Vincent on Vincent: New edition Van Gogh letters give searing insight into artist's breakdown

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Even today, when Vincent van Gogh's international reputation is higher and wider than ever, we have intense difficulty understanding how he managed to paint such a sustained series of masterpieces. After mutilating his ear and struggling to retain his sanity in an asylum, this vulnerable young Dutchman dreaded the sudden onset of each new bout of epileptic seizure. But somehow, he carried on painting for another turbulent year, producing his finest work before succumbing to suicide in 1890.

Now, with the publication of an unprecedentedly complete edition of his letters, we are able to get closer to Van Gogh's struggle. Some of these eloquent letters, embellished with his urgent drawings, will be displayed in the Royal Academy's exhibition The Real Van Gogh, opening this month. Mostly written to his younger brother Theo, whose devoted care and financial assistance proved crucial, they reveal just how dramatically Van Gogh veered from panic and hopelessness to incisive, stubborn resolve and back again. As early as September 1883, seven years before he killed himself, Van Gogh confessed to Theo that, "because I have a need to speak frankly, I can't hide from you that I'm overcome by a feeling of great anxiety, dejection, a 'je ne sais quoi' of discouragement and even despair, too much to express. And that if I can find no consolation for it, it might all too easily overwhelm me unbearably."

These words proved sadly prophetic. But Van Gogh, having wisely abandoned his attempts to become an art dealer and a priest, developed as a painter with astonishing inventiveness and flair. Although unable to sell his work, he was sustained by its momentum even when, in May 1889, he was admitted to a mental home near Saint-Rémy-en-Provence. The attending physician, Dr Théophile Peyron, recorded on the certificate of entry that his 36-year-old patient had been "stricken by acute mental derangement, with hallucinations of his sight and hearing, which led him to mutilate himself by cutting off his ear".

The affliction was terrible enough to make Van Gogh remain in the asylum for an entire year. Even so, this illness did not prevent him from pursuing his art with a remarkable sense of discipline, concentration, audacity and, above all, passionate commitment.

Fortified by medicine, he hoped his mind would never again succumb to "indescribable mental anguish when the veil of time and inevitability seemed for the twinkling of an eye to be parted". Although Dr Peyron came to the hesitant conclusion that Van Gogh was suffering from "a state of epilepsy", he was encouraged by his patient's initial progress.

After recurrent painful nightmares during the first few weeks of his stay, Van Gogh's sleep improved, along with his appetite, and he seemed adept at discovering continual inspiration in whatever surroundings confronted him. A few weeks earlier, he had bravely asserted that: "If I had to stay for good in an asylum, I should make up my mind to it and I think I could find subjects for painting there as well." The prophecy was borne out to spectacular effect at Saint-Rémy, where he painted many of his most vibrant canvases.

Within a week of arriving at the asylum he was hard at work on paintings of the garden, one of which turned into a superlative image called Irises. At first sight it appears a festive work, revelling in the piercing clarity of the violet-blue flowers as they thrust and wave with an exuberance worthy of a Hokusai print. After a while, though, more disturbing elements demand attention. The irises and their blaring green leaves fill the canvas with insistent movement, as if jostling for room in the confined picture-space. They crowd the solitary white flower in their midst, provoking the suspicion that Van Gogh equated their clamorous behaviour with the more disturbed patients confined inside the asylum's walls.

In one letter, he told Theo that, "There is someone here who has been shouting and talking like me all the time for a fortnight; he thinks he hears voices and words in the echoes of the corridors, probably because the nerves of the ear are diseased and too sensitive." He explained to his brother that, "as there are more than thirty empty rooms" at the asylum, he had been given "one to work in". He lost little time in hanging on its walls his unframed works, one of which can be seen in a gouache study of this new studio. He longed to animate the whole asylum with his art, telling Theo that "it would be splendid to hold an exhibition in all the empty rooms, the large corridors".

Van Gogh was irrepressible as an artist for much of his stay. Towards the end of May, he described his excitement over the view from his bedroom, where "through an iron-barred window I see a square field of wheat in an enclosure, a perspective like Van Goyen, above which I see the morning sun rising in all its glory".

Soon after Dr Peyron allowed him to work in the field, he began an extended sequence of views that amount to the finest series of paintings he produced at Saint-Rémy. The first canvas, Mountainous Landscape Behind the Asylum, is one of the most outspoken in use of nature as a metaphor for his own emotional condition. The turbulence of the wheat, heaving in its enclosure like an angry sea, surely refers to Van Gogh's view of his plight within the institution's walls. He described the painting to Theo on 9 June, explaining that the foreground contained "a field of wheat ruined and hurled to the ground after a storm".

Towards the end of June, he started work on a painting called The Reaper, and brought it to virtual completion before suffering a serious breakdown. The choice of theme may well have reflected an awareness that a mental crisis was imminent, for when Van Gogh resumed work on the picture in early September he informed Theo that, "I see in this reaper – a vague figure fighting... in the midst of the heat to get to the end of his task – I see in him the image of death, in the sense that humanity might be the wheat he is reaping." The toiling peasant could embody Van Gogh's realisation that he was engaged in a struggle against mental illness to complete the task he had set himself as an artist. But, he insisted, "There's nothing sad in this death, it goes its way in broad daylight with a sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold."

In one mood, Vincent transformed a view of the hospital at Saint-Rémy (Trees in Front of the Entrance to the Asylum) into an ecstatic image, rejoicing in the vigour of trunks and foliage as they soared above the buildings. "I tried to reconstruct the thing as it might have been," he explained, "simplifying and accentuating the haughty, unchanging character of the pines and cedar clumps against the blue."

During the first few months of his stay, he recovered from the initial shock of other inmates screaming day and night and started talking to them, even though they were incapable of coherent replies. And he reported in a letter to his sister that, "Though there are some seriously ill here, the fear of madness that I felt has already largely disappeared."

Yet, soon after, Van Gogh suffered a gruelling attack while at work in the foothills near the asylum. The onset of a mistral, blowing a half-finished painting off its perch, seems to have precipitated his collapse. A protracted fit of yelling left his swollen throat acutely painful for days, and he even attempted suicide by gulping down his own paints. Nightmares and hallucinations dogged the artist. Hidden away in his room, where he struggled to cope with this alienation by working harder than ever on self-portraits filled with an unbearable sense of strain, Van Gogh felt tormented. "If one could resign oneself to suffering and death, surrender one's will and love and self!" he wrote. "But I love to paint, to meet people, to see nature."

Eventually, in April 1890, he announced to Theo that his period at the asylum should be terminated. But he could not bear the thought of leaving the South, with all its fertile inspiration, and going north to live with Dr Gachet, an avid collector of Impressionist art.

Auvers-sur-Oise, where Gachet had a house, was only an hour from Paris, and at first Van Gogh managed to paint some outstanding images. But this final burst of blazing productivity could not be sustained. Just over two months after he left Saint-Rémy in May 1890, he wrote a letter to Theo that sounds purposeful enough – but one passage is sadly revealing: "I'd like to write to you about many things, but first the desire has passed to such a degree, then I sense the pointlessness of it all."

Four days later, Van Gogh went out into the fields and clumsily shot himself in the chest with a revolver. His arduous attempts to recover mental stability with medical help had failed, and he died two days later. On his deathbed, when the distraught Theo asked him why he had decided to commit suicide, Van Gogh only managed to reply with another, equally anguished question: "Who would imagine that life could be so sad?"

The Real Van Gogh opens on 23 January at the Royal Academy, London, W1: royalacademy.org.uk. 'Vincent van Gogh – The Letters' is published by Thames & Hudson

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
    Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

    Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

    Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

    Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

    Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

    In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)