VAN GOGH MUSEUM, Saint Remy

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Vincent Van Gogh spent the early months of 1889 in Provence, swaying constantly between lucid moments and violent crises, during which he drank turpentine, distilled from a plant-based resin, and ate the paint from his tubes.

The effects of his mental illness and the abuse of various substances, including alcohol, are clearly visible in a number of paintings on display here in the Museum, evident in the improbable colors and undulating shapes. Examples include the three paintings in the Olive Trees series, in which the naturally twisted shape of the trees is taken to an extreme.

Van Gogh was aware of his condition, and in May 1889, he admitted himself to the psychiatric hospital in Saint Rémy de Provence, housed in a former convent.

Vincent did not receive any particular treatment in the hospital, but he was at least prevented from consuming harmful substances. He was given permission to paint, both in his room as well as in the gardens, under the watchful eye of a nurse.

In this environment, Van Gogh experienced a brief period of calm, during which he painted some of his greatest masterpieces. You can admire a number of works in the Museum dating to this period, depicting his bedroom, the gardens or the trees of the hospital, and featuring calmer, less violent brushstrokes than his previous works.

The best-known of these works is Almond Blossom, which Van Gogh painted in honor of the birth of his nephew, the son of his brother Theo. The painting shows the white flowers in bloom on the branch of an almond tree, set against a turquoise sky, with delicate brushstrokes and sharply defined contours clearly inspired by his beloved Japanese prints.

At the beginning of 1890, Vincent went back to living alone in Arles, but was hospitalized again following another breakdown. He left the psychiatric hospital in May: the discharge report indicated he was “cured”, but Vincent soon realized that these repeated spells of treatment were of no particular benefit to his mental health.

 

An interesting fact: if you’re wondering what kind of mental disorder Van Gogh suffered from, it remains a mystery to this day. The psychiatrists never managed to agree on what kind of mental illness he was afflicted by, and came up with at least thirty different diagnoses. 

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