Attending van Gogh and his asylum art

This month’s British Journal of Psychiatry includes a letter that gives an interesting insight into the relationship between the legendary Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, the three doctors that variously treated him for his epilepsy and insanity, and some of his most famous paintings.

Three medical doctors were involved with the treatment of van Gough: Dr Felix Rey (1867–1932), who diagnosed van Gogh’s epilepsy; Dr Théophile Zacharie Auguste Peyron (1827–95) of Saint-Remy asylum who also diagnosed ‘a type of epilepsy’ – he was a very understanding physician who arranged facilities within the asylum for van Gogh’s paintings and artwork; and Dr Paul Gachet (1828–1909) who treated van Gogh during his last 10 weeks of life.

van Gogh painted two portraits and an etching of Dr Gachet, one of which (Portrait of Doctor Gachet, June 1890) was auctioned in 1990 for an astounding sum of US$ 82.5 million. Young intern Dr Rey probably maintained distance because he saw van Gogh during his psychotic state, shortly after the ear mutilation episode. He failed to value the artist’s creativity and thus was not possessive of the gift presented to him, which he described afterwards:

“Vincent was above all a miserable, wretched man,… he would talk to me about complementary colours. But I really could not understand why red should not be red, and green not green!… When I saw that he outlined my head entirely in green (he had only two main colours, red and green), that he painted my hair and my mustache ‚Äì I really did not have red hair ‚Äì in a blazing red on a biting green background, I was simply horrified. What should I do with this present?”

Dr Gachet was very supportive of van Gogh and valued his creative instinct. Vincent had found a ‘true friend’ in him. It is a matter of pride for the medical fraternity that Dr Gachet was highly admired by van Gogh and that he tried his best to keep van Gogh’s tormented soul at peace and allow his creativity to flourish in the village atmosphere of Auvers. van Gogh created a series of paintings, at least 14, illustrating the Saint-Remy asylum. Any of them may be appropriate for the Journal to focus on with regard to his creativity of the use of colour and space to astonishing effect. Those paintings are carrying the historical value of mental health perspectives so far as the asylum culture of his time is concerned.

The picture on the left is The Starry Night, one of his most famous, which he draw looking out of his window while a resident in the Saint-Remy asylum.

Link to letter in BJP (closed access for some unknown reason).

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