van Gogh's letters - unabridged and annotated
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 Memoir of Vincent van Gogh

But when he was going to settle with the new landlord, he suddenly avowed to the Reverend Mr. Salles that he lacked the courage to start a new studio again, and that he himself thought it best to go to an asylum for a few months. “He is fully conscious of his condition, and speaks with me about his illness, which he fears will come back, with a touching candour and simplicity,” wrote the Reverend Mr. Salles. &ldI am not fit,” he told me the day before yesterday, “to govern myself and my affairs. I feel quite different than I was before.” The Reverend Mr. Salles then looked around and advised the asylum of St. Rémy, situated quite near Arles; he added that the doctors at Arles approve of it, “given the state of isolation in which your brother would find himself upon leaving the hospital.”

It was that which troubled Theo most. Shortly before our marriage, in answer to my question whether Vincent would not rather return to Paris or spend some time with his mother and sisters in Holland, as he was so alone in Arles, Theo wrote me, &ldYes, one of the greatest difficulties is that, whether in good or bad health, his life is so utterly cut off from the outer world. But if you knew him, you would be doubly aware of how difficult it is to solve the question of what must and can be done for him.

“As you know, he has long since broken with what is called convention. His way of dressing and his manners show directly that he is an unusual personality, and people who see him say, `He is mad.' To me it does not matter, but for Mother that is impossible. Then there is something in his way of speaking that makes people either like or dislike him strongly. He always has people around him who sympathize with him, but also many enemies. It is impossible for him to associate with people in an indifferent way; it is either one thing or the other. It is difficult even for those who are his best friends to remain on good terms with him, as he spares nobody's feelings. If I had time, I would go to him and, for instance, go on a walking tour with him. That is the only thing, I imagine, that would do him good. If I can find somebody among the painters who would like to do it, I will send him. But those with whom he would like to go are somewhat afraid of him, a circumstance which Gauguin's visit did nothing to change.

“Then there is another thing which makes me afraid to have him come here. In Paris he saw so many things which he liked to paint, but again and again it was made impossible for him to do so. Models would not pose for him and he was forbidden to paint in the streets; with his irascible temper this caused many unpleasant scenes which excited him so much that he became completely un-approachable and at last he developed a great aversion for Paris. If he himself wanted to come back here, I would not hesitate for a moment...but again I think I can do no better than to let him follow his own inclinations. A quiet life is impossible for him, except alone with nature or with very simple people like the Roulins; for wherever he goes he leaves the trace of his passing. Whatever he sees that is wrong he must criticize, and that often occasions strife.

“I hope that he will find, sometime, a wife who loves him so much that she will share his life; but it will not be easy. Do you remember that girl in Virgin Soil by Tourgenev, who was with the nihilists and brought the compromising papers across the frontiers? I imagine she might he like that - somebody who has gone through life's misery to the bottom...It pains me not to be able to do anything for him, but for uncommon people, uncommon remedies are necessary, and I hope these will be found where ordinary people would not look for them.”

Vincent himself now decided to go to St. Rémy.

Johanna Bonger and Theo van Gogh at the time of their wedding.

Theo's first impression of Vincent's resolution was that it might be a kind of self-sacrifice to avoid being in anybody's way, and he wrote him once more, asking with emphasis whether he would not rather go to Pont-Aven or come to Paris.

But as Vincent stuck to his decision, Theo wrote him: &ldI do not consider your going to St. Rémy a retreat, as you call it, but simply a temporary rest cure which will help you come back with renewed strength. For my part I attribute your illness principally to neglect of your material existence. In an establishment like that of St. Rémy there is a great regularity in the hours for meals, etc., and I think that such regularity will do you no harm - quite the contrary.”

When Theo had arranged everything with the director of the establishment, Dr. Peyron, including a free room for Vincent and a room where he could paint and as much liberty as possible to wander about as he liked, Vincent left for St. Rémy on May 8, accompanied by the Reverend Mr. Salles, who wrote Theo the next day: “Our journey to St. Rémy has been accomplished under the most excellent conditions. Monsieur Vincent was perfectly calm and explained his case himself to the director as a man fully conscious of his condition. He remained with me till my departure, and when I took leave of him he thanked me warmly and seemed somewhat moved, thinking of the new life he was going to lead in that house. Monsieur Peyron has assured me that he will show him all the kindness and consideration which his condition demands.”

How touching sounds that “somewhat moved” at the departure of the faithful companion! His leave-taking broke the last tie that united Vincent with the outer world; he stayed behind in what was worse than the greatest loneliness, sur-rounded by neurotics and lunatics, with nobody to whom he could talk, nobody who understood him. Dr. Peyron was kindly disposed, but he was reserved and silent; the monthly letters by which he kept Theo informed of the situation lacked the warm sympathy of the doctors in the hospital at Arles.

Vincent spent a full year in these cheerless surroundings, struggling with unbroken energy against the ever-returning attacks of his illness but continuing his work with the old restless zeal which alone could keep him living now that everything else had failed him. He painted the desolate landscape which he saw from his window at sunrise and sunset; he wandered far to paint the wide fields, bordered by the foothills of the Alps; he painted the olive orchards with their dismally twisted branches, the gloomy cypresses, the somber garden of the asylum; and he also painted the &ldReaper” - “an image of death as the great book of nature speaks of it.”

It was no longer the buoyant, sunny, triumphant work of Arles. There sounded a deeper, sadder tone than the piercing clarion of his symphonies in yellow during the previous year: his palette had become more sober, the harmonies of his pictures had passed into a minor key.

“To suffer without complaint” - well had he learned that lesson. When the treacherous evil attacked him again in August, just when he had hoped to be cured for good, he only uttered a despondent, “I no longer see any possibility of having courage or hope...”

He struggled painfully through the winter, during which, however, he painted some of his most beautiful works: the &ldPieta” after Delacroix; the “Resurrection of Lazarus,” and the “Good Samaritan” after Rembrandt; the “Four Hours of The Day” after Millet. A few months followed during which he was unable to work, but now he felt that he would lose his energy forever if he stayed in those fatal surroundings any longer; he must get away from St. Rémy.

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