In 1888, Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France with his artistic rival, Paul Gauguin. Despite being one of the most famous artists in our collective consciousness, and a pioneer of the Post-Impressionist movement, Van Gogh did not see the same popularity during his lifetime. He painted many landscapes, cafe scenes and self-portraits, nearly 900 paintings in all, yet throughout that life, he only sold one…to his brother.
In Arles, Van Gogh’s relationship with Gauguin worsened. He became erratic and at one point, in a fit of rage, threatened him with a knife. Instead of hurting Gauguin, he turned the knife on himself and cut off his earlobe. Van Gogh later gave that chunk of the ear to a prostitute as a gift, one I don’t believe she was too happy to receive. After this episode, his ‘madness’ became clear. He was in and out of hospitals for months, and eventually, in May of 1889, checked into a mental asylum in Saint-Rémy. During his stay, and in between incidents of psychosis, he painted his famous “Starry Night,” one of the most celebrated and important artworks in the history of humankind. He left the asylum only a year after arriving, and within a month, at age 37, he shot himself in a wheat field, dying in another hospital 30 hours later.
Much of this is quite well known. What is forgotten, however, is the man who brought Van Gogh to the hospital after his self-mutilation in Arles, who stayed by his side and ultimately encouraged him to go to Saint-Rémy–his good friend, the postman Joseph Roulin.
In this painting from 1888, which now resides in the Detroit Institute of Arts, their close friendship is on display. In “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin,” Van Gogh paints Roulin with such warmth and brightness. Besides his postman’s uniform, he exudes the air of a trusted authority figure. He has a kindness about him that is harder to describe, yet easier to feel. The teal background brings out a welcoming light in him. His eyes stare into the viewer’s, almost as if he is listening to what they have to say. Even his beard, the most eccentric part of this painting, is goofy and lighthearted, partly because Van Gogh’s most visible brush strokes appear there.
Van Gogh trusted Roulin and held him in high regard. Multiple portraits of him exist, and each is characterized by a similar brightness and brotherly love. Van Gogh made sure to paint Roulin into history just as he saw him, so that we may see him in the same light.
With all the information I have just given you, and from your preconceived biases, it is easy to say that Van Gogh was just a mad painter. He is remembered all too well for cutting off his ear, but his life was much more than that one night. He had deep relationships, a knack for writing and an insatiable desire to paint. He loved nature, drawing and his brother Theo.
As this week is Mental Health Awareness Week, I think it’s important to think about Van Gogh’s story in a two-fold manner. On one hand, he was one of the most prolific painters in Western art, with several recognizable masterpieces. On the other, he is probably best known for being a ‘crazy’ man with one ear. Within that are two lessons; one we must remember for ourselves, and another we must work on as a culture.
First, of course, it is possible for people struggling with depression and mental illness to be successful, to be universally acclaimed and esteemed–even if it does take time. Second, we all must do better to decrease the stigma attached to mental illness, and to do our part to support those who suffer from it.
To those who feel like they need to talk to someone, never be ashamed to ask for help. Never think you are alone. Never succumb to the emotions that overwhelm you. If Van Gogh was able to find the light amongst his seemingly never-ending darkness, and share that light with us, then you are certainly able to do it too.