“There are modern heads that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later.” –van Gogh, 1890
In 1990 a Japanese businessman paid 82.5 million dollars for van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” a record-breaking art auction bid that outstripped the previous 50-million-dollar record-holder, “Irises,” (also by van Gogh).
People spend such outlandish sums for artwork for many reasons, but no work of art sets such records if it is not universally recognized as a world treasure.
Painting after painting signed “Vincent” resides in the homes of billionaires the world over. Vincent’s work, though virtually unsung during his lifetime, now ranks with the greatest of the greats.
What makes van Gogh’s work so powerful? How could a somewhat murky, even sort of depressing portrait of a morose-looking guy leaning on his hand, such as Vincent’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” command such enormous appeal?
Perhaps a clue lies in the relationship of the good doctor to Vincent, and what was happening in the artist’s life when they forged their friendship. Van Gogh’s mental health had been deteriorating badly when they came together in 1890, the year in which the artist committed suicide. After a few short months, the artist appeared to be getting much better. In fact, Dr. Gachet believed Vincent was cured.
No such luck, as evidenced by van Gogh’s attempts to poison himself by eating paint, and finally succeeding in committing suicide after walking out into a field and shooting himself in the chest.
“Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent” is the way van Gogh describes Dr. Gachet in his portrait. A true expressionist, Vincent treats his subjects as art, rather than his art as his subject. Under his hand, the good doctor was portrayed with compassion and an almost Zen-like detachment, observing the man’s fatigue and innate sorrow, but not reveling in it. Obviously, the doctor was important to Vincent.
Through the eyes and brush of the master, the viewer sees past the outer form of Dr. Gachet and senses unerringly the indefatigable spirit beneath it… the spirit of a friend and healer, one who knows his lot is an uphill battle, but who treads it anyway.
Of the painting’s colors and composition, one could say the palette is macabre and the brush strokes and jigsaw-like fitting of pieces somewhat on the crude side. Thick, short brush strokes make up the background and the doctor’s coat, lending pulse and energy to the entire picture, and uniting the canvas. The colors are basically flesh against charcoal, with a red angled table and green highlights for relief.
It is the face, and especially the eyes, of the doctor that betray Vincent’s profound understanding of the man, and in a flash, the viewer seems to know all he needs to know. The set of the mouth, the open sad eyes and the incline of the body, coupled with the sensitive hands framed by what appear to be herbs and some light yellow books, complete a portrait of a beloved fellow traveler in a universe gone mad.
A friend indeed.