Van Gogh: Art and Suicide
The peripatetic life of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), the son of a Dutch Protestant minister, was an endless series of catastrophes. He longed for a wife and child but was rejected by the two women he loved. He pursued a disastrous vocation as minister and missionary among the coal miners of Belgium, was dismissed as an art dealer in Paris, failed as a teacher in London and lived with an alcoholic, pregnant prostitute in The Hague. He studied briefly at the Fine Arts Academy in Antwerp (though he was mainly self-taught) and sold only one picture in his lifetime (though his loyal brother Theo was an art dealer). He tried to build an artistic community in Arles, but quarrelled bitterly with his friend and housemate, Paul Gauguin. Except for Theo, Van Gogh was isolated and cut off from family and friends. Finally, this religious fanatic, artistic failure, impoverished suppliant, self-mutilator and violent maniac was committed to two insane asylums in Provence. One positive result of his restless, perpetual flights was that he was multi-lingual in Dutch, German, English and French.
Van Gogh suffered frequent epileptic fits in which he experienced uncontrollable frenzy, incoherence, hallucinations and fears of being poisoned. This disease was fatally combined with cyclic, intermittent attacks of manic depression. His epilepsy was treated as if it were a mental illness, his mania was not understood and had no cure. His letters, long howls of despair, gave morbid descriptions of his feelings after the seizures. In April 1888 he wrote, ‘I have had four major attacks, during which I had no idea what I said, what I wanted or what I did, not to mention the three times before when I had fainting fits for inexplicable reasons, being quite unable to recall what I felt at the time.’ As soon as he recovered, his tense nerves were strained by the terrified expectation of the next attack.
In September 1889, a particularly difficult month, Van Gogh connected his art to his mania and saw himself as a sacrificial victim: ‘my sad illness