Time at Saint-Remy

“I am not strictly speaking mad, for my mind is absolutely normal in the intervals, and even more so than before. But during the attacks it is terrible – and then I lose consciousness of everything. But that spurs me on to work and to seriousness, as a miner who is always in danger makes haste in what he does.” —Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent spent a year of his life at the asylum in Saint-Remy’ where his mental state really did fluctuate wildly. Despite his “attacks” and generally deteriorating mental health’ Vincent Van Gogh was able to complete some beautiful works during this time. Perhaps his time at Saint-Remy is proof that an artist is an artist’ despite his surroundings or mental soundness. Vincent painted from his heart’ and while he was never particularly close to that many people’ Vincent was overflowing with love and emotion every day of his life.

In May of 1889 Vincent painted one of his most vivid and beautiful pieces at the time Irises. Irises receives a lot of attention by those who know and love Van Gogh because it’s different than a lot of his other paintings that involve flowers’ and like many of his paintings’ it simply stands out. In Irises rich blue colors are used to create a beautiful and close up view of the flowers’ and the detail work is amazing. There are Irises in the painting that are standing tall’ and others that are frail and weak looking. Perhaps this was a peak into all the mental states that Vincent was experiencing’ or maybe it was linked more to the other people he came into contact with at Saint Remy. The detail work in Irises is nothing short of amazing’ and for a man that was unable to spend a lot of time outside during this period’ he captured the Irises beautifully. Whatever its true inspiration’ Irises is a beautiful and bold piece of art that Van Gogh was able to complete’ even when he was under extreme mental pain and considered quite unstable.

Starry Night is considered the third painting in the twilight trilogy’ though it was done the next year and is very different as far as style is concerned and was not done while in Arles. Starry Night is probably the most famous painting’ as it has been the subject of literature’ poems’ CD-ROMs’ and even the song by Don McLean entitled “Vincent” better known as “Starry Starry Night”.

The painting is beautiful’ and really pulls the observer in to take a closer look’ though they’ve seen it many times before.

Starry Night was painted while Vincent Van Gogh was residing at the asylum at Saint-Remy. Because of constant attacks while outdoors’ Vincent had to paint this picture from memory’ not while outdoors’ as he usually preferred. Was it painting from memory that influenced the different technique? Vincent was in the midst of a particularly bad spell while Starry Night was painted’ so maybe that is why it really reaches out and grabs at your soul. Perhaps the style is a reflection of a tortured mind’ or maybe Vincent was experimenting with something new.

Oddly enough’ there is not much mention of this work and what it meant to him in Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo’ so one will never know and speculation will likely continue. Whatever the meaning of Starry Night’ it’s definitely a painting that has gained Van Gogh respect the world over and it’s a piece that all these years later still moves and inspires one as they stand before it. It’s actually odd that the three pictures ended up being thought of as a trilogy since Starry Night really is substantially different from the other two.

Portrait of Doctor Cachet is another of the famous and well-known paintings done by Van Gogh during this period of time. The painting is well known for many reasons’ the first’ because it’s known as the most expensive painting ever sold’ and second because of who Dr. Gachet was. Many people question just how fit Dr. Gachet was to be overseeing the mental health of Vincent’ as even Vincent himself questioned the mental state of his doctor? In a letter to Theo Vincent stated “first of all’ he is sicker than I am’ I think’ or shall we say just as much” which is quite odd coming from a man who had no real firm grasp on normalcy at the time. So’ the subject of this portrait makes it even more popular than it would have been because he did paint it near the end of his life.

The Portrait of Doctor Gachet is an interesting one’ and you can tell by the painting that Vincent did like him to a certain extent; you just get a very familiar feeling from it. The plant on the table in front of him is foxglove’ a plant from which the drug digitalis is derived. Perhaps Vincent painted this to convey the doctor’s profession’ or was it because he was being treated with the drug while under the Doctor’s care?

Vincent Van Gogh actually did two portraits of his doctor at Saint-Remy’ which have been the subject of much debate among art critics. Some believe that one painting is superior to the other’ though both are beautifully executed. While the one portrait did sell for the highest amount ever paid for a painting’ it was actually sold back to Christie’s for just one-eighth of the original sales price. Still’ these are amounts of money that Van Gogh could have never imagined at the time he painted his most beautiful works. Whoever its owner’ Portrait of Doctor Gachet remains one of the most well known and beautifully executed paintings of all time.

While Vincent was confined to the asylum at Saint-Remy he spent much of his time studying some of his favorite artists from the past. This studying of artists past probably had much to do with the fact that he was unstable when he was outdoors where he loved to be’ and from where he derived so much of his inspiration. Van Gogh spent a good deal of time studying the works of Millet and much of his work after this studying reflects a new side of Van Gogh where there is a playful feeling to the paintings’ sort of looking back. Though Vincent may have been capturing scenes from memory as well as incorporating some of Millet’s techniques’ these are undoubtedly some very beautiful works.

In a letter Vincent wrote of his paintings and studying of other artists:

“If someone plays Beethoven, he adds his own personal interpretation; in the music, especially in the singing, the interpretation also counts and the composer doesn’t have to be the only one to perform his compositions. Anyway, especially now I am ill, I am trying to create something to comfort me, for my own pleasure. I put the black and white by or after Delacroix or Millet in front of me to use as a motif. And then I improvise in colour ….] seeking reminiscences of their paintings; but the memory, the vague consonance of colours while are at least correct in spirit, that is my interpretation.”

One of the most beautiful paintings after his studying of Millet was First Steps which is a depiction of a small child taking those first shaky steps from mother to father. Vincent was able to capture the emotion’ anticipation’ and delight of all three people’ as well as use beautiful yellows and brown undertones to capture the surrounding area.

There is a happy’ lighthearted feel to this painting’ something that many of his other works at the time did not have. Was this new portrayal of emotion Van Gogh remembering what it was to be a child? Or is the painting inspired from a memory from one of his countless hours of observation of other people? Whatever he used for inspiration is generally unknown’ but beauty radiates from this painting’ especially for those who have seen a child take their first steps. It’s almost as if Vincent was seeking solace and comfort through these paintings’ though he was facing some of his inner most demons at the time.

Noon: Rest From Work is a painting that Van Gogh simply copied and made his own. The work is beautiful’ as was the original by Millet’ but Vincent added his own perspective with the use of beautiful colors’ a depiction of light and warmth from the sun that Millet did not achieve. It seems as though Vincent found comfort working from another’s perspective because it allowed him to step outside himself. Though Noon: Rest From Work is a copy of Millet’s work’ it is well known by Van Gogh because he took something beautiful and made it simply magnificent.
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