AMSTERDAM — A doctor can be a consoling presence in the life of any troubled human being. Such was Dr. Paul Gachet, the physician, phrenologist, artist, and art collector (yes, he was a man of many parts) who became an intimate — or, as van Gogh himself once described him in a letter to his brother, a “ready-made friend and something like a new brother” — at the end of the painter’s life.
They met in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, where van Gogh lodged in an attic room above the Café de la Mairie for 70 days in 1890, before taking his own life on July 29. In part, van Gogh was in flight from himself and the terrible experiences of asylum life at St. Rémy, where he had spent the previous year. He sought a place of calm and rural solace. The doctor invited him to lunch, and became for a time a kind of trusted spiritual advisor. Dr. Gachet urged van Gogh to resume painting because through his art he would find ways of unburdening himself.
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Van Gogh did indeed resume working, and much of what he made, at a truly frenetic pace during those 70 days, is on display in Van Gogh in Auvers: His Final Months at the Van Gogh Museum, organized chronologically so that we can track this period of his working life, its shifts of themes and moods, as never before.
He made 74 paintings, together with works on paper, during those 70 days, and 49 of them are in this exhibition. The rest fall into three categories: too fragile to travel, too beloved to be parted from their secretive owners, or they live in Russia.
At the emotional center of it all is the remarkable and characteristically rough-hewn portrait of Dr. Gachet himself, bunched fist supporting his head, staring back at us intently with a look that van Gogh described as melancholic. (Others, as he conceded, might have regarded the expression as something of a grimace.) His entire body cants, as if woefulness is having its way with him.
Van Gogh demanded a great deal of portraiture, that very particular and limited way of seizing the human presence, and he repeatedly made it clear that one of his tasks as a painter was to create works that would come to be seen as the embodiment of modern portraiture.
What exactly does this mean? For van Gogh, a modern portrait is one in which mimetic representation is of secondary importance. It is a portrait that pushes at formal boundaries, that makes use of strong color contrasts in order to heighten its impact. It is a portrait that both sees and sees into, exposing the very soul of its sitter. It is a portrait whose immediacy will shock, but one that will have an enduring spectral presence so that, in this case, future generations will recognize the portrait of Dr. Gachet as a universal representation of melancholia.
But above all things else perhaps it will be an extraordinarily mannered portrait because it is sifted through the febrile instability of the painter himself.
Yes, it will also, in part at least, be a portrait of the portraitist, as indeed are so many of the paintings in this extraordinary, painfully intimate show, whether they pose as a turbulent landscape with swooping crows or the casually touching wilt of carnations in a glass.
Van Gogh in Auvers: His Final Months continues at the Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam) through September 3. The exhibition was organized by the Van Gogh Museum and a team of researchers and curators in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay.