Authors: Carol Wallace
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Biographical, #Literary
Leaving Van Gogh
is a work of historical fiction. Apart from the well-known actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to current events or locales, or to living persons, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Carol Wallace
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
SPIEGEL & GRAU and Design is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Leaving Van Gogh: a novel/Carol Wallace.
1. Gachet, Paul-Ferdinand, 1828–1909—Fiction. 2. Gogh, Vincent van, 1853–1890—
Last years—Fiction. 3. Gogh, Vincent van, 1853–1890—Mental health—Fiction.
4. Gogh, Vincent van, 1853–1890—Relations with physicians—Fiction.
5. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
Jacket design: Greg Mollica
Hand-lettering: Nancy Harris Rouemy/Go for it Design
Jacket art: Vincent van Gogh, Branch of an Almond Tree in Blossom, 1890 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Art Resource, N.Y.); Vincent van Gogh, self-portraits, 1887 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
For Rick, as always
It is my constant hope that I am not working for myself alone
in my hands yesterday. It was a strange and melancholy moment. As I examined the yellowed cranium, my imagination clothed it with flesh; I could see the strong ridge over his eyebrows and the steep ledges of his cheekbones, which were the foundations of his face.
The doctor in me could not help looking for something else as well. Phrenology is out of fashion now, but I am an old man. When I began my medical training, there were doctors who believed the shape of a skull betrayed or predicted a man’s mental state. What should this skull have told me then? Should I have detected from it that Vincent was mad? Or that he was a genius? Perhaps that he was both?
I had been hoping … Well, it was foolish. I suppose I had been hoping that Vincent would speak to me again. Nonsense, of course. I did not really imagine that a voice would issue from between his few, ruined teeth, but I thought the sight of his skull might prompt a new memory, something I had forgotten—a phrase, a glance, a gesture that would provide me with new insight into his mental predicament.
Of course I could not wait as long as I would have liked for some ghostly trace. We were reinterring the man. It was no time for investigation.
The ceremony was moving but peculiar. At nearly eighty, I often feel that I have done everything in life, but until yesterday I had never re-buried anyone. We would not have had to disturb Vincent’s grave if there had been an empty plot alongside it for Theo’s remains. Now, in a new plot, the modest headstones rise side by side, each engraved plainly with one of the brothers’ names. Theo’s body still lies in Utrecht, but his widow promises to bring it to Auvers when she can, because she feels their fraternal bond should be honored, even in death. Not many widows—certainly not those who had remarried, as Madame van Gogh Grosschalk did—are so self-effacing. I am certain, though, that she is right.
The new grave site is better. It lies on the north side of the cemetery, against the wall. Vincent would have liked this spot, surrounded as it is by the wheat fields he painted with such bravura and devotion. I transplanted some sunflowers from his first grave; they gave poor Theo pleasure and consolation back then. I am glad to think that something I did might have been a source of comfort to that poor man.
We all waited until the gravedigger had shoveled the last handful of earth onto the coffin. It was a warm afternoon; not as hot as that searing July day fifteen years ago when we last buried Vincent, but hot enough for the gravedigger’s task to seem interminable. Yet we stood there, Van Gogh’s survivors if you like, watching the casket vanish beneath the crumbly soil and thinking about him. He told his brother that I was sicker than he, yet there he is, a pile of bones, and here I am, still trying to grasp what he was to me and I to him.
I have known many artists. Vincent was something different. Everyone who knew him well understood this, so I have not been surprised at Theo’s wife’s unremitting efforts to foster his reputation. Of course she does so because she possesses most of his paintings. That is natural. But she must also feel, as I do, that her life was briefly illuminated by the presence of a remarkable person. I have children, but I will have no grandchildren. Marguerite is most emphatically an old maid, and Paul is no family man. If anyone knows my name a hundred years from now, it will be in connection with Vincent van Gogh. His portrait may make me immortal. If it does, I will also be known as the doctor who let him die. Vincent wrote once in a letter that a man who commits suicide turns his friends into murderers. What does that make me?
Many rumors have grown up about his death. So much could not be explained: where the gun had come from, where the gun vanished to, why he shot himself so clumsily. It has been said that the gun was for shooting crows, and that Vincent had borrowed it from Ravoux. It was a rifle, some said, or it was a shotgun, and he tripped over it while trying to shoot rabbits. There is even a tale—rather more durable than the rabbit nonsense—that Vincent was murdered. He was killed, it is said, by the farmer whose wife he had painted. Some say they had been caught together beneath a haystack. The Parisian version (for some of these stories had even reached as far as the city) mentions an unnamed painter whom Vincent had insulted in a brothel. I don’t imagine anyone believed that for very long.
I never respond to the gossip, of course. Why should I tell what I know? It was a secret I shared with Vincent alone. And he took it to the grave.
first approached me about caring for his brother, I was in my sixties and I had been practicing medicine for thirty-one years. I was well established. My patients were a varied group, but for years I had specialized in diseases of the nerves and mental maladies. A handful of other men in Paris had similar qualifications, but it was my connection to the art world that brought Theo van Gogh to me in the spring of 1890. In fact, it was Camille Pissarro who sent him.
As a boy in Lille, I had studied painting, and through those lessons I came to know Amand Gautier. He was a little younger than I and significantly more talented, so it was no surprise to me that he was accepted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. I had already spent two years at the Faculté de Médecine when he arrived in Paris in 1852, and my life was much livelier from that day. Gautier was an open, affable man, handsome and eager to make friends. What’s more, his fellow painting students were far more entertaining than my fellow medical students. I cared deeply about medical problems, but what I wanted to talk about was art, so I often went with Gautier to the artists’ cafés. And thus over the years I came to know them all—Courbet and Manet, Pissarro and Cézanne, Monet and Renoir, Sisley and Guillaumin.
In 1855 I was accepted as an extern under Dr. Jean-Pierre Falret at what was officially called the Hospice de la Vieillesse-Femmes at the Salpêtrière. Most of the patients were elderly, as the institution’s name would suggest, but Falret was famous for his innovative treatment of women of all ages who had lost their minds. My wife, Blanche, used to tease me, in the gentlest possible way, that the first women I ever knew were mad, pretending that this was why I found her so delightful. She may have been right. When we finally met, in 1868, I had known plenty of sane ladies, but none seemed to see the world in such a clear light as the woman who became my wife. I always relied on her generous but sensible perception of people and their emotions. It is precisely those points that the mad get wrong. You could even say that the definition of madness is a flawed understanding of the world around you. By that standard, Blanche was the sanest person I ever knew. Perhaps my years working in the asylum had made me especially grateful for her soundness.
Despite its reputation for modernity, the Salpêtrière, which had been built largely in the seventeenth century, looked like an old provincial town. The entire hospital was surrounded by a wall and formally laid out around the domed chapel. Parts of the grounds were beautiful: there were old trees, long, symmetrical walkways, and buildings constructed from the golden stone typical of Paris. But its history came with drawbacks. A warehouse for saltpeter, erected on a damp and isolated tract of riverbank, cannot easily be transformed into a rational, modern hospital building. Nor, when many of its patients are mentally fragile, can it be helpful that one of its most prominent wards is housed in what was once known as La Force, France’s most notorious women’s prison. Fear and grief still lingered in those walls.
Only sixty years before I arrived, the great Dr. Philippe Pinel had released the patients from their chains. This was a revolutionary action, for until that point the mad had been thought to be possessed by malevolent spirits. They could not be treated, it was supposed, but must be restrained. Pinel and others believed that madness was rather a kind of alienation from the true self (which is why we used to refer to the mentally ill as
). The new “moral treatment,” by appealing to what was left of the patients’ reason, could bring them back to themselves. As a young doctor, I found Dr. Pinel’s theories thrilling. The merciful and humane attempt to guide a mad person back to his or her senses is not a simple task, and it is not always successful. Even now, in a new century, we do not know what keeps some of us tethered to reality while others go astray. We still do not know exactly how to diagnose the various forms of madness, and we certainly do not know how to cure them. This I have learned to my cost. But in those days, I still believed we could. I thought that kindness and regular hours, good, plain meals, fresh air, and moderate distraction—even work for the most capable—could relieve the mad.
Once I finished my medical training, I began to build an independent practice. I am not a man for committees and meetings. I could never have run a division of a hospital the way Falret did. Instead I worked in the city’s clinics, offered free consultations to the poor, and served as the medical officer of a spa for a few summers. I was even, for a spell, the doctor for a comic theater, soothing sore throats and wrapping twisted ankles so that actors could go back onstage. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, but I was a rich man compared to my artist friends. At least everyone recognizes the need for doctors.
Those were the days, in the 1850s and ’60s, when academic art was slowly giving way to something more individual. Courbet and Cézanne and their friends painted not flattering, fashionable portraits or gigantic mythology paintings but rather their own responses to the life that we all lived. These revolutionary canvases were not well received at first, so my friends were often in desperate straits. I owe several of my loveliest paintings to the fact that I helped them from time to time. I loaned Monet money, I took care of one of Renoir’s favorite models. They gave me canvases as payment. It was a satisfactory arrangement for everyone.
Though Cézanne and I became quite friendly, it was Camille Pissarro I knew best. At times he could barely feed his wife and their children. Of course I helped when the little ones became ill, when Madame Pissarro grew exhausted, when the painter’s eyes began giving him trouble. When he was living north of Paris, in Pontoise, and I bought a house for my family in the neighboring village of Auvers, we saw each other a great deal. Once Cézanne, Pissarro, and I made etchings together, using the little press I had in my attic studio. Pissarro, too, gave me paintings in exchange for medical care.
Over the years, some of these attachments faded, as the bonds of young men do. Cézanne moved to the South and rarely visited Paris. Gautier and I had a falling-out over money he owed me, Monet became rich and grand, and Pissarro bought a house south of Paris where he could live cheaply. Or perhaps it was my own fault—it was true that after Blanche died I became somewhat withdrawn. Yet I kept up with the art world through the 1870s and ’80s. I went to the Salons and other exhibitions, I visited dealers, I read the art criticism in the newspapers. I knew from Pissarro that his dealer was a Dutchman named Theo van Gogh, who worked for Boussod and Valadon. I had occasionally visited their premises on Boulevard Montmartre, but most of what I saw there was dull and conventional. Yet Pissarro claimed that this Van Gogh worked hard for him, trying to sell his beautiful landscapes. Over the years I had heard snippets of gossip about Theo van Gogh’s painter brother. He had lived with Theo for a year or two in Paris in the late 1880s, but our paths did not cross and I had no clear idea of what his pictures looked like.
In his letter proposing that I meet Theo van Gogh, Pissarro explained further. Apparently this brother, Vincent, had a history of mental troubles. He had spent a year in an asylum in Provence, having committed himself voluntarily. He felt that he was better now, but that the company of his fellow patients was hindering any further progress. He wanted to come north to be near Theo, but he did not want to live in Paris. The city, he felt, would be too busy, too jarring to his nervous state. He also felt it important that he be under the care of a doctor. At first Theo van Gogh had hoped that his brother could board with the Pissarro family, but Madame Pissarro did not care to receive a recovering mental patient into a home full of small children.
Pissarro then thought of me, his former neighbor. I practiced medicine in Paris, seeing patients four days a week. On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, I was a rural family man in Auvers, where Pissarro thought Vincent could find inexpensive lodgings and paint in the country. I had a great deal of experience with nervous ailments, I knew painters, and voilà—I was the solution to Theo van Gogh’s difficulty. I replied to Pissarro, saying that I would be happy to meet with Theo.
But I heard no more from Pissarro for several months. I had put the matter out of my mind when, one day in March of 1890, an extremely courteous young man arrived at my Paris premises on the rue du Faubourg St. Denis, a busy street between the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord. My consulting room was dark and formal, with tobacco-colored velvet curtains and many framed prints on the wall. I had long since grown accustomed to the noise from the street—carriages, wagons, hawkers, even the omnibus—but new patients were sometimes distracted by it.
At first I thought this was the case with my new visitor, Theo van Gogh. He was well dressed and well groomed, in a frock coat and silk hat, a conventional bourgeois like thousands of others you would pass in the street. He was no taller than I, and pale-skinned, with short russet hair and a sandy mustache. He spoke flawless but faintly accented French and exhibited the highly attentive air of a man who sold things for a living. Yet he seemed to lose the thread of his tale from time to time. Now, as I think back, I realize that he may simply have been selecting what to tell me—and what, strategically, to leave out.
Vincent, Theo told me, was his elder brother by four years, not the firstborn but the first surviving son of a Protestant pastor in the Netherlands. Several uncles of the family were art dealers like Theo, and Vincent himself had originally worked in the Hague branch of Goupil, a gallery with Parisian roots. It was a kind of apprenticeship, I gathered. He did well, Theo said, and was transferred to another branch.
“And did he always demonstrate interest in painting?” I asked. “Painting, for himself?” I had been sitting near Theo in an armchair, but now I stood and moved to my desk. I began taking notes as Theo spoke.
“Not until about ten years ago, when he was twenty-seven,” Theo answered. “He had made a few drawings at home, but that was all.”
“Was he gifted?” I asked.
Theo hesitated. He was evidently torn between honesty and affection. He shrugged slightly, indicating to me that Vincent’s talent had not been visibly overwhelming but that Theo’s fraternal loyalty forbade him to say so.
Vincent’s career as an art dealer came to an end when the young man took it into his head to be a teacher instead, but after a brief spell at a small boarding school in England, he abandoned that career. “He decided to become a minister,” Theo said. “Mind, I am telling you everything. It would be very painful for him to talk about these things, but you should know them. Earlier there had been a situation with a young woman, a cousin of ours. Vincent …” He fell silent again, eyes on a rather gloomy etching of a Dutch landscape. Apparently there was no way to tell the tale that reflected well on his brother. “Vincent could not believe she did not have feelings for him. He, his fervor—it alarmed her. Then there was another young woman in England, and another unhappy outcome. So, the church.”
“Like his father. A familiar way of life, perhaps,” I suggested, trying to make the decision seem rational.
But Theo could not quite accept my reasoning. “Yes and no. He went to the Borinage as a missionary to the coal miners. I don’t know if you know anything about that part of the country—perhaps you’ve read Zola’s
?” I nodded, recalling the bleak account of unremitting labor, poverty, and violence. “Zola spares nothing. It is as he portrays it, a terribly harsh way of life. Vincent became ill. He gave away all of his food, all of his furniture.”
I thought of the women at the Salpêtrière. The wards had been full of monomaniacs, patients fixed on one dominating fantasy. Many of them refused food for one reason or another. “Yes. I see,” I said. “Did he know who he was? Was he emulating Christ? Or did he believe he
Christ?” Such a delusion was common among the mad.
“He knew at all times who he was,” Theo answered. “He had by then lost his faith. I brought him to our parents’ house to recover. That was when he decided to be an artist.” There was another pause. “You must understand, Dr. Gachet, that Vincent’s goal is to help people. He thinks that somehow, with his art, he can express important truths about the nature of life. He believes that it is his absolute duty to do so. At any cost.”
We were silent for a moment. Theo’s last words seemed to echo in the suddenly hushed room. One had to wonder, then: was it the art itself that had attracted Van Gogh? Or was it the chance for self-sacrifice? Monomaniacs are capable of harming themselves in the most preposterous ways. When you question them, however, their thinking—you could not call it reasoning—has a certain coherence. Apparently this Vincent saw himself as some kind of savior. Theo did not appear to grasp how grandiose the delusion was.
“And why was he in the asylum?”
Theo did not answer right away. He looked down at his knees. I waited.