports of his unusual behavior grew, so did his diagnoses. A seminar planned for mid-September in Amsterdam will consider epilepsy and other explanations, among them bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. Among other diagnoses, made over decades, is acute intermittent porphyria, a metabolic disorder that can cause delirium and may have caused British King George Ill his bouts of insanity. 

Van Gogh had problems with those closest to him. He seldom bathed; his clothes were unkempt, dirty and frayed. He was disagreeable and argumentative, ungracious, impolite and displayed badly decayed, discolored teeth. In 1904, Sien Hoornik, Vincent’s prostitute lover and substitute wife in The Hague, threw herself into a canal and drowned. Theo Van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother, paid a monthly stipend to fellow painter Paul Gauguin to join Van Gogh in the Yellow House. He stayed only three months.

Not much can be said with certainty about his death. We know he died of a gunshot wound in Auvers on July 27, 1890. When he had left that morning, he was carrying all of his painting equipment including an easel that was never found. He returned to his room at the Ravoux Inn with a bullet hole in his upper abdomen and requested medical assistance. The bullet had not exited the body but had come to rest by the spinal column. It entered the body at an unusual oblique angle (not from straight on) and the gun had been fired at some distance from the body, not close up.

Vincent in his letters to Theo had always rejected suicide in the most vehement terms. He thought it cowardly and dishonest. In 1881, when he was on the verge of despair in Borinage, he assured Theo, “I really do not think I am a man with such inclinations.”

So, what really happened on that July 27? Too much is inconsistent with a simple suicide as we see in the movie version. He died about 30 hours after his return to the inn.

Basta und damit!