The remarkable story of 20th century poet and author, George Hruby, who one day by circumstance, meets the 19th century painter, Vincent van Gogh.
In his own words ….
After the Great Depression of the 21st Century, millions of Americans had fled the United States and migrated to other areas of the world to begin a new life. A better life than the country they had left. These millions of rolling stones thrown out across the world ended up in strange lands to learn and discover so much. I was one of those rolling stones.
My new home had become my beloved France. Though I had French ancestry, I knew nothing of my own family past from this country. This country I now called home.
I have many times been called by people whom know me, a true-to-life ‘Forrest Gump’. Some have even referred to me as “George Gump.” It is because that for some reason, the universe has always plopped me right at the doorstep of some of the most remarkable moments and, world icons in history, both past and present. Situations and moments that are those one-in-a-million possibility. So many times, I have found myself brought to the most incredible and intimate moments with places in history and more remarkably, with individuals from the past that still move us today long after they are gone. One of those was Vincent van Gogh.
Growing up in America, I never knew who Vincent van Gogh was. As an adult, I knew of him only as a painter from France whose paintings sold for millions of dollars apiece. Beyond that, I knew nothing.
Having arrived in France as a new resident, my earliest beginnings consisted of road trips. Often, never knowing where I was going or headed. Every stop was always full of discovery. Discovery and learning that exceeded what I could have ever learned in America or appreciated.
On one such road trip with a friend, we were staying in Avignon when we decided to go exploring. We drove for a while along a highway till we decided to stop in a small village called St. Remy, the birth place of the 16th century author of prophecies, Nostradamus. We needed a break and my friend said this was a small and quaint village that I would like.
We parked at the tourist office in St. Remy. On this particular day, they had a morning farmer’s market going in their parking lot. It was just closing down as it was now noon. The village of St. Remy was situated on the side of a mountain pass. My friend pointed and said there were the remains of an old Roman town approximately one kilometer up from the tourist office. We could either walk straight up the two-lane main arterial to get there or take a path that looped through a neighborhood, depositing you at the Roman ruins which laid on the southern outskirts of the town.
As the universe would have it that day, I chose the side street that looped around and up the hill to the ruins of Glanum. Other than a man and woman screaming at each other from inside of an old house nearby, the walk was silent of sound and the streets, bare of people. We were totally alone, each of us looking around and taking it all in.
The neighborhood hung on both sides of the street.
As I walked, I was taking in so much of this strange and new land called France. Where medieval history lay all around me and always with it, it seemed the marriage of Roman ruins. A reminder always of the power of Rome. History that could not be fathomed in America at all. It only reminded me of how such a ‘baby-country’ America truly was when compared to the rest of the world. Where some countries held thousands of years’ worth of experience and, trial and tribulations that a young country like America could never begin to comprehend.
All alone and enjoying the walk along the French countryside of St. Remy, I suddenly came upon a marker to my left. A dirt road led away from me and through the center of a grove of olive trees. Way down the path, a building could be seen that had been built across the road.
The marker explained what I was looking at. Upon reading it, I looked up and was left completely transfixed on what lay before me. Perhaps it was the fact that where I stood had some sort of relevance of being “timeless.” This was my introduction to the Dutch Post-Impressionist, Vincent van Gogh.
You see, today, … hanging in the Kasama Nichido Museum of Art in Ibaraki, Japan, is a painting entitled “Route à Saint Rémy.” Painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1889, it today is worth over $50 million dollars. And in the Fall of 1889, he sat here all alone, exactly where I was now standing, … and painted this masterpiece.
The marker along the road displayed a picture of van Gogh’s painting done at this very site over a century ago. I was amazed that nothing had changed at all. It was as if any minute, van Gogh would suddenly show up and set up his equipment and begin painting. The scene before me was timeless. That was what struck me most. Its timelessness.
This caused inside of me a sudden and intense fascination of …. who was Vincent van Gogh? While most of his paintings today are worth millions and millions of dollars apiece, I was standing there wondering ….. who was Vincent van Gogh in 1889 when he created this painting right here?
What was he like the very week he painted this very scene that now lay before me? A man that I knew nothing about. This man whose work is so valued today. And while his work had never drawn my slightest interest at all, I was now enthralled as to how this man ended up in the middle of nowhere, here in St. Remy, on this dirt road, painting a woman walking toward him in the Fall of 1889?
What was here that inspired him to paint at this very spot. What did he see with this road? A path that the locals say is an actual old Roman road? The groves? This woman approaching him? What did he understand about this location that the the rest of us could not? What was going on with Vincent’s life at this moment that put him here on this dirt road, painting these groves? As I stood there alone, looking down this dirt road, I wished I could have known him when he painted this remarkable and beautiful painting.
As I later found out; the day that Vincent sat down right at this spot, … he had just suffered a very turbulent previous year in his life. A year that took a lifetime to get to; consumed with too much alcohol, too much smoking, poor diet due to horrible eating habits and, too much coffee, depression, and violence. Some might say madness too. All this occurring down the way, just 19 miles away in the small village of Arles, where he had been renting a two story, four room, house.
He was 36 years old when he sat just off this street, along this dirt road, painting “Route à Saint Rémy.” He would be dead just nine months later … after committing suicide.
How could this happen to him, I wondered? This master among artists known forever in time. How could someone so talented, a creator of masterpieces upon canvas, have wanted to end his life just nine months after sitting right here? Why, I wondered? How could he have done this to himself? To the world? And the more I wondered, the more tragically sad I grew.
The painting he did here was a masterpiece. The marker showed a copy of it. It was so beautiful. Entrancing with its colors and brush strokes. I was left breathless ….. and so sad. As if I wanted to talk to him right then and there. Wishing that I or anyone could have stopped him from ending his life shortly after sitting here and painting.
Vincent seemed to now be walking with me as I then continued up the street.
In 1889, the neighborhood that was now here, was not. It was a beautiful countryside with only a few buildings dotting the landscape. And, as I came to discover as I continued walking, Vincent had walked up and down this street frequently, stopping and sitting at various places and painting his masterpieces. He did this for several months. Up and down, … up and down this street … so many times.
When I followed this street along, all the way to the top of the grade, I discovered much more about Vincent.
For at the top of the grade was where Vincent had been living at during this time. It was here that he stayed for one year only. From May of 1889, until May of 1890. It was the (insane) asylum of Saint Paul’s. He had traveled here to St. Remy from nearby Arles, to self-commit himself for psychiatric care. This came after just months previously, in December, when he had cut off his left ear in a fit of madness.
* * *
Vincent had been born on March 30th, 1853 to an upper-middle class family in the Netherlands. The Catholic family raised Vincent with a good education, launching him at a young age into the job occupation of art-dealer. He moved to London working for a firm there but quickly became depressed with the business.
Vincent moved at the age of twenty-two to Paris in 1875, continuing to work for the art firm there. However, things did not work out for him and he was dismissed.
Then, making a career change, he decided to become a theologian. However, this failed when he could not pass his entrance exam to the University of Amsterdam.
By the age of twenty-six, in 1879, he decided to become a missionary at Petit-Wasmes, in Belgium. There, he decided to dedicate himself to a life of poverty, but this did not sit well with the church and he was ousted.
A year later, at twenty-seven, with nowhere else to go, he returned home. His father wanted him committed. Vincent then abruptly left home, floating around until his younger brother, Theodore (called “Theo”), who was himself an art dealer, convinced him to be tutored by a Dutch Artist known as Willem Roelofs. Roelofs in-turn, convinced Vincent to attend the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
However, the demons that haunted Vincent were now making themselves more known.
At the age of twenty-eight; after falling in love and then being rejected by a young woman, Vincent burned his hand severely to display how much that he wanted to see her and, as a show of his love for her. However, it was said that she turned him down in part, because he could not hold a job and, had no means to support a family.
In 1882, at the age of twenty-nine, Vincent then fell in love with a prostitute named “Sien.” When he met her, she already had a five-year-old daughter and was pregnant. Vincent did numerous sketches of her which today are displayed and known to the art world. A year later, his family convinced him to leave her which he did. It was said that many years later in 1904, Sien threw herself into a river and committed suicide.
In 1884 and 1885, Vincent fell in love yet again. This time, the woman was ten years his senior. It was said that the woman was very in love with Vincent. However, neither family would allow the marriage between them. Upon her family not allowing their marriage, she tried to kill herself with strychnine poisoning.
Once again alone, Vincent’s father died when he was thirty-one years old, in March of 1885.
Later, that same year, in September, in the tiny village of Nuenen, Netherlands, Vincent was accused of raping a young girl who had been sitting for him with his paintings. The local priest would not allow any more girls from the parish to sit for Vincent. From here he floated away once again. This time back to Paris.
By January of 1886, Vincent had now enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, established in the 1600’s. Vincent did not fit in well there and immediately began having confrontations with his professor, the acclaimed, Eugène Siberdt.
A famous story of Vincent’s short tenure there involved an incident where the professor had assigned the class an assignment to sketch the naked and limbless statue of the Venus De Milo. When the Professor finally checked on Vincent’s drawing of the statue, he found that he had instead drawn the naked and limbless torso of a Flemish woman.
Siberdt saw it as an act of defiance and disrespect from Vincent and he flew into rage. Taking his crayon in his hand, Siberdt marked corrections all over Vincent’s drawing, so intensely as to tear the paper. This-in-turn set off the thirty-two-year-old Vincent who yelled back at the Professor, “You clearly do not know what a young woman is like, God damn it! A woman must have hips, buttocks, a pelvis in which she can carry a baby!” He then left the academy.
Soon at the age of thirty-three, Vincent had now moved to the artists’ haven at Montmartre in Paris with his brother, Theo.
As Vincent’s life kept evolving, so did his art. His art style of painting began to change …. to morph. To begin to become the style of “van Gogh.” The “van Gogh” that we are accustomed to now, over 130 years later.
* * *
So here I was on this street in St. Remy, walking along where Vincent had walked and painted so many times, day-in and-day-out, for the last year of his life. What happened to him?
In 1886, he is living and painting among other artists in Montmarte, in Paris, and in less than three years later, he is here. Self-committed to an asylum in St. Remy. Without realizing it, he is hiking every day up and down this street, painting what the world will forever know as some of his greatest creations on canvas with paint. And months upon leaving here, he would end his life.
What happened to Vincent?
While painting in Montmarte, he decided to move away to the small village of Arles in Southern France. There, he had thoughts of opening up an art colony. He had grown tired in Montmarte. In two years there, he had completed over 200 paintings. However, he also left there with a smoker’s cough, dranking way too much, and his teeth were now coming loose. He was not in the best of health.
He arrived in Arles in February of 1888 at the age of thirty-four.
Once he arrived in Arles, he was renting a small two room studio over a restaurant which he did not like.
In May, he moved with Theo’s help, renting the right-wing of a small two-story building. It would later in time become famously known as the “Yellow House,” after Vincent did a painting of it and entitled it as such. The painting had also carried the titles of “The Street” and “The House and its Environment.” This painting actually remained in the Van Gogh family until 1962, when it then became part of the Van Gogh Foundation and was loaned to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It remain there today on permanent display.
Vincent immediately went around town buying up pieces of second-hand furniture for his new studio. The ground floor was described as where the kitchen and studio were located while upstairs, were two bedrooms. One was his and the other, a guest room although some described the bedrooms as merely large closets.
It is at this point that Vincent took a liking to a thirty-nine-year-old French Post-Impressionist named Paul Gauguin. Vincent invited him to stay and, live in the house and paint with him in the studio, which Gauguin did. At first, they both seemed to have a friendly relationship with each other but as each week went by, this relationship began to deteriorate very quickly.
During two years at the “Yellow House,” Vincent would complete another 200 paintings. Many are today considered masterpieces. It was here in Aries that Vincent discovered and began to immerse much of his work in the brilliant colors of yellow and blue. Colors that his works are today much known for.
Despite this, Vincent’s life was spiraling downward at the same time. At the age of thirty-five, his life had been a long list of failures. Both with careers and relationships. Now, in his little house-studio in Arles, …. through the swirls of cigarette smoke hanging in the air of his studio and kitchen, … lost in the blur of absinthe, and the killing of time at the local brothel down the street, Vincent’s life seemed to be, …. becoming lost.
He was indeed a “starving artist” for despite all the efforts of his art dealer brother, no one wanted his paintings. No one liked what Vincent had spent years spewing out onto canvas with paint … all that came out of him as an artist. His paintings were as his eyes saw the world. However, no one seemed to care. He seemed to paint for no one but himself. He lived in poverty. He was destitute and was entirely supported by his younger brother, Theo.
And now, his roommate, Paul Gauguin, whom he thought was so arrogant; Gauguin’s paintings were being accepted and liked by galleries and art critics whereas, no one wanted anything to do with Vincent’s work. Vincent did not follow the allowed customs and techniques expected of the world’s master painters of the time. Vincent’s works were different.
The more that Gauguin’s works were being liked and accepted, and the more that Vincent’s were not, the deeper a rift developed between the two men.
This came to an explosive head on the evening of 23 December of 1888. That night, Vincent and Gauguin got into a very heated verbal confrontation with each other. While it is unknown exactly what it was over and exactly what happened; Gauguin feared for his safety well enough that he left the house to seek refuge in the night somewhere else, scared of Vincent.
According to Gauguin nearly 15 years later, Vincent had followed him out of the house and confronted him on the street with a straight razor. Gauguin left and Vincent returned to the house. There, for reasons only Vincent would ever know, he cut off his left ear. While some historians have tried to say that Vincent only cut off a part of his ear, all witnesses in that day clearly stated that Vincent had cut off his entire left ear.
After cutting off the ear, he wrapped it in newspaper and carried it to a local brothel that he and Gauguin often frequented. There it is said that he handed it to a prostitute saying, “Keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me.” However today, it is believed that he gave it to a woman who worked as a maid at the brothel. She had been permanently scarred on her arm by a vicious dog attack, years before. Vincent took pity on her disfigurement and this may have had some connection with why, he too now disfigured, gave her his ear.
Vincent was found and placed in the local hospital for the loss of his ear. The next month, in January of 1889, Vincent was released and returned back to the yellow house. He now began to have delusions and hallucinations, including that he was being poisoned.
Vincent was now somewhere quite dark in his life. In March, the month of his birthday, the police came to his “Yellow House.” Over 30 townspeople had signed statements, complaining about the “redheaded madman.” In response, the police forced him out of his studio and home and, onto the streets. With nowhere to go, by April, a Dr. Felix Rey allowed Vincent to move in with him.
If things could not get worse, while living with the doctor, a flood swept Vincent’s “Yellow House” and destroyed many of his paintings. Vincent wrote at this time, ….
“Sometimes moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.”
I cannot imagine the anguish that Vincent felt at this moment in his life. Indeed, he had hit rock-bottom.
Grateful to Dr. Rey for taking care of him during such a difficult time in his life, Vincent painted a portrait of him and gave it to him in gratitude. Ironically, the Doctor didn’t like the painting at all and used it in his chicken coop. He eventually gave it away.
Today, Vincent’s painting entitled “Dr. Felix Rey,” hangs in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia and is estimated to be worth over fifty-million dollars.
The very next month, in May of 1889, Vincent had himself committed to the St. Paul Asylum, located in St. Remy, 19 miles away.
The asylum had originally been a 12th century monastery built for Augustine monks. It still contained a cloister. St. Paul’s was converted to an asylum in the 19th century.
Vincent was given a small two-room cell. One room served as his bedroom and the other, as a studio. He had 2 small windows with iron bars on each.
Vincent went to where he had always known all his life. Into his world of paint and canvas. There he got lost. There he found himself. There, he could be. There he could express to the world what he saw. And it always seemed to be … a world of beauty. Even if only a painting of a chair, or of flowers, or even a building …. it was always a thing of beauty to him. This was only magnified when he began to paint nature and the outdoors. It was all so beautiful to him. This is what he shared with the world in his paintings.
He wrote upon entering the asylum,
“I feel happier here with my work than I could be outside. By staying here a good long time, I shall have learned regular habits and in the long run the result will be more order in my life.”
In the first couple of months, Vincent was confined to the asylum itself. Not allowed to leave, he began painting what he had in front of him. The old monastery cloister, the gardens, patients and doctors. Objects. His hunger to paint could not be quenched. He would complete over 150 paintings in the next 12 months that he would spend there. Most of which would become his greatest masterpieces.
One of his most famous works that he is known for, “Starry Night,” was painted in his cell from memory. He would stare out his barred windows at night. He would study the sky and then, the next day, transfer it to canvas with paint.
After a few months, Vincent was allowed to walk outside the grounds and paint. His world became the very same loop that I was now on. Rues (avenues) Marie Gasquet and Pierre Barbier. His world would now be a one-kilometer diameter loop around the asylum. And from it, even more masterpieces. Most, now including what he loved the most – nature.
I was now inside Vincent’s world. Just a piece of it, but definitely … his world. This loop, this long street that wrapped up towards the asylum and around to Glanum. I could feel Vincent here. I could feel his last year of life although he did not even know it yet.
He had been doing so good his first six months at St. Paul’s. Having checked-in in May of 1889, sometime between February and April of 1890, he suffered a “severe relapse.” For reasons we do not know, Vincent completely collapsed mentally and emotionally. He could no longer even write. Though he painted till the day that he left there, he suffered tremendous bouts of depression, on and off, leaving him unable to paint at all sometimes.
He ate mostly bread and soup but loved his daily regiment of extreme amounts of coffee, alcohol, and cigarettes. It was said that he had even tried to consume turpentine and paint on occasion. His attacks with depression worsened. Some doctors at the asylum had witnessed Vincent have “attacks” which they thought might be due to a form of epilepsy that they felt he may have had. The attacks worsened.
By May of 1890, Vincent felt that the strict regiment St. Paul’s had employed with him, though had worked in the beginning and been a help for him, was now no longer effective. He felt that he had slipped back to where he was at before he entered the asylum. Based on this assumption, he decided to leave St. Paul’s. He moved to Auvers-sur-Oise (just 17 miles from the center of Paris), where his brother, Theo, resided and where he had set up a room for Vincent at an inn.
The inn was called the Auberge-Ravoux and was popular with renting out rooms to artists. Theo thought Vincent would be comfortable there while he also could have a doctor, who was also an artist, Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. This way, Dr. Gachet could also keep an eye on him since he had just come out of the asylum. Though only here for 70 days, Vincent would create 80 paintings.
Vincent took a liking to another painter living in Auvers-sur-Oise, the painter Charles Daubigny. He often visited Daubigny’s garden. It is said that he painted three copies of it, one of which is said to be his last official work. The three copies are said to be at the Van Gogh Museum, Hiroshima Museum of Art and the Kunstmuseum Basel.
On Sunday, July 27th, an uneventful day, Vincent left the inn as usual, to what some thought was a nearby wheat field and barn, to paint. Vincent loved the wheat fields. He painted many of them.
In this day however, … at this particular wheat field, Vincent took a 7mm pistol and shot himself in the chest.
Trying to shoot himself in the heart, the bullet deflected off of a rib and shot downward through his stomach and lodged in his back spine. Despite this, Vincent got up and walked all the way back to the inn. The owner of the inn and his family witnessed Vincent enter and walk up the stairs and to his room. They could tell something was wrong and upon the owner-of-the-inn entering his room, he found Vincent laying on his back upon the bed, ….. his knees up to his chin and, … groaning in anguish and pain.
Vincent showed him the wound and explained that he had tried to kill himself. Two doctors came to attend to his wound, but neither were a surgeon and without a surgeon, the bullet could not be removed. When they left Vincent, he was sitting up in bed puffing on a pipe.
The next morning on Monday, Theo joined Vincent as so did two policemen. They tried to question Vincent on the shooting and upon things getting heated between he and the police, the owner of the inn asked the police to leave which they did.
Theo thought that Vincent looked in good spirits. However, in just hours, a secondary infection set in and now caused Vincent’s condition to take a turn for the worse. In the last 24 hours of his life, Vincent suffered greatly. The pain was excruciating. By early Tuesday morning, with Theo by his side, Vincent died. His last words to his brother were, “The sadness will last forever.”
Vincent’s body was laid out in the back of the inn. He was laid in a coffin that was covered with a white cloth. Friends then covered his coffin with yellow sunflowers and dahlias as they all knew of his fondness of the color – yellow.
The man who had constructed the coffin for Vincent’s body, had once had his son sit for Vincent for one of his paintings. Though he had tired to do something good for Vincent, the coffin he built was poorly constructed. At some point as the body laid in state, fluid began to leak out of the casket. Carbol was then used to coat the coffin as it was often used as an anti-bacterial agent.
Directly in front of his coffin, they placed his folding chair, easel, and his brushes. The room was adorned with several of his paintings including one of a young girl in blue, against a blue background.
The very next day, on Wednesday, July 30th, 1890, Vincent van Gogh was laid to rest in the municipal cemetery in Auvers-sur-Oise. The Catholic Church would not allow a church service because Vincent had committed suicide. They only allowed the burial as it was in a ‘public’ cemetery. About twenty-five people attended a graveside service including Theo.
The room that Vincent died in at the inn was never rented out ever again to anyone. The inn today, is an operating restaurant where people can dine and enjoy many souvenirs from Vincent’s days there. It is said that since 1993, over a million people have visited his room there, … room number-five. It was restored to as it was then, the nails still on the wall where he hung his canvas’.
His “Yellow House” in Aries was bombed during WWII and completely destroyed.
St. Paul’s Asylum in St. Remy is today a museum where it is open to the public, and features Vincent’s original room or cell.
After Vincent’s death in 1890, Theo’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. Admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Den Dolder, Netherlands, he was diagnosed with a fatal brain disease. He died just six months after Vincent, on January 25, 1891 and was buried in nearby Utrecht.
In 1914, Theo’s wife, Johanna, had Theo’s body exhumed and sent to Auvers-sur-Oise in France where he was buried along side his brother, Vincent. Now, in death as in life, both brothers remained inseparable.
* * *
And so, on this street that I now walked on, that had somehow found me through circumstance, … I now saw as to where Vincent had spent the last year of his life at. It was here that his art had pinnacled but also, where his life was drawing so near to its closure.
Like so many artists all over the world, he never seemed to fit in. He was always different but then, most artists are. He was always an outsider but then, most artists are. His artistic expression was different from the norm and so never accepted but then, as it is with many artists indeed. He felt no longer wanted …. as many talented artists do. His life was a long list of failures …. just as many artists are. At the age of thirty-seven, he was left destitute and self-committed to an asylum. Indeed, a true ‘starving artist.’
Walking in his very footsteps this day, I thought of something a historian once noted about Vincent’s life … that at the age of thirty-seven, Vincent had had 37 addresses in his lifetime.
Somehow, I could still see him walking this street alone. His small 5’5 (1.7m) high frame, … walking as he did with one shoulder stooped lower than the other. His red beard and moustache, … large brim sun-hat, carrying his easel, sketch tools, and brushes.
After that day, I have forever fallen in love with his art. And like him, my favorite yellows and blues. Especially the blues. His brush and stroke styles on canvas … left his paintings with such a dream like quality. It reminded me of something that he once wrote:
“I dream of painting and then I paint my dreams.”
I was left with feeling like I had known Vincent my entire life. Standing just outside St. Paul’s Asylum, in the shade of oaks and olives, looking out towards the Roman ruins of Glanum, I was left with something that Vincent had once written:
“Art is to console those who are broken by life.”
Vincent has remained with me the rest of my life since.
* * *
A special thanks to Wikipedia who has improved greatly over the decades. It now provides a great source for source-documents which historians quick-feed on when pursuing research inquiries. Also, a quick source for source images on the subject matter.