Vincent’s Madness (It’s about time we talked about it)
A month after Vincent recovered from the infamous ear incident in Arles at the end of 1888, the town got together and signed a petition to kick him out of Arles and send him to an asylum. Upon actually reading the petition, we find their accusations for him being mentally unstable are based upon 1) his drinking irresponsibly and 2) touching women in public inappropriately without their permission. There is little doubt of exaggeration here nor any doubt that the town had whipped itself up into a frenzy.
Of the cutting of the ear itself, there is still to this day no evidence that can prove how such a thing occurred. I personally find it just as likely that Gauguin had severed part of the ear as that Vincent had (note that it is not the whole ear!), especially given that they had a fight, and Gauguin left town abruptly that night. Gauguin also changed his story several times after the fact, adding that Vincent threatened him with a razor in an account written ten years later. But most importantly, no one knows what happened. Everything is speculation.
Saint Paul de Mausole
Now we can move on to my visit to this place. Although nearly all paintings executed during the year Vincent stayed at the asylum (there were over 150!) list their location as Saint Rémy, that is actually the name of the nearby town. Saint Paul de Mausole is the name of the asylum. I am not quite sure what I expected, but the area was exquisitely beautiful. Indescribable, actually.
Immediately, I recognized the groves of olive trees that greeted me. You depicted these trees dozens of times over the course of 1889 in drawings and paintings, Vincent.
Olive Trees, 1889
I remember a friend of mine telling me that this version (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) was an example of one of your “ugly” paintings. I smiled. He pointed out the purple in the ground as evidence. I told him that sometimes, shadows are purple. I think you may have smiled too. The olive trees were just as minutely studied by you as the cypresses…
Upon approaching Saint Paul, it became apparent that once again there were signs marking the spots where Vincent had ventured to paint. He was allowed, with accompaniment, to walk up to an hour beyond the walls of the asylum. I am sure he never imagined the main road here being named Avenue Vincent van Gogh.
As one of the signs put it:
The fact that van Gogh was allowed to leave Saint Paul to go and paint is a sign of the consideration felt for him by the medical staff and the nuns of Saint Paul de Mausole, particularly his great friend sister Epiphane, at a time when psychiatry was more concerned with restraint than treatment.
My heart warmed to know you had a friend here… And so I followed your footsteps, past the asylum walls.
Often recognizing the shapes of the landscape…
Trees in the Garden of Saint Paul Hospital , 1889
And sensing your spirit…
And full as ever.