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To the Asylum

After his discharge from the hospital in Arles, Van Gogh is unable to organize his life or set up a new studio. He attributes his breakdown to excessive drink and perhaps tobacco, although he gives up neither. Fearful of a relapse, in May 1889 he voluntarily admits himself to the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy, 15 miles from Arles: "I wish to remain shut up as much for my own peace of mind as for other people's." The admitting physician, Dr. Théophile Peyron, notes that Van Gogh suffers from "acute mania with hallucinations of sight and hearing."

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The Therapy of Painting

Van Gogh converts an adjacent cell into a studio, and although subject to intermittent attacks, he produces 150 paintings during the year he stays at Saint-Rémy. His doctor initially confines him to the immediate asylum grounds, so Van Gogh paints the world he sees from his room, deleting the bars that obscure his view. In the asylum's walled garden he paints irises, lilacs, and ivy-covered trees. Later he is allowed to venture farther afield, and he paints the wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding countryside. The imposed regimen of asylum life gives Vincent a hard-won stability: "I feel happier here with my work than I could be outside. By staying here a good long time, I shall have learned regular habits and in the long run the result will be more order in my life."

Pietà (naar Delacroix) Pietà (naar Delacroix) show enlargment


Translations in Color

Van Gogh is sometimes without the stamina or confidence to execute original works or is confined to his room due to weather conditions. He regains his bearings by painting copies after his favorite artists, including Millet, Rembrandt, and Delacroix. Relying on his collection of prints, Van Gogh translates the black and white reproductions into his own intensely personal color compositions. He makes more than twenty copies of Millet's peasant scenes, and he reinvents Delacroix's Pieta, in which the bearded Christ bears some resemblance to himself. After one particularly violent attack, in which he attempts to poison himself by swallowing paint, Van Gogh is forced for a time to confine himself to drawing.

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A Period of Masterpieces

While in Arles and Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh sent his paintings to Theo in Paris. Despite his illness, he produced one masterpiece after another in this period, such as Irises, Cypresses, and The Starry Night. Theo praised his new creations: “In all of them there is a vigour in the colours which you had never achieved before . . . but you have gone further than that, and while some try to attain the symbolic by doing violence to the form, I find it in many of your canvases in the quintessence . . . of your thoughts on nature and living creatures.” Others also begin to notice Van Gogh’s work. Les Vingt, a group of avant-garde Belgian artists, included six of his paintings in their 1890 exhibition. When Vincent exhibited recent work at the Salon des Indépendants - two paintings in 1889 and ten in 1890 – friends in Paris informed him of their enthusiastic reception. “I send you my sincere compliments, and to many artists you are the most noteworthy part of the exhibition,” Gauguin wrote.

Theo's and Jo's son Vincent Willem van Gogh is born in January 1890. Van Gogh painted the Almond blossom for the nursery.


Critical Recognition

Critic Albert Aurier publishes a favorable review of Van Gogh's paintings in January 1890 in which he links the artist to the Symbolists. The Symbolists and other Postimpressionist groups such as The Nabis, had gained critical attention throughout the 1890s for their antirealist artworks. Van Gogh is moved by Aurier's article but denies his significance as an artist in a letter to the writer: "For the role attaching to me, or that will be attached to me, will remain, I assure you, of very secondary importance."

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