VI. Why did Gauguin propagate Van Gogh's "insanity"?


To cut off one's own ear must be regarded as an act of madness. And all those who believed that van Gogh had indeed committed such an act, concluded that he must have been insane. Gauguin, in order to render Vincent's self-mutilation somewhat plausible, strenuously propagated the rumour of Van Gogh's "madness" and kept telling and writing about it for the rest of his life.

Back in Paris, he gave Emile Bernard such a vivid account of van Gogh's "insanity" that Bernard was completely bewildered and wrote to Albert Aurier that he was almost going mad himself after what Gauguin had told him about his friend. Hearing it must have sounded incredible to him – in the true sense of the word – and the alleged madness was the only plausible explanation. Gauguin had managed to make Bernard believe that Vincent, in extreme religious mania, had come to consider himself the Holy Spirit, Christ or even God, a blasphemy a sane Van Gogh would hardly be capable of.

It is important to mention that no such descriptions about Van Gogh's behaviour can be found in his medical records or were mentioned by doctors who treated him. Gauguin might have told the police in Arles similar stories in order to divert all suspicion from himself, and to explain why he had to avoid facing his colleague and to take a French leave from Arles: the sight of him might be fatal to this madman. It worked in Gauguin's favour that Van Gogh had suffered a breakdown and, for more than a week after the incident, was incapacitated and unable to express himself clearly. Used to drinking alcohol regularly, his strange behaviour during his first stay at the hospital can partly be explained also by withdrawal symptoms.

But for Gauguin it was vital to stress Van Gogh's "insanity". Even after Vincent's death, when in October 1890 Bernard, Sérusier and other friends organised a commemorative exhibition for Van Gogh in Paris, Gauguin tried to prevent it, arguing that it was not advisable now to remind people "of Vincent and his madness" (Gauguin to Emile Bernard, October 1890; VGM J 6875). He reiterated Vincent's "madness" in his article "Essais d'Art libre" (January 1894) and in his notes for "Diverses Choses" (1896/97). And shortly before his death, in his memoirs "Avant et Après" (1903), Gauguin counted Vincent and Theo among the people he was in contact with and who had "gone mad". He illustrated that by the doubtful claim that Vincent should have written on the wall of their studio:
"Je suis Saint Esprit – Je suis sain d'esprit"
(I am the Holy Spirit – I am of sound mind);
and by his report about Vincent's insane act of self-mutilation.
(Gauguin, Intimate Journals, p. 11-21).

It is significant to note that, while Gauguin told everyone everywhere about Vincent's insanity, he said just the opposite to Theo: Theo wrote to his fiancée Jo Bonger:
"I sense from the letters from home that their words of sympathy, all except Wil's, barely disguise their conviction that he was actually insane all long. Here, Degas, Gauguin & André are the only people in my circle who do not share this view".16
This casts a telling light on Gauguin's adaptive tactics and on his "honesty".

The exact nature of Vincent's illness remains controversial.17 It is known that he suffered from a disease that appeared repeatedly, and in shorter intervals after December 1888, in seizures characterised by physical and psychological blackouts. Between December 1888 and April 1890, six such fits are documented, lasting for periods between seven and seventy days. These fits appeared suddenly and ended suddenly, and during the intervals, Van Gogh acted and behaved as normally as ever. The doctors at the time diagnosed a special kind of epilepsy.

In any case, considering his invariable lucidity during the intervals between the fits, in view of the clarity of thought and expression in his letters, in view of his artistic creativity up to the last days of his life, it is not appropriate to conclude that Vincent Van Gogh was actually insane. But Van Gogh's "insanity" remains an integral part of the myth about this ingenious and unfortunate artist who is said to have cut off his ear in a fit of madness.


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16. Theo Van Gogh to Jo Bonger, 1 January 1889, Brief Happiness, p. 77.

17. see the symposion at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, September 2016, in connection with the exhibition "On the Verge of Insanity – Van Gogh and his Illness". 35 international experts, psychiatrists, other medical professionals and art historians had ruled out a number of possible mental illnesses, though the underlying cause of Van Gogh`s illness remains unknown. Synopsis by Judith Schlesinger: "After two days of intense small groups debates and discussions we determined that Vincent did not have a mental illness after all", see Creativity Post, Oct.03, 2016