The Eyes of Van Gogh

Genius on the edge of madness has been a destination of the path several times, including my article I am a camera - Vincent van Gogh. So I was interested to receive this email from Alexander Barnett:

I am the writer director of the just released film, 'The Eyes of Van Gogh." The film shows the horrific year that Vincent spent at the insane asylum of St. Remy. In the article 'I Am A Camera' there are some major discrepancies which I must point out. 'His period of intense creativity there changed the course of western art.' Vincent did indeed do some excellent work there but in spite of brilliant exceptions, his greatest work, by far, was that of his Arlesian period, Feb. 1888 to May 1889.

'During his confinement this remarkable institution encouraged his painting and gave him the facilities and space to work...The far sighted Doctor Peyron was practicing an early form of art therapy...Saint Paul de Mausole is an inspirational establishment that pioneered the treatment of psychiatric illness and it still continues today the therapies that fanned the flames of Van Gogh's creativity.' The institution of St Remy never encouraged Vincent to work, on the contrary, Dr. Peyron opposed the idea from the very beginning and with the greatest reluctance allowed him to paint.

I am very glad to hear that they now offer workshops in art therapy, etc. but this was definitely not the case when Vincent was there. The sole treatment was hydrotherapy-hot baths, twice a week. The idea of any kind of work was anathema. There were no books in the asylum, no distractions except bowls and draughts. Vincent found it loathsome that they were given nothing to do. As he said, they were like vegetables, sitting around all day eating, digesting and waiting for their next meal. If the authorities today claim otherwise they're lying. Vincent's letters prove it. Vincent suffered four attacks at St. Remy. After the final one Dr. Peyron forbid him to paint in spite of his pleading. It was then that he left St.Remy. For those who would like to see what really happened at St Remy check out my film, 'The Eyes of Van Gogh - Alexander Barnett.

Discussion and exploration is what On An Overgrown Path is all about, so I'm more than happy to publish this email; but I would politely disagree with claims of 'lying' and 'major discrepancies'. My article was based on a visit to Saint Paul de Mausole (which is when I took the photo above and the others in my article). The institution's own account was then checked against several independent sources. David Sweetman's The Love of Many Things - A Life of Vincent Van Gogh (Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 03405037260) corroborates the official version with passages such as the following:

'Peyron arranged for Vincent's studio room to overlook the garden and was happy that the patient should occupy himself with painting, provided he did not exert himself too much.'

Elsewhere Jean Leymarie's Van Gogh (Skira ISBN 0333242203) explains that Dr Peyron's reasons for stopping van Gogh from painting was due to fear that the artist would self-harm by swallowing the poisonous pigments. Jean Leymarie explains how ...

... during his attacks Van Gogh did no painting. He acted like one possessed, trying to swallow raw paint from the tubes and rolling in the coal bin.

As for the relative creative importance of Van Gogh's output in Arles and St Rémy the authority on Van Gogh, Jean Leymarie, writes:

Over a hundred and fifty paintings and a hundred drawings in one year betoken, not illness, but a heroic victory over illness and make Saint-Rémy, for all the interruptions he suffered, one of the highpoints of his career. "Never perhaps," said Emile Bernard, "did he paint so well and so boldly." ... After Arles there was no falling off in the intensity of his art, but it changed poles, it passed from color to form or rather to the movement of form, from the exaltation of color to linear dynamism."

The same picture seen through different eyes I guess. And here, to remind us of his genius, are the olive trees at Saint-Rémy seen through the eyes of Vincent Van Gogh.

Now read about an opera set in a mental hospital.
Header photo is still from The Eyes of Van Gogh, the middle photo is by Pliable and copyright On An Overgrown Path. The painting above, Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, is exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Bob, you refer to Jean Leymarie as “the” authority on van Gogh. No. He is one of a number of authorities. Regarding his comment on Vincent’s work at St. Remy as “one” of the high points of his career. Absolutely. But he didn’t say “the” highest.

Frank Elgar, one of France’s great art critics, in writing of this period says, “His own color no longer exhibited the boldness, purity and intensity. The admirable coherence and majesty of the Arles period are gone. Thereafter his work becomes as uncertain as his temper, with alternations of resignation and anxiety, doubt and hope, excellence and mediocrity…Touching as the paintings of this period are, there is less magic in them than singularity, more putrefaction than excitement and less originality than oddity… the last flares of his genius cannot be put on the same level as that of his Arlesian period.”

English critic Roger Fry on Vincent’s Arles period writes, “Perhaps nowhere else has van Gogh expressed so fully the feeling of ecstatic wonder with which he greeted the radiance of Provencal light.”

As to Bernard’s comments – I don’t recall reading this in any of his writings, but even so he himself was a relatively very minor talent so I don’t put too much stock in his opinion.

You say your article was based on a visit to St. Remy. The institution’s own account was then checked against several independent sources. Sweetman’s book corroborates the official version, etc. And what, pray tell, was Sweetman’s source? Probably the institution’s own account. Who do we believe, Vincent and Theo or Sweetman and the institution?

Vincent wrote to Theo at this time: “M. Salles has been to St. Remy – they are not willing to let me point outside the institution.” April1889. Theo, over the strong objections of the administrators, persuaded them to allow Vincent to paint and arranged that he should have 2 rooms, one to be used as a bedroom and the other as a studio. Both, mere dingy cells with bars like all the other cells. Sweetman's description makes it sound like a resort.

Reiterating my earlier point, prior to Vincent, no patient at St. Remy was ever allowed to do any work of any kind. Their whole philosophy was to keep all the patients as quiet and inactive as possible. Vincent again, “Above all I must not waste my time, I am going to set to work again as soon as M. Peyron permits it; if he does not permit it, then I shall be through with this place. … The rather superstitious ideas they have here about painting sometimes depress me more than I can tell you.” January 1890

For them to claim that they pioneered the treatment of psychiatric illness (at least when Vincent was there) is belied directly by Vincent’s own account. Again: “The treatment of patients in the hospital is certainly easy for they do absolutely nothing; they leave them to vegetate in idleness and feed them with stale and slightly spoiled food.” Sept. 1889. “The food is so-so. Naturally it tastes rather moldy, like in a cockroach infested restaurant in Paris.” May 1889

As to the people, Peyron included, who ran the institution, “Perhaps they would like nothing better than for the thing to become chronic, and we should be culpably stupid to give into that. They inquire a great deal too much to my liking about what not only I but also what you earn, and so on.” August 1889.

Vincent’s stay at St. Remy was indeed a nightmare. For them now to try to rewrite history is very typical and very wrong. I made The Eyes of Van Gogh to set the record straight, to show what really happened there and also to reveal the truth behind his relationships to his brother, his father and Gauguin. All from his point of view. Alexander Barnett

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