In the waning spring of 1890, lodged in a corner of the Auberge Ravoux on the outskirts of Paris in Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent (as he preferred to be called) painted two portraits of his newest physician, Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. The second depiction is safely tucked away at the Musée d’Orsay, while the first grabbed world headlines when it sold for a record-setting $82.5 million to Japanese business tycoon Ryoei Saito, nearly one hundred years to-the-day of its completion. The eccentric Saito, intensely passionate about the portrait, exclaimed it would be cremated with him upon his death. He died in 1996. The painting’s whereabouts remain unclear.
Though not as isolated, estranged or hospitalized as his two previous years in Provence, Vincent, still suffering and melancholic, composed the portraits in the final days of his abbreviated career. He wrote his sister about the first canvas:
I’ve done the portrait of Mr. Gachet with an expression of melancholy which might often appear to be a grimace to those looking at the canvas. And yet that’s what should be painted, because then one can realize, compared to the calm ancient portraits, how much expression there is in our present-day heads, and passion and something like waiting and a shout. Sad but gentle but clear and intelligent, that’s how many portraits should be done, that would still have a certain effect on people at times.
“much later generations experience it not only as psychologically striking, but also as a very unconventional and ‘modern’ portrait.”
Preeminent van Gogh cataloger Jan Hulsker noted, “much later generations experience it not only as psychologically striking, but also as a very unconventional and ‘modern’ portrait.” While the case can be made for its modernity, this article seeks to demonstrate the doctor’s countenance, posture and composition were inspired by Northern Renaissance master Albert Dürer’s Christ as the Man of Sorrows (Staatliche Kunsthalle) from some four centuries prior.
True, there is a long and storied tradition of melancholic European portraits, including many adored by Vincent: from Giotto’s Dante (Bargello Chapel), to several other Dürer’s (Melencolia I, Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle), to self-portraits by Rembrandt, and perhaps most notably, Delacroix’s Tasso in the Madhouse (private collection). This article, however, will briefly layout three arguments that Vincent specifically held Christ as the Man of Sorrows in mind when he sat Dr. Gachet for his portrait.
First, painting Christ in the Garden of Olives had been gnawing at him for several years, since his time in Arles, when he reported scraping two failed canvasses due to the lack of an adequate model and quote, “Because here I see real olive trees.” Second, if you have ever sat for a portrait, you’ll know the artist positions you precisely as he wishes to paint you. This was especially true for Vincent, who wrote of those earlier, failed Gethsemane attempts, “But I can’t, or rather, I don’t wish, to paint it without models.” Finally, the placement of books and foxglove serve as transfigured symbols for Dürer’s three-knotted whip and bundle of birches.
A year at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole had not cured Vincent. His brother and caretaker, Theo, remained resolute in keeping him there. Until, something extraordinary happened.
Vincent became a celebrity, at least, among the Parisian avant-garde.
Art critic Albert Aurier’s praise in the inaugural edition of the Mercure de France, Les Isolés: Vincent van Gogh, coupled with ten van Goghs Theo had installed at the annual Salon des Indépendants — alongside Seurats, Lautrecs, Signacs, Anquetins, and Pissarros — where Vincent was hailed as the star of the show as masses thronged to see the brilliance of Aurier’s “tormented genius.” Vincent’s pleas to return north were finally granted.
On their first meeting, Vincent didn’t think much of his new physician, writing Theo:
I think that we must not count on Dr. Gachet at all. First of all, he is sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much, so that’s that. Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don’t they both fall into the ditch?
That Vincent employed a Biblical allusion is poignant so we’ll briefly examine the crux of his Christology and Christ complex. Vincent, his father and grandfather were not Calvinist, strictly speaking, but adhered to a Dutch Reformed niche, the Groningen school and its ideas about the nature, deeds and person of Christ. They did not prescribe to predestination, nor limited atonement, and even more blasphemous, did not contend Christ came to die on the cross, but to teach His perfection and lead us all into union with God.
And perfection, that shadow? For Vincent, that was art.
Vincent considered Christ the greatest of all artists, for He had made “living men, immortals.” In this same aggrandizing breath, however, Vincent cautioned his penpal, the artist Émile Bernard, whom had recently begun studying the Bible:
I can’t help saying to myself — well, well — that’s all he needed. There it is now, full-blown… the artist’s neurosis. Because the study of Christ inevitably brings it on, especially in my case, where it’s complicated by the seasoning of innumerable pipes.
An artist’s act of creation is not unlike that of a God. She raises something from nothing, forms her own rules and has total dominion over her subjects. Considering oneself godlike, however prescient Vincent may have been, is a neurosis all self-reflective artists must grapple. As Vincent struggled with the concept of his own divinity, his own role as poet, pilgrim and prophet in the world at-large, Christian iconography, again, manifested itself in his artwork as transfigurations. Renowned van Gogh scholar Debora Silverman succinctly stated:
Van Gogh’s art had evolved by 1888 into a symbolist project that can be called ‘sacred realism,’ a project of divinity made concrete and discovering the infinite in weighted tangibility.
This “weighted tangibility” included a series of portraits as “types.” Vincent strove, not so much to represent the individual subject, but the broader category, or archetype, each represented. In Arles, he painted The Peasant (Patience Escalier), The Poet (Eugène Boch), The Lover (Paul Eugène Milliet), The Pilgrim (Self-portrait as a Bonze), La Mousmé (model unknown), and La Berceuse (Augustine Roulin), but he had failed to find an adequate model for his Christ. Agitated, he reported scraping off two ill-fated attempts. A dire loss for adoring fans today.
Vincent’s Symbolist project did not mean simply copying past masters anymore than it meant attempting to create an iconography foreign to his fin-de-siècle place in time. In fact, Vincent had lambasted Bernard in November of 1889, in the last surviving letter to his about-to-be, newly-estranged friend, scolding him, “in order to give an impression of anxiety, you can try to do it without heading straight for the historical garden of Gethsemane.”
Seven months later, after getting to know his new doctor a little better, Vincent quickly made a one-eighty and considered him as close as a brother. He would sit this reflection of himself and paint him as faithfully as he could — with all his anxiety and melancholy — but also, with something more; something as subtle as sublime: the countenance of the suffering Christ. What may be most remarkable, is he did so, without “heading straight for the historical garden of Gethsemane.”
“Gachet’s countenance of melancholy is complemented by noting the posture in which Vincent sat his physician.”
Gachet’s countenance of melancholy is complemented by noting the posture in which Vincent sat his physician. I’ll briefly state, Christ in the Garden of Olives and Christ as the Man of Sorrows are not the same subject. Christ, while reflecting in the Garden of Olives (named Gethsemane) occurs before His trial and crucifixion, whereas Dürer represented Christ after the crucifixion. Furthermore, Christ as the Man of Sorrows has a richer Biblical history, dating back to The Old Testament and the prophet Isaiah. Vincent was keenly aware of this, evidenced in his Still-life with Bible. Painted to commemorate the passing of his father, it depicts his father’s Bible, open to Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant songs. Many Christians believe these passages foretell the coming of Christ as messiah.
The goal in Symbolist painting is not to conflate subjects and themes, but rather, to multiply them, through a “complex play of associations.” Vincent could never have painted a crucified Christ. Not only did his personal Christology eschew such a subject, but his gossamer sensibilities prohibited any such horrific replication. Vincent’s Christology deemed, while accepting His fate, Christ had suffered in Gethsemane as much or more than He would on the cross. Vincent evoked Gethsemane many times throughout his life and surviving letters, and in each instance he meant the trials of wandering the depths of sorrow and suffering. Curiously, he found his newest doctor, a brother, in a similar state.
“The side-by-side placement of the two paintings makes apparent Vincent held the Dürer in mind when he crafted Gachet.”
The side-by-side placement of the two paintings makes apparent Vincent held the Dürer in mind when he crafted Gachet. With so many similarities, it’s the differences in posture that are more striking. Whereas Dürer painted Christ with his hands open, Vincent painted Gachet’s closed. Dr. Gachet’s right hand is balled as it rests against his cheek. His left hand is facing down on the table, rather than up, as in the Dürer. Vincent was aware that Delacroix had accomplished something similar in his Tasso in the Madhouse. The tradition of painting Christ as the Man of Sorrows required a depiction of His bare torso. Delacroix brilliantly made an allusion to this as he featured Tasso with his shirt largely unbuttoned and splayed wide. Vincent took Delacroix’s tradition further by painting his subject’s torso fully clothed, and appears to nod to Tasso as Gachet’s jacket is unbuttoned at the top. Lastly, Vincent did not paint the lower-half of Gachet, in imitation of Dürer’s Christ. To do so would have been obvious and not of “one’s own time,” but of those yesteryears for which Vincent had derided Bernard.
Dürer’s three-knotted whip and bundle of birches, instruments of Christ’s torture are similar, though transfigured, representations in Vincent’s portrait. Gachet’s foxglove juts out from the glass at a similar angle as the whip and birches. Representative of digitalis, a prescribed remedy for heart ailments, it’s an allusion to Gachet’s profession, his devotion to homeopathic remedies and his “heartbroken expression.” The little, yellow novels are a motif common to Vincent. As seen in Still-life with Bible, in which he placed a copy of Emile Zola’s La Joie de Vivre, Vincent considered French, naturalist novels emblematic of the continued presence of Christ in his modern world. He carefully inscribed the books’ titles: Germinie Lacerteux and Manette Salomon, both by the de Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules. They stand as models of artistic brotherhood: the first, a cautionary tale of death in the city; the latter, a story of salvation through art. Recent van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith argued the novels:
Reassured [Theo] that this eccentric country doctor, with his funny white cap and too-heavy-for-summer coat, fully embraced the modern world of the mind, even as he worked to cure its inevitable ills.
Vincent’s Christology did not preclude him from painting an imitation of Christ, but rather, demanded it. Further, this necessity was the mother of his aesthetic invention; requiring him to transform the reality he saw before him. In Dr. Gachet, Vincent had found a kindred spirit, a brother, a man whom shared Vincent’s same sad destiny: to wander the world a man of sorrows.