Vincent van Gogh: La Tristesse Durera Toujours


Vin­cent van Gogh’s Self-Por­trait with Grey Felt Hat (1887) famous paint­ing. Orig­i­nal from Wiki­me­dia Commons. 



Vincent van Gogh
Creative Phase ca. 18801890
Netherlands, France
Van Gogh—The Immersive Experience
Oil paint on canvas

“Art never comes from happiness,” writes Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, in Choke. The incentive to make art seems to be born from an inner war and enriched by an implicit commitment to visual expression. For better or worse, such burning pain was raging in Vincent van Gogh (1853—1890), painter of now world-renowned sunflowers. The self-taught artist from the Netherlands created about 800 paintings in just 10 years time.

Posthu­mous psy­chi­atric diag­noses sur­round Vin­cent like a cloud—or per­haps even a cloak of pro­tec­tion. In his own time, he was diag­nosed with epilep­sy, schiz­o­phre­nia and sub­stance abuse, topped with a hunch of bor­der­line per­son­al­i­ty and bipo­lar dis­or­der assigned long after his life had elapsed. Mania might have encour­aged his urge to paint, but sad­ness and fear found their redemp­tion in his warm colour stud­ies. “[I]nstead of giv­ing in to despair I chose active melan­choly,” Vin­cent wrote.1
But even­tu­al­ly, in 1890 van Gogh attempt­ed to take his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, a few miles north of Paris. Short­ly after he con­fessed to his younger broth­er Theo that for him, “la tristesse dur­era tou­jours” (“the sad­ness will last for­ev­er.”)2  Two days lat­er, he sur­ren­dered to death. 
His life was punc­tu­at­ed by unsta­ble moods and he found him­self tossed back and forth between waves of para­dox­i­cal emo­tion­al states with­out being able to get a hold. His intense long­ing for love remained most­ly unsuc­cess­ful, and he often act­ed out of impulse.3 Aside from his broth­er, with whom he felt a deep con­nec­tion, Vin­cent roamed through his life unable to form sta­ble rela­tion­ships, ran­sacked by love and hate, torn in half by black and white states of feel­ing, strug­gling to find his place. He nev­er belonged any­where tru­ly, but he sure did try his best. The first time I watched At Eternity’s Gate14(2018), I felt con­nect­ed to him in a way only a mad­man can be to anoth­er. But nei­ther him nor I were tru­ly mad. Just none of us knew how to live, either. 
It is not uncom­mon for bor­der­line and bipo­lar per­son­al­i­ty styles to over­lap. Feel­ings of chron­ic empti­ness, intense highs and lows, and a pro­found­ly dis­rup­tive inabil­i­ty to rely on a con­stant self-image are both famil­iar. Bor­der­po­lar is shown in about 20% of both BPD and bipo­lar patients.Many recog­nise their fears in Vin­cent, of loss, of unlove, of a frag­ile life that is always just bare­ly keep­ing on. Vincent’s doc­tor Paul Gachet wrote, “Very lit­tle hap­pi­ness fell to his share, and no illu­sions are left him. The bur­den grows too heavy at times, he feels so alone.”One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing artists who ever lived, it is worth it to dwell on van Gogh’s life for a moment longer and learn from the deep blue rich­es and sun­flower yel­low hopes of his world. 

“For me, life may well con­tin­ue in soli­tude. I have nev­er per­ceived those to whom I have been most attached oth­er than as through a glass, dark­ly.”6

Among his most famous paint­ings, between spring coloured sun­flow­ers in vas­es, fields of wheat glis­ter­ing against a dreamy blue sky, nights filled with stars and light, the night café or the church of Auvers, is a paint­ing called Self-Por­trait with Ban­daged Ear. Paint­ed in 1889, it is now at dis­play at Som­er­set House in Lon­don. The paint­ing shows van Gogh in a fur cap and a green over­coat with his right ear ban­daged. It was cre­at­ed in the after­math of an inci­dent which had hap­pened the pre­vi­ous year, shov­ing Vin­cent from the opti­mism of liv­ing in sun­ny, dreamy Arles straight into agony. Vincent’s dream of Arles had been to cre­ate a com­mu­ni­ty of cre­atives, but real­i­ty did not quite play out as he had imag­ined. His friend Paul Gau­guin, whom he had met in Paris, fol­lowed his invi­ta­tion to stay with him, but the friend­ship was intense, trou­ble­some and vio­lent. Fights were fre­quent, but all the more intense was Vincent’s attach­ment to Paul. Around Christ­mas 1888, as things did not improve, Gau­guin announced he would leave. Vin­cent was ter­ri­fied, his fear of aban­don­ment seemed at the height of its tor­ment. The grip around his neck tight­ened as he realised he would be aban­doned by his friend. 

“Self-Por­trait with Ban­daged Ear” (1889)

When a bor­der­line per­son­al­i­ty is con­front­ed with the threat of aban­don­ment, an unimag­in­able pres­sure locks onto them. For some patients, this pres­sure ignites a rag­ing, uncon­trol­lable anger; and oth­ers feel dri­ven to inflict self-harm. Van Gogh’s mood swung him straight into rage. In a rap­ture he fol­lowed Gau­guin to the street and threat­ened him with a razor. Imme­di­ate­ly after, his rage plum­met­ed him into self-destruc­tion and a man­ic psy­chosis, he cut off his own ear and deliv­ered it to his favourite pros­ti­tute, only to return to his blood drenched room the next morn­ing. He did not remem­ber what had hap­pened.7 If he had, he would most like­ly have not been able to recon­struct the intense emo­tion­al aggres­sions toss­ing him around like an adrift plas­tic bag in the cur­rents. He was tak­en to the hos­pi­tal that day. A few months lat­er, he paint­ed Self-Por­trait with Ban­daged Ear.

Every per­son suf­fer­ing from diverg­ing affec­tive states has a few key moments in their lives, defin­ing break­ing points that bring about a change. I believe end­ing the friend­ship with Gau­guin and tran­si­tion­ing through a bor­der­po­lar psy­chot­ic episode was the final stroke for Vin­cent. The peo­ple of Arles urged him to go to a clin­ic, not nec­es­sar­i­ly in the nicest way; they called him names, ridiculed him and were ter­ri­fied of his behav­iour. How­ev­er, the deci­sion to admit him­self to the men­tal asy­lum in Saint Rémy was his own. He desired to get bet­ter. And there, pro­tect­ed from his self-destruc­tion, his addic­tion, and his dis­rup­tive rou­tines he found the peace and qui­et to paint—no less than 150 paint­ings, some of which would become his most popular. 

“Though I am often in the depths of mis­ery, there is still calm­ness, pure har­mo­ny and music inside me. I see paint­ings or draw­ings in the poor­est cot­tages, in the dirt­i­est cor­ners. And my mind is dri­ven towards these things with an irre­sistible momen­tum.”8

A momen­tum which was much need­ed. Van Gogh didn’t start out as gift­ed as he would be towards the end of his career. His first job was with an art deal­er at the Goupil Gallery in The Hague, to help out his poor fam­i­ly. In 1873, he was trans­ferred to the Lon­don sub­sidiary, where an unsuc­cess­ful romance shift­ed his occu­pa­tion from an art deal­er to becom­ing a priest. He spent rough­ly sev­en years as a man of God, but even­tu­al­ly decid­ed to become an artist and move to Brus­sels in 1880, not entire­ly of his own accord, since it was the church that end­ed his con­tract. In Brus­sels, at about 27 years of age, Vin­cent became an auto­di­dact. One of his first famous paint­ings, Pota­to Eaters, was made in Brus­sels. How­ev­er, Vin­cent became obsessed with tak­ing his art to France. After nomad­ing through Europe, even­tu­al­ly, in 1888, he moved to Arles in the south of France. His phys­i­cal health was declin­ing, due to a diet main­ly con­sist­ing of cof­fee and absinthe. Vincent’s life hadn’t been easy up to this point, char­ac­ter­ized by unhap­py love affairs, a for­lorn and hope­less wan­der­ing across Europe in hopes to find his call­ing. Aside from his addic­tions, Vincent’s dis­po­si­tion for man­ic depres­sion, melan­cho­lia and lone­li­ness dete­ri­o­rat­ed, specif­i­cal­ly after the afore­men­tioned con­flict with Paul Gau­g­in in Arles. Even­tu­al­ly, he end­ed up at the Saint-Paul-de-Mau­sole asy­lum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He stayed there for a year and cre­at­ed 150 paint­ings. In the asy­lum, Vin­cent paint­ed what he could see from his room, which he was most­ly con­fined to, like ivy cov­ered trees, lilacs, and iris­es in the gar­dens. When he was allowed to paint out­side as well, he added Provence’s wheat fields, olive groves, and cypress trees to his muse. Star­ry Night, arguably his most famous painting,was paint­ed in the asy­lum. Vincent’s men­tal health fluc­tu­at­ed through­out his stay in Saint-Rémy. He didn’t feel him­self get sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter. After Paul Gachet sug­gest­ed to take him on as his patient, Vin­cent depart­ed for Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, where he even­tu­al­ly attempt­ed sui­cide and died a few days after. 

“For the star­ry sky, I still very much hope to paint it, and per­haps one of these evenings I’ll be in the same ploughed field, if the sky is twin­kling bright­ly.”9

“The Star­ry Night” (1889) by Vin­cent Van Gogh.

It is one of the world’s most famous paint­ings, housed since the 1940s at MoMA (Muse­um of Mod­ern Art) in New York City. In Star­ry Night, one install­ment in van Gogh’s Noc­tur­nal series, I believe Vincent’s mind and heart ful­ly blaze in stag­ger­ing beau­ty. The way his pain, spring­ing from a deep alien­ation from the world, love and self, is drawn into an almost med­i­ta­tive land­scape in Star­ry Night is unique. Look­ing at the paint­ing, I feel calm, seren­i­ty, even a pause of the whirl­wind in my own head. I won­der if Vin­cent felt the same when he paint­ed it. A work seen by some as a ner­vous man’s con­flict with his anx­i­ety, cop­ing with being tossed back and forth between love and hate and fear and hope by a bor­der­line heart. Believ­ing the view to be what he could see through his room’s win­dow at the Saint-Rémy asy­lum in 1889, Vin­cent must have found deep philo­soph­i­cal com­fort in the night sky rest­ing over the town he had been chased out of. The bright­ly shin­ing moon and sur­round­ing stars are almost inva­sive in nature, an inter­rup­tion of the blan­ket of dark­ness and calm that man­ages to set­tle over and soothe a tur­bu­lent heart. The whirling clouds pass­ing through the star­ry sky, on the oth­er hand, seem as soft and bliss­ful as a light sum­mer wind gen­tly pass­ing over the skin. In front of them lies the town, final­ly qui­et, for a long moment lay­ing to rest all neg­a­tive feelings.

Oth­er inter­pre­ta­tions read into Vincent’s Star­ry Night a sense of rest­less­ness, a very ner­vous and strained state of mind fleshed out by the play of light and dark­ness. In those read­ings, the vil­lage below rep­re­sents the calm he sought, with the house’s lit win­dows rep­re­sent­ing a guid­ing hope towards the future.

“I def­i­nite­ly want to paint a star­ry sky now. It often seems to me that the night is even more rich­ly coloured than the day, coloured in the most intense vio­lets, blues and greens.

If you look care­ful­ly you’ll see that some stars are lemo­ny, oth­ers have a pink, green, for­get-me-not blue glow. And with­out labour­ing the point, it’s clear that to paint a star­ry sky it’s not near­ly enough to put white spots on blue-black,”

van Gogh describes his fas­ci­na­tion with the night time sky in a 1888 let­ter.10 It would not be unusu­al for patients suf­fer­ing from men­tal health issues to seek refuge in the night sky’s poet­ry, and its many stars which seem to be sewn onto the rich­est of dark fabrics. 

Com­po­si­tion­wise, Star­ry Night invites the eye to wan­der and fol­low its lay­ered arrange­ment of the dom­i­nant night sky; a cypress tree likened to the shape of flames on the left and the vil­lage fram­ing the paint­ing on the right. What can­not escape one’s per­cep­tion are the whirling forms that lend the sky a dynam­ic that ren­ders it almost alive as one observes it. Thick strokes melt into shades of yel­low, white and blue. Van Gogh’s brush­strokes, arrange­ment of light and colour and strong styl­iza­tion of what he saw in the night sky emit an almost hal­lu­cino­genic effect. If one suc­cumbs to Star­ry Night long enough, the paint­ing might just start mov­ing. One might even call it an abstract approach to paint­ing the scene, per­haps brought about by his pre­vi­ous close friend­ship with Gau­guin. Some­thing that in itself has such strength to stir people’s emo­tions as the night sky is fil­tered through Vincent’s pain and long­ing into a psy­che­del­ic, mag­nif­i­cent expe­ri­ence that leaves you want­i­ng to engage with it.

“The fish­er­men know that the sea is dan­ger­ous and the storm ter­ri­ble, but they have nev­er found these dan­gers suf­fi­cient rea­son for remain­ing ashore”11—The end of van Gogh’s story 

On a sum­mer day in July 1890, Vin­cent left the inn in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he had stayed dur­ing his odd friend­ship with his doc­tor Gachet. When he came back lat­er that day, he hid his blood­ied bel­ly with his hands and pushed past the Inn’s patrons. He hob­bled labo­ri­ous­ly up the stairs to his room, fol­lowed by the Inn’s own­er, Gus­tave Ravoux. To him he con­fessed that he had injured him­self. As his hands lift­ed from the wound, Gus­tave saw the bul­let wound van Gogh had inflict­ed on him­self. Imme­di­ate­ly his broth­er Theo was informed, buried in whose arms Vin­cent final­ly died two days lat­er.12 

Van Gogh’s death remains curi­ous. Con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries twine around it like the diag­noses around Vincent’s heart. It is intu­itive to assume that Vin­cent had shot him­self, a lone­ly end to a lone­ly life, a final, des­per­ate tri­umph over one’s own demons. The self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy that the arche­type of the artist always seems to car­ry with him. This seems to be the answer he want­ed the world to know, the con­fes­sion he gave to the police, to Gus­tave and to Theo. But peo­ple argue that a num­ber of details of van Gogh’s death do not add up to sui­cide, such as the angle from which he was shot.12,13 

Vin­cent had alleged­ly been more sta­ble in Auvers-sur-Oise than he had been in pre­vi­ous years. “‘I feel absolute­ly calm and in a nor­mal state’. This is what he writes me six weeks before he’s dead. How does a man go from being absolute­ly calm to being sui­ci­dal in six weeks?” pon­ders Irish come­di­an Chris O’Dowd’s char­ac­ter, a post­man, in 2017’s Lov­ing Vin­cent.12 

Van Gogh was at odds everywhere—in the church, in the artis­tic scene in Paris, in the com­mu­ni­ty of Arles, and also in Auvers-sur-Oise. In Auvers-sur-Oise, not every­thing was bad. He car­ried on a gen­tle romance with Gachet’s daugh­ter, felt tru­ly at home in Gustave’s Inn, and was so close to his broth­er Theo. Even if his attempt to belong was not always suc­cess­ful, there were moments of hap­pi­ness for Vin­cent, moments of peace. Did his sui­cide arise not from impulse, but rea­son? Did he calm­ly decide to put an end to his life? Or was there a per­son with whom he was in con­flict, even, per­haps, with his doc­tor Gachet, who envied his abil­i­ties and him­self led a failed artist’s life? For peo­ple with affec­tive dis­or­ders, it often doesn’t take a sharp trig­ger, a loud snap, to take the final step to the end. Even if Vin­cent did not shoot him­self, it was his deci­sion to sur­ren­der to death over the course of two days. “The sad­ness will last for­ev­er,” he con­fessed.2 

Sun­shine through bro­ken glass

There is beau­ty in a heart as wild and for­lorn as Vincent’s. In fact, due to his sen­si­tiv­i­ty, his emo­tion­al inten­si­ty and his dark depres­sion he was able to not only appre­ci­ate the sun­flower fields and the tur­bu­lent night sky, but he brought them to life. He became absorbed in them, trans­formed them into raw beau­ty and cre­at­ed works that to this day move not only those hearts that have suc­cumbed to affec­tiv­i­ty in the same way.  He saw the sun through bro­ken glass, but any­one who has ever looked at the world through shat­tered prisms knows of all the facets that remain obscured in the shad­ows for every­one else.

“What am I in the eyes of most people—a nonen­ti­ty, an eccen­tric or an unpleas­ant person—somebody who has no posi­tion in soci­ety and nev­er will have, in short, the low­est of the low. All right, then—even if that were absolute­ly true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccen­tric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”8

Vin­cent van Gogh’s Vase with Three Sun­flow­ers (1888)


Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written July 1880 in Cuesmes. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 133.
The sadness will last forever” Theo van Gogh. Letter to Elisabeth van Gogh. Written 5 August 1890 in Paris. Translated and edited by Robert Harrison.
3 Gunderson, J. G., & Links, P. S. (2008). Borderline personality disorder: A clinical guide. American Psychiatric Publishing.
Memoir of Johanna Bongers
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to His Parents, Auvers-sur-Oise, c. 12 June 1890
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, 21 July 1882
Letters to Theo van Gogh, Date: Arles, Tuesday, 25 September 1888, 687 (691, 541a): To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Tuesday, 25 September 1888. — Vincent van Gogh Letters
10 Letter to Willemien van Gogh, Date: Arles, Sunday, 9 and about Friday, 14 September 1888, 678 (681, W7): To Willemien van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 9 and about Friday, 14 September 1888. — Vincent van Gogh Letters
11 Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh, 16 May 1882
12 Loving Vincent. (2017). [Film]. Poland, UK.
13 Vincent van Gogh’s Death: Suicide or Murder? – The OLu MUSE
14 At Eternity’s Gate. (2018). USA, France.

Mer­cy Fer­rars is a MA grad­u­ate in phi­los­o­phy and writes fic­tion, poet­ry and non-fic­tion essays. She is mad­ly in love with Scot­land, dogs and Bojack Horseman.