The Art of the Man Possessed

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Vincent van Gogh's life is probably the easiest artist's career to follow. Since he often traveled by rail, it is romantic (and easy) to recapture his movements through Europe from the Netherlands to Paris to the South of France.

Photography by the authors

“Talent is what you possess; genius is what possesses you.”

Malcolm Cowley

Vincent van Gogh’s life is probably the easiest artist’s career to follow. The restaurant with the yellow roof he painted in Arles in Provence, for example, is still there looking even more like it was when he painted it — over the last century, the owners have restored it back to how it looked when van Gogh made it famous.

They have even changed its name to the Van Gogh Café!

Van Gogh Café, Arles

The Café is easy enough to find; it’s really the only piece of van Gogh prominently labeled in town. Yet his short life and mere 10 years of painting are well documented.

More than 600 of the letters to his brother, Theo, have survived as has almost all his work. Furthermore, he traveled by train — a practice still easy at the present — and he ranged over some of the prettiest landscapes in the Netherlands and France; places that are still favorites for many visitors nowadays.

And there is a special, truly sad twist to the 37 years of Vincent van Gogh.

“He led such a tortured life and his letters documented it,” an attendant at the Kröller-Müller Museum once told us. “That surely captured the public’s interest.”

This magnificent museum in Otterlo, Netherlands has the largest private collection of van Goghs in the world after the van Gogh family itself.

The Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam

Of course, if you simply want to immerse yourself in van Goghs you don’t need to start at the beginning of his artist life — you can go to the very end to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It opened in 1973 when the private collection of his brother was donated to the Netherlands by Theo’s son, Dr. Vincent W. van Gogh. Those pieces had stayed in the family on Theo's walls at a time when fellow artists, critics, collectors and museums were making Vincent van Gogh famous.

"So you might say we are a museum of left-overs," the one-time curator, Louis van Tilborgh, told us, tongue-in-cheek.

The Van Gogh Museum has now finished its long-planned restoration and moved back from the Hermitage Museum, which generously gave space to many of its 200 van Goghs all waiting to get back to their home in 2013. We thought the Hermitage did a great job; it seemed friendlier than the original van Gogh museum and those visiting were able to get closer — and take photographs.

Yet it’s easier to follow in the steps of van Gogh if you follow his timeline, starting in the little town of Nuenen, where he painted his first masterpiece in 1885, The Potato Eaters, in the subdued light and earth tones of the village where his father was the Protestant minister — in a place with 2,560 Catholics and 40 Protestants.

Nuenen is little changed today. It still has the mill van Gogh painted and the house of the weaver Pieter Dekkers. And at the time of our visit a local weaver's home built in 1738 had been turned into a dedicated center of van Gogh’s work and although all the exhibits are reproductions, the displays are impressive enough for a visit and trains are readily available.

The Potato Eaters, the Mill at Nuenen, Memorials bottom left Arles; bottom right Nuenen

Indeed by rail is how the painter traveled the country and it is romantic to recapture his mode of transportation. In Nuenen he was a strange sight. Preoccupied, unattractive and unkempt and laden with his artist gear, he became a figure of derision to the local population.

"There were conflicts," says a guide. "The son did not live the way the Protestant father preached and soon the Catholic priest was telling his congregation he forbade them to be painted by van Gogh.”

Vincent moved on, first to Paris, then the long 450-mile train journey to Arles in the South of France. Here for a time Van Gogh found peace.

"Nothing stops me working," he wrote Theo. "I can't resist such beauty. Heavens, if I had only known this country at 25 instead of 35."

Comparison between van Gogh’s painting the Sidewalk Cafe at Night and authors’ photograph. Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles is one of his best known paintings; it was in the yellow house he rented and painted, but it no longer exists.

His greatest work was done in Arles. Between February 1888 and May 1889 he produced 200 paintings.

“Those 15 months were one of the most prolific and inspired burst of artistic creativity ever recorded," says biographer Robert Wallace.

Yet the same pattern of rejection by the community developed. The town today has almost no evidence of his existence. Guide Jacqueline Neujean leads her visitors into the Hotel-Dieu where Dr. Felix Rey treated van Gogh for the madness that made him cut off his own ear.

She holds up a copy of the portrait of Rey, a priceless work we saw later in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

The artist made a portrait of the doctor in 1889. The young doctor, not wishing to offend his patient, accepted the gift then offered it gratis to other physicians who refused it. Dr. Rey took it home. He used it first as a scarecrow in his garden, then as a replacement for a broken window in his home. He finally got a dealer to buy it in 1901 by adding, for the same price of $70, five other van Gogh's he'd somehow collected.

The van Gogh clinic still stands in St. Remy in the former 12C St. Paul monastery. It was transformed into a convalescent home in the mid-18th century.

In St. Remy, 15 miles from Arles, van Gogh spent a year producing two canvases a week of intricate brooding art. His dramatic productivity makes some psychiatrists believe he was bipolar. We will never know. Furthermore, even as one would think nothing new could be said about this tortured soul, in October 2011 two Pulitzer Prize-winning historians claimed Van Gogh was shot accidentally by teenagers playing with a handgun!

He painted what he saw and even today when visitors to France photograph the countryside that they see, the comparison is striking.

What are we to make of this artistic genius? Why are his paintings valued so highly in the commercial world? Are there hidden meanings, secret metaphors in his art? Does any other artist paint clouds with such bold strokes? If he killed himself, is he at last forgiven? The answer to that is clear: create a Van Gogh display and they will come. Partly because of his intense colors. He went to France, he once said, "to see a different light."

"Color sent him into ecstasies," says Frank Elgar, one of his many biographers. "When nature did not provide enough of it, he invented his own."

And the colors are still there for those who look. In Provence, Vincent's hot yellow sun still burns over the summer plains of Montmajour and Trebon at harvest time. And his September night sky laden with stars still blazes Prussian Blue over the sidewalk cafe in Arles, scenes he painted, he said, "With the lucid and exclusive concentration of a lover.”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.