12 July 2016
Exhibition 'On the Verge of Insanity' from 15 July – 25 September 2016 at the Van Gogh Museum.
Why did Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear? What was the precise nature of his condition? And why did he commit suicide? On the Verge of Insanity is the Van Gogh Museum’s first exhibition focusing on Van Gogh’s illness. Some 25 paintings and drawings from the final year and a half of the painter’s life tell the story of his battle with his illness. They include several important loans from international museums, such as the portrait he made of his doctor, Félix Rey, a masterpiece from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, which is being shown at the Van Gogh Museum for the first time.
Original letters and exceptional documents are being exhibited, including a recently discovered letter from Dr Rey, which contains drawings that show Van Gogh cut off his entire ear. Not to mention the police report and the petition organised by Van Gogh’s neighbours in Arles in 1889 to have him committed. The revolver found in a field in Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh shot himself is also being shown for the first time. There is a strong possibility that it is the same weapon that he used to take his own life. The exhibition runs from 15 July until 25 September 2016 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Van Gogh’s art arose in spite of his illness
In the final eighteen months of his life, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) was plagued by a sporadic and unpredictable illness that changed his life fundamentally. Each new episode left the artist utterly confused and unable to work for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Between attacks, he was lucid and continued to paint and draw as much as ever. Work seemed his only lifeline, the best remedy in his struggle with his illness.
On the Verge of Insanity shows that Van Gogh’s art ought not to be viewed as a product of his illness, but that it arose in spite of his condition. Paintings, drawings and documents are used to inform visitors about the key moments in Van Gogh’s medical history. They will learn how the people around the painter responded to his illness, whether or not his mental condition influenced his work, and also about the various diagnoses suggested by doctors over the years.
Letter from Dr Rey about Van Gogh’s ear
The ‘ear incident’ with which Van Gogh’s illness manifested itself in December 1888, while he was living in the southern French town of Arles, is reconstructed in the exhibition through eyewitness testimony and letters. An exceptional loan is the recently discovered letter from Félix Rey, the doctor who treated Van Gogh in the hospital. It was found by Bernadette Murphy in the archive of the writer Irving Stone (The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley), while researching her book Van Gogh’s Ear: the True Story.
Rey’s letter includes drawings showing that Van Gogh cut off the whole of his left ear and not, as was long believed, just part of it. The discovery brings an end to a long-standing biographical question. The letter is exhibited alongside Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr Rey, which the artist gave the physician as a token of gratitude for his care. This beautiful painting from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow is being shown at the Van Gogh Museum for the first time.
Previously unexhibited documents
The Portrait of Dr Rey hangs in the exhibition alongside Still Life with a Plate of Onions (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), which Van Gogh also painted immediately after his discharge from hospital. He tried to pick up the threads of his life, but further breakdowns and hospital admissions swiftly followed. Several important documents from the Arles municipal archives, never previously exhibited elsewhere, provide an insight into Van Gogh’s mental state and the difficult situation in which he found himself. Local residents, for instance, organised a petition to have him incarcerated, and compulsory hospitalisation was considered.
In the end, Van Gogh decided in May 1889 to have himself voluntarily admitted to the asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he would remain for a year. Paintings and drawings from this period, including Garden of the Asylum and The Enclosed Wheatfield in Saint-Rémy after a Storm (both Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) show how he wrestled with his illness and turned to his work as a lifeline to keep him from going under.
The exhibition also focuses in detail, lastly, on the circumstances of Van Gogh’s death by his own hand in the northern French village of Auvers-sur-Oise on 29 July 1890. The exhibition includes his final painting, Tree Roots, and the portrait of Van Gogh on his deathbed drawn by Dr Paul-Ferdinand Gachet (both Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam).
The small, badly corroded revolver (private collection), which is also being shown for the first time, might be the weapon with which Van Gogh sought to end his life. It was found around 1960 in Auvers by a farmer working on his land. It is a small calibre, 7mm pocket revolver of the ‘Lefaucheux à broche’ type, which was found in the fields behind the chateau in Auvers where Van Gogh shot himself.
The degree of corrosion suggests that the weapon lay in the ground for 50–60 years; its limited firepower offers a possible explanation for why a bullet fired at such close range nonetheless glanced off a rib, as recorded by Dr Gachet. The bullet was deflected downwards and was lodged too deep to be removed without danger, as a result of which Van Gogh died of his wound some 30 hours later.
Symposium on Van Gogh’s diagnosis
The exhibition and the accompanying book offer a survey of the diagnoses suggested for Van Gogh’s condition over the years, including epilepsy, bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, schizophrenia and alcohol poisoning. Many documents have attempted to identify the illness from which Van Gogh suffered. There have been countless publications over the past 100 years on the possible causes of his attacks and their potential influence on his art.
Each diagnosis has to be viewed in the context of its time, since medical science is constantly developing, as is our knowledge of Van Gogh. Some diagnoses have now been rejected, while others remain genuine possibilities. An unambiguous and definitive answer to the question of his precise illness cannot, however, be given: although we know a great deal about Van Gogh, it is obviously no longer possible to question or examine the patient himself.
While it is thought that Van Gogh’s illness probably resulted from numerous factors, no one has yet weighed them all up together. We will attempt to do this at an expert meeting to be held during the exhibition. An international and interdisciplinary team of medical specialists and Van Gogh experts will consider the issues on Wednesday 14 September. The results will then be presented and discussed the next day at a public symposium on Van Gogh’s illness, at which several of the experts will speak (Thursday 15 September). Have a look at the programme.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a richly illustrated book. On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, by Nienke Bakker, Louis van Tilborgh and Laura Prins, with contributions by Teio Meedendorp. Publisher: Mercatorfonds, Brussels. Available in Dutch, English and French. International distribution: Yale University Press, Actes Sud.
In addition to Van Gogh’s own experience of his illness, as expressed in his correspondence, the book contains letters and testimony from the people around the artist, such as the doctors and friends who stood by him, and of course his brother Theo, his loyal supporter and confidant. These sources have been used to create a detailed reconstruction of the events surrounding the ‘ear incident’ with which Van Gogh’s illness manifested itself in Arles, the hospital admissions that followed, and his stay in the asylum.
Important testimonies are published here in full and in translation for the first time, including documents from the municipal archives in Arles, relating to the alarming situation in which the artist found himself. The book also offers a comprehensive chronology and a survey of the many diagnoses of Van Gogh’s condition suggested by doctors over the years.
Extended opening hours
The exhibition On the Verge of Insanity has extended opening hours and can be visited from Friday 15 July to Sunday 4 September, daily from 9 am to 7 pm, and Fridays to 10 pm and Saturdays until 9 am. The opening times from Monday 5 September to Sunday 25 September are daily from 9 am to 6 pm, and Fridays to 10 pm.
There will be a multimedia tour at the exhibition. For more information and to book tickets online – for fast entry – go to www.vangoghmuseum.nl.