On July 27, 1890, Vincent van Gogh began the day as usual. Following breakfast at the inn at Auberge Ravoux, the Dutch post-impressionist painter set out for the wheat fields to paint.
Vincent was a man of customary routine, and when he did not return to the inn for lunch or dinner, the host family grew concerned.
Shortly thereafter, at 9 PM, van Gogh returned doubled over, holding his stomach, and made his way to his room at the inn where his groans drew the attention of the father of young Adeline Ravoux. Vincent announced to the man, “I have tried to kill myself.”
The suicide attempt was not immediately fatal. Thirty hours would pass before Vincent van Gogh would succumb to the gunshot wound.
His brother, Theo, who had been alerted by telegram would be by his brother’s side as he slipped into a coma and died Monday, July 29, 1890.
Days before, van Gogh had written to his parents:
I myself am quite absorbed in that immense plain with wheat fields up as far as the hills, boundless as the ocean, delicate yellow, delicate soft green, the delicate purple of a tilted and weeded piece of ground, with the regular speckle of the green of flowering potato plants, everything under a sky of delicate tones of blue, white, pink, and violet. I am in a mood of almost too much calm, just the mood needed for painting this.
In contrast to the positive tone of his letter to his parents, two days before Vincent penned a letter to his brother Theo, confiding:
I try to be fairly good humored in general, but my life is too threatened at its very root and my step is unsteady too . . . [There] are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness . . . For myself, I can only say at the moment that I think we all need rest . . . And the prospect grows darker. I see no happy future at all.
Calm before the storm one could say.
During his lifetime, van Gogh knew of little success. His ventures into Christian ministry ended before they ever began with van Gogh failing the entrance exam to start his theological training; followed by pursuits in the world as a missionary and traveling evangelist.
Failure of not, when his true calling cried out, albeit due to the patron support and urging of his brother Theo to devote himself to painting, Vincent van Gogh knew himself to be an artist, producing more than 850 paintings in a ten year period from 1880 until 1890.
Then, at the age of 37 years old, van Gogh walked out to the wheat fields where so many of his paintings had been born, and placed a gun to his abdomen and pulled the trigger in what he would believe hours later was a botched suicide attempt—only the attempt would prove a success after all.
Flashback seven years. In a letter dated to his brother Theo on August 7, 1883, Vincent wrote:
My plan is not to spare myself, not to avoid a lot of emotions or difficulties. It’s a matter of relative indifference to me whether I live a long or a short time. Moreover, I’m not competent to manage myself in physical matters the way a doctor can in this respect. So I carry on as one unknowing but who knows this one thing — ‘I must finish a particular work within a few years’ — I needn’t rush myself, for that does no good — but I must carry on working in calm and serenity, as regularly and concentratedly as possible, as succinctly as possible. I’m concerned with the world only in that I have a certain obligation and duty, as it were — because I’ve walked the earth for 30 years — to leave a certain souvenir in the form of drawings or paintings in gratitude. Not done to please a certain taste in art, but to express a sincere human feeling.
That is the purpose of art. Not fame or money. But to express a sincere human feeling. Vincent van Gogh exemplified this better than perhaps any other. We know this through his art that did not sell during his lifetime, and in his intimate letters to his biggest supporter, his brother, Theo.
Thank you for reading.
Written by Jeffrey Pillow, author of the coming-of-age memoir in progress When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, which you can read on this blog as it’s being written. When the Lights Go Out at 10:16 is a story of growing up in small town America in the 1980’s in a teeny tiny town known as Phenix, in Charlotte County, Virginia. It is a story of life and friendship in the face of terminal cancer. Want to read more blog posts? Visit the blog archive. You can also subscribe to this blog to receive updates of new posts by email. Or, follow me on Twitter (I just re-joined).