Painted with Words (2010) - full transcript

The story of Vincent Van Gogh, with dialogue sourced from his own words.

Caption: Channelography
Timing, editing: Graine

The myth of Vincent Van Gogh, the mad artist

has captivated us for over a century now.

Ignored during his lifetime,

after his death, his paintings finally surfaced,

or rather exploded,

capturing the world in vibrant, vivid colours.

Today, they are among the most recognisable and valuable works of art in the world ?

My brush goes between my fingers as if it were the bow on a violin,
and absolutely for my pleasure.

When we think of van Gogh, we see him as a strange, mad genius

who somehow, through sheer instinct, found a way of pouring out the blaze
of his inner feelings onto canvas.

Let me quietly continue my work.

If it's that or the madman, well, then too bad.

And then I can't do anything about it.

But his work has often been eclipsed by his reputation as a madman.

Vincent and I can absolutely not live side by side without trouble.

There's simply no changing the fact that he's eccentric.

It is an incredible story,

but the true story of Vincetn van Gogh is here in the letters he left behind.

Nothing can be said about van Gogh that he didn't say himself.

There are 902 letters here,

the vast majority written to his younger brother Theo,

who became his confidant and his lifeline.

This is Vincent thinking aloud, taking us through his life

step by step, documenting his struggles as an artist and as a man.

It's from these letters that this film is made.

Using only van Gogh's words and those of the people around him.

Nothing is imagined.

Every word spoken is true.

On the night of December the 23rd, 1888,

Vincent van Gogh suffered an acute mental breakdown

and cut off part of his left ear,

which he presented to a prostitute in his favourite brothel.

The police discovered him lying in a pool of blood in his bedroom

and committed him here, to the local hospital in Arles,

where he was placed in an isolation cell.

This is van Gogh's story in his own words.

'My dear Theo?

'..where can I go that's worse than where I've already been?

'Shut up for long days under lock and key and in the isolation cell.'

I still have a certain "what's the good of getting better?" feeling,

however the unbearable,

unbearable hallucinations have stopped?

?reducing themselves to simple nightmares.

Physically, I am well,

the wound is closing very well

and the great loss of blood is balancing out.

The most fearsome thing

is the insomnia.

I feel weak,

a little anxious

and fearful.

My dear brother,

it breaks my heart to know that now you will actually have very bad days.

I do so wish that you could tell me how you feel.

For nothing is as distressing as uncertainty.

I remain your brother who loves you.


A certain number of people from here have addressed a petition to the mayor

designating me as a man not fit for living at liberty.

As the managing agent of the house occupied

by Mr Vincent van Gogh, I had occasion to speak with him yesterday

and to observe that he is suffering from mental disturbance.

He insults my customers,

and is prone to interfering with women from the neighbourhood,

whom he follows into their residences.

I was seized round the waist outside Mrs Crevlin's shop by this individual.

In short, this madman is becoming a threat to public safety,

and everyone is demanding that he be confined to a special establishment.

And this is the petition,

filed in the police records in Arles,

and signed by 30 of his neighbours.

The chief of police then gave the order to have me locked up.

'I won't hide from you that I would prefer to die than cause and bear so much trouble.

'To suffer without complaining is the only lesson that has to be learned in this life.'

Vincent?s childhood was the product of a strict Calvinist upbringing.

His father was a minister in the Dutch Reform Church,

and he was brought up in Zundert, a small town in the Netherlands.

He was sent away to boarding school,

where he was taught the rudiments of drawing,

and excelled in foreign languages.

He left at the age of 16,

when he started an apprenticeship

with the international art dealers, Goupil.

Three years later, Theo followed in his footsteps.

This is when the letters begin.

Vincent was 19 years old,

and Theo just 15.

'My dear Theo,

'I'm so glad that both of us are now in the same line of business and in the same firm.

'We must correspond often.

'The love between two brothers is a great support in life,

'that's an age-old truth.

'Let the fire of love between us not be extinguished,

but let instead the 'experience of life make that bond even stronger -

'let us remain upright

'and candid with each other.'

Let there be no secrets,

as things stand today.

In May 1873,

Vincent was transferred to Goupil?s London office in Covent Garden.

He moved to Brixton -

then a prosperous, middle-class neighbourhood.

I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening

and know what it looks like

when the sun's setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

His apprenticeship at Goupil was beginning to train his eye in art,

and his enthusiasm extended beyond office hours.

We know that because this visitors' book at the British Museum

shows that on August 28 1874,

van Gogh was the fourth visitor of the day,

and he came to see this drawing

attributed to Rembrandt.

The figure of our lord, noble and impressive,
stands out gravely against the window.

I hope not to forget that drawing,

nor what it seems to be saying to me.

Vincent became an ardent visitor

to London's great museums and galleries.

And he shared with Theo his growing enthusiasm for the art and literature

he was becoming increasingly attached to.

English art didn't appeal to me much at first,

one has to get used to it.

But there are some good artists here.

Millais, who painted Huguenot and Ophelia - they're very beautiful.

And then there's Turner,

after whom you'll probably have seen engravings.

"Where are the songs of spring?

"Aye, where are they?

"Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,

"while barred clouds bloom

"the soft-dying day, and touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue."

The last few days I've enjoyed reading the poems of John Keats.

He's a poet who isn't very well known in Holland, I believe, but

he's a favourite of the painters here, which is

how I came to be reading him.

Vincent developed a passion for English popular art,

as seen in the black and white prints in The Graphic and Illustrated London News,

eventually collecting a thousand of them.

In my view, prints like these together form a kind of Bible

for an artist, in which he reads now and again to get into a mood.

It's good not only to know them but to have them in the studio once and for all.

For me, the English draughtsmen are what Dickens is in the sphere of literature.

Noble and healthy, and something one always comes back to.

Amongst his collection was this print of Dickens' empty chair.

The social realist subject matter of the prints

and Dickens' writings about London's working class

living in squalid poverty,

left a lasting impression on Vincent.

"The mud lay thick upon the stones

"and a black mist hung over the streets.

"The hideous, old man seemed like some loathsome reptile,

"crawling forth by night,

"in search of some rich offal for a meal."

There's such a yearning for religion among the people in those big cities.

Many a worker in a factory or shop

has had a remarkably pious, pure youth.

George Eliot describes the life of factory workers

who hold religious services in a chapel in Lantern Yard.

"The pulpit

"where the minister delivered unquestioned doctrine, and swayed

"to and fro?"

"..and handled the book in a long-accustomed manner.

"These had been the channel of divine influences

"for Silas Marner.

"They were the fostering home of his religious emotions,

"they were Christianity

"and God's kingdom upon Earth."

Reading George Eliot's novels about English evangelism

reminded Vincent of his own upbringing in a religious home.

Wanting now to follow in his father's footsteps,

he immersed himself in the study of the Bible.

But his preoccupation with religion

led him to neglect his duties in the art firm,

so he was fired.

He now tried to get a position as a teacher's assistant,

hoping this would help him reach his goal of entering the church.

'Dear Theo,

'I received a letter from a teacher in Ramsgate, who suggested that I come there for a month,

'without pay, in order to see whether he can use me at the end of that time.

'It's a beautiful route.

'The sky was a light blue, with grey and white clouds.'

'You can imagine, I was looking out of the window for Ramsgate
a long time before I got there.'

Herewith, a little drawing of the view from the school window.

Where the boys stand and watch their parents going back
to the station after a visit.

Determined to make himself useful to those he saw suffering around him,

Vincent taught Sunday school to children from the London markets and streets.

And on the 12th November 1876,

he delivered his first sermon.

We are pilgrims in the earth and strangers.

We come from afar and we are going far.

The journey of our life goes from the
loving breast of our Mother on Earth

to the arms of our Father in heaven.


your brother spoke for the first time in God's house last Sunday.

When I stood up on the pulpit,

I felt like someone emerging out of a dark,
underground vault into the friendly daylight, and

it's a wonderful feeling

to think that from wherever I go from now on, I'll be preaching the gospel.

Religion came to dominate his letters to his family,

with his Biblical fanaticism seeping into the language.

My brother, let us take care.

Let us ask Him who is above,

who also maketh intercession for us, that He should keep us from the evil.

Yea, let us watch and be sober, let us trust in the Lord with all of our heart,

and lean not unto our own understanding.

Let us ask that He compel us to come in.

To be meek,

longsuffering and lowly,

sorrowful yet always rejoicing.

He writes many letters,

long ones too,

and when reading them,

one is inclined to say how can

a simple clergyman come out of this?

And then again there is

nevertheless something good in them as well.

When Vincent returned to Holland,

his father agreed to support his preparation to enter the ministry.

But he struggled with his studies,

and quit after a year.

The only option left to him was missionary work,

and in January 1879

he was appointed as a lay-preacher in the Borinage,

a coal-mining district in Belgium.

Going down in a mine is an unpleasant business,

in a kind of basket or cage like a bucket in a well,

so that down there looking upward,

the daylight appears to be about as big as a star in the sky.

The workers get used to it, but

even so, they never shake off an unconquerable feeling of horror and dread.

Vincent was truly sickened by the plight of the miners' lives.

Nursing the sick and injured

became just as important to him as preaching.

He gave away most of his possessions

in the hope of alleviating their suffering.

But once again, after his six month trial,
he failed to make the grade.

Vincent was jobless once more.

His father was so concerned about his state of mind

that he considered having him committed to a psychiatric hospital.

I, for one,

am a man of passions,

capable and liable to do rather foolish things
for which I sometimes feel rather sorry.

For example, you know well that I've neglected my appearance.

I admit it's rather shocking.

Must one consider oneself a dangerous man incapable of anything at all? I don't think so.

Money troubles - ha!

And poverty have something to do with it.

Now you say, from such and such a time you've been going downhill, you've faded away,

you've done nothing.

Now that being so, what's to be done?

Theo worried about his brother,

but recognising a talent in Vincent's sketches of the miners,

encouraged him to apply himself more seriously to art.

Vincent, being his own man, wasn't really interested in following any traditional art education.

Instead, he taught himself using this artist's manual

by Charles Bargue.

'Careful study and constant repeated drawing of Bargue's exercises

'has given me more insight into figure drawing.

'I've learned to measure and to see and to attempt the broad outlines, etc,

'so that what used to seem to me to be desperately impossible is now gradually

'becoming possible.

'Drawing is the root of everything.'

After years in the wilderness,

Vincent had finally found his vocation.

My plan is not to spare myself,

not to avoid a lot of difficulties and emotions.

It's of a relative indifference to me whether I live a long or short time.

I'm concerned with the world only

in that I have a certain...

obligation, or duty,

if you like, having walked the world for 30 years to leave

a souvenir of gratitude in the form

of paintings

or drawings.

Van Gogh was from the very beginning, and would remain,

a man of the people,

identifying with the peasants, the working class,
with the outcasts.

And all his letters from now on document his single-minded immersion in art

- his own and the work of those he most admired.

In particular the French artist Jean Francois Millet,

famous for his realistic scenes of peasant farmers' lives.

I feel the need to study figure drawing from masters like Millet.

"In art, one must give one's heart and soul," he says.

'I have already drawn The Sower five times, and I'm so completely
absorbed in that figure, I will take it up again.


'always begins by resisting the draughtsman.

'It sometimes resembles what Shakespeare calls taming the shrew,

'ie to conquer the opposition through perseverance,


'If I succeed in putting some warmth and love into the work,

'then it will find friends.'

Although Vincent was able to put love into his work,

it was proving difficult to find in his life.

He was back home living with his parents.

His widowed cousin Kee Voss came to visit the parsonage,

and Vincent fell madly in love with her.

From the beginning of this love I've felt that unless I threw myself into it


committing myself to it whole-heartedly, fully and forever, then

there would be absolutely no chance for me.

But does it matter to me if the chance is smaller or larger? I mean,

must I, can I, take that into account

when I love?


no thought to the winnings.

One loves because one loves.

But this love was not reciprocated,

and it embarrassed his parents,

who thought he was shaming the family.

His uncle forbade Vincent from seeing Kee.

But he bombarded her with letters,

and then?

I went to Amsterdam.

There I was told "your persistence is sickening."

I put my fingers in the flame of a lamp and said,
"let me see her for as long as I hold my hand in the flame."

But they blew out the lamp, and said, you shall not see her.

To love?

?what a business.

Vincent set out for The Hague,

the centre of the Dutch art world.

'I had a rather violent argument with Pa, and

'feelings ran so high that Pa said it would be better if I left home.

'It was said so decisively that I actually left the same day.

'I was angrier than I've ever remembered being in my whole life,
'and I told Pa plainly that I found the whole system of that religion loathsome.

'I want nothing more to do with it,

'and have to guard against it as against something fatal.'

Now without an income or a home, he turned to Theo.

'It goes without saying that I'm asking you, Theo, if you can do it?'

" send me now and then what you can without going short yourself.

"Let me send you my work and you take what you want from it?"

'..but I insist that I may consider the money I would receive from you as money I've earned.'

I hope to do as much as I can to help you until you start earning yourself,
but what I don't like is the way you've contrived to leave Pa and Ma.

What the devil made you so childish

and so shameless as to contrive in this way in this way

to make their life miserable and almost impossible?

It's your duty to set things straight at all costs.

Upon arrival in The Hague, Vincent set himself up in a small studio

and got a commission for a series of cityscapes,

sketching all aspects of the modern metropolis.

And Vincent, wanting to enjoy all the pleasures of city life,

soon found himself in hospital for a few weeks

undergoing treatment for syphilis.

And then?

This winter I met a pregnant woman,

who had been abandoned

by the man whose child she was carrying.
A pregnant woman

wandering the streets in winter,

earning her bread, you can imagine how.

'I took that woman as a model

'and I worked with her the whole of the winter.

'She's learning to pose better every day,

'that's extremely important to me.'

Her name was Clasina Maria Hoornik,

better known as Sien,
a woman older than Vincent.

She was a seamstress who supplemented her income with prostitution.

I couldn't give her a model's full daily wage?

?but all the same, I paid her rent and

until now have been able, thank God, to preserve her and her child
from hunger and cold by sharing my own bread with her.

When I met this woman, she caught my eye because she looked so ill.

To me,

she is beautiful.

And I find in her exactly what I need.

Life has given her a drubbing, and sorrow,

sorrow and adversity have left their mark.

She posed for my very best drawing,


I want to make drawings that move some people.

Sorrow is a small beginning.

At least it contains something straight from my own feelings.

I couldn't draw Sorrow if I didn't feel it myself.

This other one, Roots, is some tree roots in sandy ground.

I've tried to imbue the landscape with the same sentiment as the figure.

In all of nature, trees for instance, I see

expression and soul.

Well, it may be that I felt more passion

for Kee Voss,

and that in certain respects

she was more

charming than Sien.

It is certainly not so that the love for Sien is therefore less sincere.

This relationship generated even more disgust in the family

than Vincent's earlier infatuation with Kee,

and once again

he was penniless.

But, old chap, this has been an anxious fortnight.

When I wrote to you in the middle of May, all I had left was three,

three-and-a-half guilder after paying the baker.

The rent's due on 1st June, and I have nothing, literally


I hope you'll be able to send something.

But Theo was just as scandalised

and refused to send any extra money.

With Vincent unable to support a family,

Sien decided to go back to prostitution

once the baby was born.

For Vincent, this was all too much.

Oh, Theo,

I have the most impossible and

highly unsuitable love affairs from which,

as a rule,

I emerge only with shame and disgrace.

But I shall continue to think of her often.

And so Vincent left,

and went deep into rural Holland,

to live and paint among the peasants.

This time I'm writing to you from the very back of beyond in Drenthe.

I see no way of describing the countryside to you as it should be done, because

words fail me.

What I think is the best life

is a life made up of long years of being in touch with nature out of doors.

Here are a couple of evening effects.

I'm still working on that weed burner, whom I've caught better
than before in a painted study as far as the tone is concerned,

so that it conveys more of the vastness
of the plain and the gathering dusk.

And one muddy evening after the rain I found the little hut,

which was very beautiful in its natural setting.

When I say that I'm a peasant painter, that is really so,
and will become clearer to you in future.

But living in such an isolated place,

loneliness soon bore down on him.

Alone, one is sure to perish.

Only with another can one be saved.

The very best and most effective medicine is still love and a home.

So home he went,

depressed and broke,

and with his tail between his legs,

to live with his parents again.

However, the medicine wasn't quite right.

At first it seemed to be hopeless,

but it has gradually got better, particularly

since we agreed that he will stay with us for the time being, to make studies here.

He wanted the out house to be fitted up for him.

We don't think it's a particularly suitable place, but we've had it spruced up.

Now, we shall just make it nice and warm and dry

and then it should do.

There's a similar reluctance about taking me into the house

as there would be about having a large, shaggy dog in the house.

He'll come into the room with his wet paws,
and then he's so shaggy. He'll get in everyone's way.

And his bark is so loud.

In short, he's a filthy animal.
Very well?

but the animal has a human history

and, although it's a dog, a human soul,

and one with finer feelings at that - capable of

feeling what people say about him, which an ordinary dog can't do.

We're undertaking this new trial with real good faith.

It's a pity that he isn't a little more accommodating,

but there's simply no changing the fact that he's eccentric.

And I, admitting that I am a sort of dog?

?accept them

for what they are.

Despite the difficulties at home,

it was around this time
that Vincent came into his own as an artist.

Starting with the drawings of local weavers.

Every day, I paint studies of the weavers here.

I think the looms, with that quite complicated machinery,

in the middle of which sits the little figure,

will also lend themselves to pen drawings.

I must make sure that I get them so that the colour and tone
match with other Dutch paintings, though.

These Dutch painters he was so impressed by

were Anton Mauve and Jozef Israels,

artists from The Hague School,

celebrated for their rural scenes and peasant subjects.

Their palette was grey and brown,

matching the weather conditions of The Netherlands.

Very different from the revolutionary paintings being produced in Paris at that time

by The Impressionists with their bright and colourful paintings,

which Theo had written to Vincent about.

When I hear you talk about a lot of new names,

it's not always possible for me to understand when I've seen absolutely nothing by them.

And from what you say about Impressionism, it's not entirely
clear to me what one should understand by it.

For my part, I find so tremendously much in Israels, for instance, that

I'm not particularly curious about or eager for something

different or newer.

Despite this, Vincent was becoming increasingly interested in colour,

fascinated by what he saw emerging on the looms.

When the weavers weave those fabrics, they try, as you know,

to get the very brightest colours in balance against one another

in the multicoloured tartans,

so that, rather than the fabric clashing, the overall effect is

harmonious from a distance.

You have to go straight to Eugene Delacroix

to find such an orchestration of colours.

I'm talking about the blue, green sketch with

red and purple and touches of lemon yellow.

It speaks a symbolic language through colour itself.

So now Vincent starts to introduce shards of colour into his work,

in landscapes,

and then in a series of portraits of local peasants.

I have a few of the heads I promised you.

They are studies, in the true meaning of the word.

I've already painted at least 30 or so.

At the same time, I'm working on those peasants around a dish of potatoes again.

I hope that the painting of those potato eaters will progress a bit.

You see, I really wanted to make it so that

people get the idea that these folk,
eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp on the table,

They have tilled the earth themselves with these hands
they are putting in the dish, so the whole speaks of manual labour

and thus they have honestly earned their food.

I wanted to give the idea of

a way of life wholly different from ours.

I certainly don't just want everyone to admire it

or approve of it without knowing why.

Admiration certainly didn't come from Theo,

or from Vincent's friend and fellow artist,

one Anthon van Rappard.

My dear friend!

You can do better than this?


That coquettish little hand of that woman at the back,

how untrue!

And what connection is there between the coffeepot,

the table

and the hand lying on top of the handle?

What's that pot doing, for that matter?

It isn't standing,

it isn't being held,

but what then?

And why may that man on the left not have a knee,

or a belly or lungs?

Or are they in his back?

And why must his arm be a metre too short?

And why must he lack half of his nose?

With such a manner of working, you dare to invoke the name of Millet?

Come on!

Art is too important, it seems to me, to be treated so


But perhaps van Rappard had missed the point.

I want people to say of my work,

that man feels deeply, that man feels subtly,

despite my so-called coarseness or perhaps precisely because of it.

Do you understand?

It seems pretentious to talk like this now, but that's why I want to push on!

The Potato Eaters demonstrates the level of
accomplishment van Gogh had reached in his art -

and remember, he'd only been painting for four years.

It was also the first and the last time he ever did a group portrait.

But the contemptuous critique of van Gogh's masterpiece

wasn't the only matter featured in van Rappard's letter.

The news of the death of your father came so unexpectedly

that I very much wanted some further message,

which didn't come, however.

Did you think that I had so little interest in your father
that a polite formula to announce something so affecting

was enough for that interest?

Vincent hardly mentions the death of his father in the letters of the time,

but despite the difficulties of their relationship,

he was nevertheless affected by the news.

My dear Theo,

I'm still very much under the impression of what has just happened.

I just kept painting these two Sundays.

And he painted

his father's Bible.

I'm sending you a still life of an open, hence an off-white, Bible,

bound in leather, against a black background.

I painted this one in a single day.

This is to show you that when I say that perhaps I haven't

grafted entirely for nothing,

I mean it.

And, tellingly,

Vincent placed next to his father's Bible

a book by the French novelist Emile Zola,

the supreme chronicler of the oppressed and tormented working class.

Vincent saw in Zola a kindred spirit,

embracing the social purpose of art

as well as the artistic interpretation of reality.

'Zola, in La Joie De Vivre and L'Assommoir, and so many other masterpieces,

'paint life as we feel it ourselves and

'thus satisfies that need which we have, that people tell us the truth.'

Read lots of Zola, it's healthy stuff

and clears the mind.

The next part of his journey would take him to the epicentre of the art world,

leaving the Netherlands far behind him.

Vincent arrived in Paris in February 1886,

when the art scene was in transition.

Impressionism had already been dominant for over a decade,

but now the hunt was on for something new.

Somehow, he finally understood that to be taken seriously as an artist,
he had to come to Paris.

However, he didn't bother to inform Theo until he'd already arrived,

sending him a note to meet him in The Louvre in the Salle Carree,

where the great European masters were hung -

the Rembrandts and Delacroixs.

Vinsent intended to immerse himself in the artistic life of the city,

and moved to Montmartre with Theo,

into this house at 54 Rue Lepic.

Fortunately, we're doing well in our new home.

You'd no longer recognise Vincent, he's changed so much,

and that strikes others even more than me.

He has had a major operation on his mouth, for he had lost almost all
his teeth because of the poor state of his stomach.

The doctor says he is now completely recovered.

He's making tremendous progress with his work,

and proof of that is that he is starting to make a success of it.

Vincent enrolled at the studio of the artist Fernand Cormon,

where he befriended many of the aspiring artists of the day,

including Toulouse Lautrec,

sitting here on the left,

with, reputedly, Vincent beside him holding the palette.

But he became bored and frustrated after three months working from plaster casts, so he left.

What I think about my own work is that the painting

of the peasants eating the potatoes that I did in Nuenen is, after all, the best thing I did.

What I hope to achieve?

?is to paint a good portrait, anyway.

For inspiration, he turned to the Dutch master Rembrandt,

who painted more than 90 self portraits from the outset of his career

to the year of his death in 1669.

So, Rembrandt painted angels.

He paints himself as an old man,

wrinkled, toothless, wearing a white cap.

First, painting from life in the mirror,

he dreams,

dreams, and his brush begins to paint his own portrait again,

but from memory,

and his expression is sadder?

?and more saddening.

For my own part, my fortunes dictate that I'm making
rapid progress in becoming a little old man myself.

But what does that matter?

I have a dirty and difficult occupation -


Vincent started his self portrait series with the dark brown colours he'd been accustomed to.

But gradually, his colour and brushwork changed,

as he came under the influence of the new art that he saw around him.

The paintings become lighter and more colourful.

My intention is to show that a variety of very different portraits
can be made by the same person.

The painter of the future is a colourist as there has never been before.

He hasn't yet sold any paintings for money,
but exchanges his work for other paintings.

He also has acquaintances from whom he receives a beautiful
delivery of flowers every week

that can serve him as a model.

I've made a series of colour studies in painting simply flowers,

seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green,

yellow and violet, seeking the broken and neutral tones

to harmonise brutal extremes.

He's also much more cheerful than before,

and he goes down well with the people here.

To give you an example, hardly a day passes without him being

invited to visit the studios of painters of repute,

or people come to him.

Just a few minutes' walk from Rue Lepic,

and from Le Moulin de la Galette,

a bar and dance hall

masquerading as a windmill, which Vincent loved to paint,

was Pere Tanguy's art supply shop.

This place became the hub

for the whole community of Parisian artists,

who would gather and gossip and exchange their pictures

for materials supplied by Pere Tanguy,

the legendary father figure of the avant garde.

Paul Cezanne,

Edgar Degas,

Toulouse Lautrec,

George Seurat.

They all came here.

It's extraordinary to think that this tiny room

was the principal gathering place for what is probably

the most celebrated group of artists in history.

Vincent, who was socially awkward, had little appetite
for these gatherings or for the competitive environment it fostered.

But there was one artist who like him stood out from the crowd.

His name was Paul Gauguin,

and he shared with Vincent a passion for Japanese prints.

This was the art-form that transfixed the western world in the late 19th century.

Japanese prints are certainly the most practical way of
getting to understand the direction that painting has taken at present.

Colourful and bright.

Theo and I have hundreds of them.

At first, he simply started to copy the prints.

Then, he began to experiment with his own work,

cropping objects at the edges and introducing strong diagonals.

And Japanese prints started to appear in the background

in several of his portraits,

including this one of Pere Tanguy.

However, other Parisian indulgences were not so beneficial.

Vincent was drinking large amounts of absinthe.

The bohemian lifestyle was damaging his already fragile health.

And his relationship with Theo was becoming seriously strained.

'It's as if there are two people in him -

'the one, marvellously gifted,

'sensitive and gentle,

'and the other, self-loving and unfeeling.'

There was a time when?

I loved Vincent very much and he was my best friend, but that's over now.

It seems to be even worse, as far as he is concerned,
for he loses no opportunity to let me see

that he despises me and that I inspire aversion in him.

This makes it almost intolerable for me at home.

No-one wants to come by any more because it always leads to rows, and

he's so filthy and slovenly that the household looks anything but inviting.

Vincent had had enough of the quarrels with Theo,

and of the artistic egos of the avant-garde.

Longing for the peace of the countryside,

he left Paris

in February 1888

and headed south to Arles, in Provence.

'I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me

'as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere

'and the charm of the colour effects.'

Pale orange sunsets,

making the fields almost blue.

Glorious yellow suns.

Soon after his arrival,

Vincent moved into The Yellow House on Place Lamartine,

and set to work at once, experimenting with an increasingly vivid palette,

convinced that this would be his artistic legacy.

'Now that I've found my bearings a little more, I'm beginning to see the advantages here.

'For myself, I'm in better health here than in the north.

'I even work in the wheat fields at midday,
'in the full heat of the sun, without any shade whatever,

'and there you are,

I revel in it like a cicada.'

If only I'd known this country at 25, instead of coming here at 35, but

then I was

enthusiastic about grey, or rather, absence of colour.

Ah, but this!

I don't need Japanese prints here,

because I'm always saying to myself I'm in Japan.

I'd like to do drawings in the style of Japanese.

I can't do anything but strike while the iron's hot.

I hope to make real progress this year, which I really need to do.

However, working alone for days on end took its toll,

and depression set in.

From the letters, it's clear that he was suffering from bipolar disorder.

So many days pass without me saying a word to anyone

except to order?

supper or a coffee.

It's been like that from the start.

For my part, it worries me to spend so much time by myself,


Vincent dreamed of establishing an artists' colony,

a "Studio in the South", as he called it,

where artists could work together in a collegiate culture,

unlike the more combustible Parisian artworld he'd left behind.

Gauguin is in Brittany, but has again suffered an attack of his liver complaint.

I wish I were in the same place as him,

or he here with me.




I've just rented a four-room house here in Arles.

It seems to me that?

if I could find a painter who wanted to make the most out of the south,

and who was sufficiently absorbed in his work like me,

to be inclined to live like a monk,

bound up in his work and not inclined to waste his time, then

the thing would be very good.

"And you would give my brother one painting a month,

"while you'd be free to do whatever you liked with the rest."

In the hope of living in a studio with Gauguin, I'd like to do a decoration for the studio.

'Nothing but large sunflowers.'

I also did a canvas of my bedroom with the whitewood furniture that you know.

It amused me enormously doing this bare interior.

My aim was to give it colours like stained glass,

and a design of solid outlines.

Unfortunately, Gauguin procrastinated,

so Vincent bided his time,

determined to focus on his work

in preparation for the great man's arrival -

even prepared, in principal at least, to curtail some of his favourite pursuits.

Painting and screwing around a lot aren't compatible -

it weakens the brain,

and that's what's really so dammed annoying.
I'd prefer to be cloisted up like the monks.

Free to go to the brothel, just like the monks,

or to the wine shop, if my heart chooses to!

In my painting of the night cafe, I've tried to express
the idea that the cafe is the place

where you can ruin yourself, go mad,

commit crimes.

Included here, a square canvas, the starry sky -

actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp.

The fields are mauve.

The town is blue and violet.

Two small coloured figures of lovers in the foreground.

He's an odd fellow, but

what a head he has on him.

It's enviable.

I shall count myself very happy if I manage to work enough to earn my living?

?for it makes me very worried when I tell myself
that I've done so many paintings and drawings without ever selling any.

Gauguin finally arrived on the 23rd October 1888.

Turquoise, a vibrant, alive turquoise, as if the sea was bubbling?

A few days later, the two artists set off for the nearby Roman cemetery

at Les Alyscamps, intent on depicting the same subject, side by side.

Vincent painted what he saw and what he felt,

the industrial scene in the background is framed by the trees.

By contrast, Gauguin had little time for reality.

He painted, as a rule, from memory.

And in the time it took Gauguin to complete this picture,

slowly and methodically,

Vincent, at top speed, had knocked out two more.

Gauguin, in spite of himself and in spite of me?

?has proved to me a little it was time to change things a bit.

I'm now working from memory,

and all my earlier studies will still be useful for that work,

as they will remind me

of former things that I have seen.

And one of these was a subject he painted again and again,

The Sower.

Now, the influence of Gauguin can clearly be seen.

Immense lemon yellow disk for the sun,

green-yellow sky with pink clouds.

The field is violet,

the sower and the tree, Prussian blue.

But Vincent found it difficult painting purely from memory,

and soon returned to subjects directly in front of him.

The last two studies are rather funny canvases,

a wooden and straw chair all yellow on red tiles against a wall.

Then Gauguin's armchair, red and green,

night effect.

On the seat, two novels and a candle.

On sailcloth, in thick impasto.

But it wasn't long before tensions developed between the two artists.

Gauguin's work was selling well in Paris -

Vincent still couldn't find buyers.

He started to drink heavily again.

His behaviour was becoming odder and odder,

and after just eight weeks, Gauguin became increasing exasperated.

I feel completely disorientated in Arles.

I find everything so small

and mean,

both the landscape and the people.

In general, Vincent and myself do not see eye to eye,

particularly on painting.

He likes my pictures very much,

but when I'm painting them,

he criticises me for this and that.

Vincent and I can absolutely not live side by side without trouble.

In December 1888,

Gauguin painted this, Portrait Of Van Gogh

Painting Sunflowers.

Vincent looked at it in silence, then said,

"It's me all right, but me gone mad."

But is it?

When I look at this picture, I don't see van Gogh at all.

I see Gauguin.

And that seems to me to explain a lot about their relationship.

A few days later, the two artists got into a heated argument.

'It was so bizarre I couldn't take it.'

He even asked me, "Are you going to leave?"

I felt I must go out alone

and take the air

along some paths

when I heard behind me a familiar step

short, quick, irregular.

I turned around on that instant

as Vincent rushed towards me, an open razor in hand.

Vincent returned to the Yellow House,

where, with perhaps the very same knife that he threatened Gauguin with,

he mutilated his left ear.

I wouldn't exactly have chosen madness

had there been a choice,

but once one has something like that, one can't catch it any more.

I find that his condition has improved a little.

I don't believe his life is in danger - for the moment at least.

He's eating quite well

and his physical strength enables him to withstand his crises.

My assessment is that he'll be able to recover in a short time,

while retaining the extreme excitability that must form the essence of his character.

From his hospital room,

Vincent painted this self-portrait,

one of the most arresting works of art

in the world.

The advantages I have here are that they are all sick?

?and so at least I don't feel...


I'm quite absorbed in reading Shakespeare.

I've first taken the kings series?

?of which I've already read Richard II,

Henry IV, Henry V,

parts of Henry VI.

Have you ever read King Lear?

But anyway, I think I shan't urge you too much to read such

dramatic stories?.

when after reading them myself I?

?I'm always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass?

?a pine tree branch,

an ear of wheat?

?to calm myself.

Vincent suffered repeated episodes of mental instability

whilst in the hospital here in Arles.

But in between these fits, he was well enough to find comfort in his art,

painting the grounds here and the ward.

After five months in hospital,

mindful perhaps of his precarious mental state,

he was reluctant to return home alone to the Yellow House.

And with Theo's help,

he voluntarily admitted himself to the nearby asylum at Saint-Remy.

Dear Director, with the agreement of the person involved, who is my brother,

I am writing to request the admission into your institution of Vincent Willem van Gogh.

I ask you to admit him with your third-class residents.

I hope you will have no objection to allowing him the freedom to paint

outside your institution whenever he wishes to do so.


without elaborating on the attention he will require,

but which I assume is given with the same care to all your residents,

I hope you will be so kind as to allow him to have at least

half a litre of wine with his meals.

Vincent arrived here at Saint-Remy on 8th May 1889,

where he would remain for a year.

The letters he wrote during that time

are a heart-wrenching confession

of his coming to terms with his condition.

I wanted to tell you that?

?I've done well to come here.

First, in seeing the reality of the lives of the

mad, cracked people in this menagerie?

?I'm losing the vague dread, the fear of the thing. And...

little by little, I can come to consider madness as being an illness like any other.

As far as I know, the doctor here is inclined to

consider what I've had as an attack of

an epileptic nature.

It's quite odd perhaps that the result of this terrible attack is

that in my mind there's hardly any really clear desire or hope left.

I'm thinking of squarely accepting my profession as a madman.

There were days, sometimes weeks, when Vincent was unable to work,

tormented by spells of mental illness.

But these alternated with periods of amazing creativity

in which he was extremely productive.

He was given permission to paint in the surrounding countryside

and sent dozens of paintings to Theo in Paris.

"Thanks very much for the consignment of canvases, colours, brushes, tobacco and chocolate,

"which reached me in good order.

"I was very glad of it,

"for I was pining for work a little."

Also, for a few days now I've been going outside to work in the neighbourhood.

What a beautiful land and what beautiful blue and what a sun.

So then my brush goes between my fingers as if it were the bow on a violin and

absolutely for my pleasure.

I'm struggling

with a canvas begun a few days before my indisposition.

A reaper, the study is all in yellow,

terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple.

A vague figure struggling like a devil in the
full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil.

And then saw the image of death in it?

?in the sense that humanity would be like the wheat being reaped.

So, if you like, it's the opposite of that sower I tried before. But

in this death, nothing's sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that

floods everything with a light of fine gold.

Your latest paintings have given me a great deal to think about
as regards your state of mind when you made them.

All of them have

a power of colour

which you hadn't attained before,

which in itself is

a rare quality,

but you've gone further.

But how hard your mind must have worked and how you endangered yourself to the extreme point

endangered yourself to the extreme point where

vertigo is inevitable.

Let me quietly continue my work.

If it's that of a madman, well then, too bad.

Then I can't do anything about it.

And around this time,

Vincent got the only review ever to appear in his lifetime,

by the young critic, Albert Aurier.

What characterises his works as a whole

is its excess of strength,

of nervousness,

its violence of expression.

His colour we know already,

unbelievably dazzling

with this metallic, jewel-like quality.

In his categorical affirmation of character of things,
a powerful figure is revealed -



very often brutal?

?yet sometimes

ingeniously delicate.

Vincent stayed at St Remy for over a year,

but he began to fear being labelled the mad artist,

so once again,

he asked Theo for help.

I don't feel competent enough to judge the way they treat patients here,

and nor do I have any desire to enter into the detail,

but please remember

that around six months ago I warned you that if I was seized

by a crisis of a similar nature, that I would wish to change asylums.

And I've delayed too long already, having allowed an attack to go by in the meantime.

I was then in the middle of work, and I wanted to finish canvases in progress,
otherwise I would no longer be here by now.

Right, so

I'm going to tell you?

that it seems to me that a fortnight, though a week would please me more,

should be enough to take the necessary steps to move.

During his stay in the home, this patient, During his stay in the home, this patient,

has had several attacks lasting for between two weeks and a month.

During these attacks, he is subject to terrifying terrors,

and has on several occasions attempted to poison himself,

either by swallowing colours that he used for painting, or by ingesting paraffin,

which he had taken from the boy when he was filling his lamps.

In the interval between attacks, the patient is perfectly calm and lucid,
and passionately devotes himself to painting.

He is asking to be discharged today in order to go to live in the north of France,

hoping that climate will suit him better.

In May 1890, he moved to Auvers, close to Paris,

with a letter of introduction from Theo to a Dr Paul Gachet.

And he rented an attic room here at the Auberge Ravoux.

Once settled in Auvers, Vincent set himself a punishing schedule,

leaving his room at five in the morning

to go out and paint in fields

and not returning till nine at night.

It was a period of intense activity in which he produced a canvas a day.

Being back north,

I am very distracted.

I did a portrait of Dr Gachet the other day.

You have a face, the colour?

of over-heated and sun-drenched

brick, with reddish hair,

a white cap, blue background.

He's very nervous and

very bizarre.

My portrait of myself is almost like this too -

so similar are we physically, and morally.

"I think he is sicker than I am, or

shall we say, just as much?

"When one blind man leads another, don't they both fall into the ditch?"

Although Vincent doubted Dr Gachet's ability to help him,

they did become good friends.

He dined at his house and painted his daughter.

They had much in common.

Gachet was not only a physician but also an amateur artist,

and deeply involved in the treatment of mental malaise.

But despite the doctor's sympathetic ear,

Vincent is still alone.

Since my illness, the feelings

of loneliness takes hold of me in the fields

in such a fearsome way that I hesitate to go out.

with time, though, that will change.

It's only in front of the easel while painting that

I feel a little of life.

I feel?

?a failure?

?that's it as regards me.

I feel that that's the fate I'm accepting?

?and which won't change any more.

In July 1890, he returned to Paris to visit Theo

and his sister-in-law, Jo,

and to see for the first time his recently-born nephew,


Theo explained to him that he now had responsibilities,

with a young family to support.

Vincent now feared that he was becoming a liability.

Distressed, he returned to Auvers that same evening.

I feared,

not completely but a little nonetheless,

that I was a danger to you?

?living at your expense.

I'd perhaps like to write to you about many things.

I profess the desire has passed to such a degree that I feel the pointlessness of it.

"I'm applying myself to my canvases with all my attention.

"They're immense stretches of wheat fields

under turbulent skies?

"..and I made a point of trying to express sadness,

"extreme loneliness."

Look after yourself

and handshakes in thought.

Yours truly?


Four days after writing his final letter to Theo,

he went into the wheatfields

and shot himself in the chest.

He managed to crawl back here and climb these stairs to his attic room.

Two days later, he died here, in this room, at the age of 37,

with Theo at his side.

Dr Gachet and the other doctor were

excellent and looked after him very well, but?

realised from the very first moment there was nothing anyone could do.

Vincent said, "This is the way I would like to go."

And half an hour later, he had his way.

Life weighed so heavily upon him?

?but as always happens, everyone is now full of praise for his talent.

Vincent wanted everyone to understand his art,

he wanted it, he said, "To say something consoling, like music."

Perhaps the only person who really understood him in his lifetime

was his brother, Theo,

who died just six months later of syphilis, at the age of 33.

They're now buried here,

side by side, in Auvers.

The ivy which seems to overwhelm their graves

also serves to bind them together.

It was once a cutting from Dr Gachet's garden.

Van Gogh only sold a few artworks in his life.

Today, they're worth millions -

ironic, maybe,

but Vincent seemed to know all along

what would happen.

We're now living here in a world of painting,

where everything is occupied by people,

who all intercept money.

And you mustn't think that I'm imagining things.

People pay a lot for the work when the painter himself is dead.

Caption: Channelography
Timing, editing: Graine