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Vincent van Gogh

"La tristesse..." (May 1890–July 1890)

St. Remy (May 1889–May 1890)

Epilogue: Van Gogh's Legacy

Beginning with portraits of the families of Dr. Gachet and the innkeeper Ravoux and landscape paintings of the surrounding wheat fields, Van Gogh finished at least seventy paintings in the seventy days he lived in Auvers, the final days of his life. He worked furiously and with total focus and concentration for the beginning of the summer of 1890, avoiding any serious attacks, although he slowly began to show signs of depression and erratic behavior, and his letters to Theo had again become less lucid and coherent after Theo, with his wife and son, visited his brother in early June. His Docteur Gachet is a particularly well-known example of his Auvers portraits, in which he believed he had captured "the heart-broken expression of our time" (L 638). It was at this time, in June 1890, that he wrote to his sister Wil that he "should like to paint portraits which would appear after a century to people living then as apparitions" (LW 22, June 1890), an objective which he undoubtedly realized with ghostly pictures like Two Children, Peasant Woman in a Wheatfield, Mademoiselle Gachet at the Piano, and his eerie Adeline Ravoux portraits. At the end of June, Vincent made a quick trip to Paris to visit Theo, who was ill and having business troubles, as well as Toulouse-Lautrec and the writer Aurier, but he left in a rush after bickering with his brother about the condition and storage of his paintings.

Regardless of his declining psychological state, he was competent enough to harness his formidable, but debilitating, creative powers to complete a series of double-square canvasses, a totally new format for him. These forty-by-twenty horizontal paintings were his most daring landscapes yet, near-abstract masterpieces of kinetic brushwork and radically distilled and simplified form. These empty, alien, almost apocalyptically bleak vistas were meant "to express sadness and extreme loneliness" (L 649). Emotionally potent and seemingly spontaneously executed, these final paintings force an encounter of forceful immediacy upon the viewer, and their style is an incredibly prescient prediction of Abstract Expressionism sixty years later. Paintings as sublime and stately as the geometrically elemental Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky, the dark and brooding Crows Over the Wheat Field, the serene Field with Haystacks, and the sinuously lyrical abstraction Roots and Tree Trunks stand among van Gogh's greatest and most innovative accomplishments, the apotheosis of his interest in landscape.

On July 23, 1890, Vincent wrote his brother a strange letter claiming that he'd "rather write...about a lot of things, but the desire to do so has completely left," and cryptically warning that "the painters themselves are fighting more and more with their backs to the wall" (L 651). This final letter to Theo is enigmatic, but it seems to indicate the total mental and physical collapse of a man who had essentially destroyed himself in order to exercise his creative genius to its exhausting, devastating capacity. On July 27, 1890, Vincent wandered behind a haystack in one of the wheat fields through which he strolled daily and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He was able to stagger back to the inn where he was staying, repeatedly falling and forcing himself to his feet again, and he lay down in the bed in his attic room without telling anyone about his injury. Eventually the innkeeper Ravoux found him and called Dr. Gachet, who had to contact Theo through his business address at the art firm's gallery, because Vincent refused to give him his brother's address. When his brother arrived, Vincent explained, "La tristesse durera toujours," or "the sadness will last forever," and told him right before he succumbed, "I wish I could die like this."

With a bullet lodged beneath his heart and after one final epileptic attack, Vincent died on July 29, 1890, two days after he shot himself. Theo was at his side. His funeral in Auvers was attended by several of his artist friends and acquaintances from Paris, but the church service was canceled because he had committed suicide. Bernard organized a memorial show of Van Gogh's work in Paris in September. By October of 1890, Theo himself had experienced a mental and physical breakdown due in part to advanced syphilis, dying in January 1891 in Utrecht, The Netherlands. In 1914, Theo's widow Johanna had her husband's body exhumed so that it could be buried next to Vincent's in Auvers.

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