Sunday, July 27, 2008

On This Day...

On Sunday, 27 July 1890, sometime around dusk, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the lower chest, in a wheatfield at Auvers-sur-Oise. He managed to stumble back to the Auberge Ravoux,the inn where he'd been staying since late May; the owners discovered what had happened and sent for a doctor. As far as events can be reconstructed, Dr. Gachet and the village doctor, Dr. Mazery, both examined Vincent and determined nothing could be done. Vincent died around 1 am on Tuesday 29 July. Thankfully, he did not die alone: Theo was summoned from Paris and stayed with his brother for the last twelve hours or so of his life.

The details of what happened differ among various accounts. Theo's letters to his family and artist Émile Bernard's letter to art-critic Albert Aurier are our best sources of information from the time. Much later, in the 1950s, Adeline Ravoux, daughter of the man who owned the then-Auberge de la Mairie, recounted her memories of Vincent's stay and of his death. But her account seems biased: she obviously did not like the Gachet family. According to her account (for example), her father's telegram summoned Theo, but Theo wrote to his family that Dr. Gachet sent him a note. Similarly biased is the account given by Dr. Gachet's son, Paul Gachet fils, in the years after his father's death. Paul Gachet fils claimed, for example, to have sat with Vincent until Theo's arrival, but this does not seem to be true.

What no source tells us--because no one knew--is why Vincent chose to take his life. That secret died with him.


Margaret said...

Ah! I love a good mystery. Do you have any theories about why he took his life, Sheramy?

Oh, by the way, I left another comment on your post "Satirist par Excellence" about the sort of symbolism book I'm looking for ;)

I hope you had a great weekend!

Sheramy said...

Hi Margaret...

I think uncertainty about the future was a huge part of it (see my "Vincent's Last Letter" post). When he first left the asylum and arrived at Auvers-sur-Oise, he was very optimistic, working well, feeling good. But something changed. It wasn't his work, which was still going well. It's clear from his letters that the visit to Theo in Paris in early July shook him up and that he was anxious about Theo's job. I believe he felt himself a burden on Theo--that also seems pretty clear from the letters. That was not a new feeling for him: even though he'd take the money, he didn't like being dependent.

Theo was also ill at the time, had been for a while, with symptoms of syphilis. (The fact Theo died from syphilis was not really admitted until recently.) It would not be something that was "talked about," but I wonder if Vincent knew his brother was ill (he certainly knew his brother had been in poor health, what's not clear is whether he knew why) and again, thought somehow he could ease Theo's burden. Theo died only six months later, so the symptoms must have been advanced. Johanna herself writes in her Memoir (which is a preface to the standard English edition of the letters) that Vincent looked more healthy than Theo which she met him for the first time in May 1890. Was his brother's illness an unspoken worry of Vincent's too? Now that has to be only a theory, because there's no hard evidence, but it's something to think about.

And then there was the worry about his own illness. It'd been over two months, almost three, since he'd recovered from his last attack/episode at the asylum. He must have known there would be another sometime. Again, this is not something he mentions in his letters but I think there must have been anxiety over that as well. He feared that one day an attack would leave him unable to work and completely incapacitated (again, a burden to his family).

In general, I think everything got to be too much.

Other theories have been floated around that I don't believe at all, namely one having to do with an alleged affair with Dr. Gachet's daughter, for which there is no evidence. (And would be very out of character for Vincent.)

Heading to your other comment right now...

Sheramy :-)

Sheramy said...

Oh, and I meant to point out that Vincent actually refused to give anyone Theo's Paris home address after he wounded himself. He did not want his brother to be disturbed. Dr. Gachet knew Theo's work address though, and sent a note there Monday morning. That's why Theo arrived midday Monday instead of Sunday night, and that's another detail that supports the idea Vincent believed himself a burden on his brother.

Theo didn't feel that way, though, it's important to say. It was Vincent's perception more than Theo's reality.

Margaret said...

Thank you so much for the detailed reply! I learned a lot!

It certainly sounds like Vincent had a lot to worry about after leaving the asylum. It can be difficult for anyone to keep up their good spirits in this difficult world!

Sheramy said...

You're welcome, Margaret! :-)