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October 23, 2017

Van Gogh's Last

On this day in 1890 Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in a wheat field outside Auvers-sur-Oise, in France; he died two days later, at the age of thirty-seven. The debate over Van Gogh's physical and mental health continues, with epilepsy, schizophrenia, inner-ear disorder, absinthe and other factors cited as cause of his troubles. Van Gogh's letters, available in a three-volume set or in edited form, provide a detailed look at his painting and his worries over the last few months, although there are only hints of a suicidal mood. He had been released from his latest hospitalization for mental illness to the care of Dr. Gachet, but Van Gogh was not optimistic: "I think we must not count on Dr. Gachet at all. First of all, he is sicker than I am. . . ." Instead, Van Gogh sought therapy in the countryside, and his painting of it:
    I have painted three more big canvases.... They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.... I almost think that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, the health and restorative forces that I see in the country.
In his last letter to his mother, Van Gogh says that the "restlessness in my head has greatly quieted down," and work is going well:
    I myself am quite absorbed in the immense plain with wheatfields against hills, boundless as a sea, delicate yellow, delicate soft green, the delicate violet of a dug-up and weeded piece of soil, checkered at regular intervals with the green of flowering potato plants, everything under a sky of delicate blue, white, pink, violet tones.

    I am in a mood of almost too much calmness, in the mood to paint this.

Vincent Van Gogh's "Wheatfield with Crows," 1890, oil on canvas, 50x100cm.

In the last letter sent to his brother, Theo, just a few days before the suicide, Van Gogh offers thanks for the usual money, puts in a paint order and says goodbye with his customary, "handshakes in thought." In an unmailed letter to his brother found on his body, however, there are darker tones: "Since the thing that matters most is going well, why should I say more about things of less importance?" and "Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered because of it...."

Because a suicide, Van Gogh was denied funeral in the Auvers village church, though a nearby village finally agreed to accept the body. The service, described here by long time friend Emile Benard, took place in Van Gogh's room.
    On the walls of the room where his body was laid out all his last canvases were hung making a sort of halo for him and the brilliance of the genius that radiated from them made this death even more painful for us artists who were there. The coffin was covered with a simple white cloth and surrounded with masses of flowers, the sunflowers that he loved so much, yellow dahlias, yellow flowers everywhere. It was, you will remember, his favourite colour, the symbol of the light that he dreamed of being in people's hearts as well as in works of art. Near him also on the floor in front of his coffin were his easel, his folding stool and his brushes.
Van Gogh read widely in literature; Vincent Van Gogh's Poetry Albums, published by the Dutch art book house, Waanders, shows connections between favorite poems and specific artworks.

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