Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Asylum Year

Vincent Van Gogh was a productive and successful Dutch artist whose fame grew tremendously after his death.  Throughout his life, he suffered from severe mental illness, experiencing extreme fluctuations.  After a sharp decline, he admitted himself to a psychiatric institution in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, called Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.  He began a year of asylum in the hospital in May of 1889.  He committed suicide a few months after leaving the institution.
This was a mysterious time in Van Gogh’s life.  Although he was hospitalized and suffered through mental relapses, loneliness, and extremely good and hard times, he was most productive during this year.  He produced about one hundred and fifty paintings while in asylum.  These facts and the mysteriousness of Van Gogh’s seclusion invokes questions from those who learn about him and view his paintings.  What did he paint while he was in asylum?  How did his mental illness affect his painting choices?  What meaning and significance is added to his well-known paintings with this context?  This exhibit is a collection of Van Gogh’s work from his time in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.  They show the various emotions, subjects, and types of paintings he did at the hospital.  Through these paintings, we can see how Van Gogh connected to and saw the spaces around him and get some insight into his feelings over the course of the year.  This exhibit was inspired by the book Van Gogh: The Asylum Year by Edwin Mullins.

Vincent Van Gogh, Cypresses, Late June 1889, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 49.30

Van Gogh painted some of his most famous paintings during his time at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.  For example, he painted Cypresses within the first couple of months of arriving at the assylum.  Other famous works by Van Gogh done during this year include Starry Night and The Irises.  This work also shows references to Van Gogh’s home in the Netherlands by including aspects of Dutch painting such as nature as the subject and including mostly sky in the composition.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, Late August 1889, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Van Gogh also painted some of the people around him and himself while at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.  This painting was done after he suffered an episode due to mental illness.  In these times he did not exit the asylum and chose indoor subjects to paint so that others did not see him in a poor mental state.  He did several portraits and self-portraits during his stay at the hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Vincent Van Gogh, Vestibule in the Asylum, September-October 1889, chalk, brush and oil paint on paper, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh painted the spaces around him at the hospital.  This piece captures the entryway.  He  painted various views, hallways, and rooms in Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.  Other examples of asylum architecture paintings that he did are The Bedroom and Corridor in the Asylum.  The hospital building served as his subject when he wanted to stay inside.  These paintings were also a way to share his space and experience with others, such as his brother Theo, who he sent letters, paintings, and drawings to consistently while he was away. 

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field in Rain, early November 1889, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The landscape of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence was often the subject and inspiration for Van Gogh’s paintings while he was at the hospital.  He could see this wheat field from the workroom he used to do his painting at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.  He painted it at least a dozen times, portraying it in different seasons, weather patterns, and different moods each time.  Besides this wheat field, Van Gogh also painted the garden, plants, and some buildings and structures around the asylum.

Vincent Van Gogh, First Steps, After Millet, January 1890, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 64.165.2

When Van Gogh stayed inside the hospital during his more severe struggles with mental illness, he sometimes painted after drawings and paintings of other artists he admired.  Jean-François Millet was one of the artists Van Gogh painted after most.  His brother Theo would send him drawings by Millet to inspire him.  This copy after Millet was in honor of Theo’s newborn son.  This is an example of sentimental aspects that occasionally appear in Van Gogh’s work as the subject and color palette are reminiscent of his home in the Netherlands.  Van Gogh also painted after Rembrandt, Doré, Delacroix, and others.

Vincent Van Gogh, Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’), May 1890, oil on canvas, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Van Gogh’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions are represented in many of his paintings.  The high and low points of his illness, family events, and deeper thoughts he turned over in his mind are reflected in the moods of his work.  In this piece, he was painting after a drawing he did of a war veteran he had met several years earlier.  Through this painting, he considered religion and eternality.  This piece was done at the end of his time at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a few months before his suicide.  This work portrays the deep emotion and struggle he felt at the time.  

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