“I didn’t start out crazy, contrary to what many may believe. My life started out weird, what with my being named after my grandfather as well as a stillborn brother, only a year before my arrival. I had always loved to draw since I was a small child. There is a certain freedom to be found in the lines and imagery that offer a welcome distraction from the terrible sense of loss and hopelessness that I have carried with me since. I never dreamed I’d ever be an artist or that I would come to be loved as one of the world’s best.
The work I did at the art firm of Goupil & Cie, traveling back and forth from the Hague, London and Paris, led sadly to the happiest time of my life. I fell madly in love with Eugenie Loyer, who to this day remains the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is always in my mind and for that entire year she haunted my every moment. But the day I told her I loved her turned out to be the worst day of my life. Given the number of terribly painful and distressing days I have lived, that is saying something. There is nothing worse than hearing that the one person you love more than anything in this world could care less, though it does kind of dull the sting of finding they are engaged to another. From then on any feeling of anyone ever loving me was lost.
For a small time I taught in London. I did enjoy expanding the minds of others but found the beauty of various forms of art kept calling to me at the strangest times. The feelings of self-doubt never left me and I never forgot that I was not fit to love. I wanted to be a pastor, due largely in part to my father having been a minister in the Dutch Reformed where we were raised, very religious. Since the rejection of Eugenie, I had truly come to believe that no one ever loves you as God does. And how could they? We are all flawed. I even worked for a time as a missionary in Belgium. I had a lovely time sketching all the local farmers and such. It seems the love of art has haunted me always like a waking dream you can’t get out of your mind. No matter what you do to try to ignore it, it is always there deep inside the mind and embedded in the soul.
Though I never stopped sketching, I had never taken to paint. I can’t recall exactly what it was that led me to try my hand at it. I think, looking back, perhaps it was the comfort of colors. The way the various shades could brighten the darkest mood or complement it perfectly when it refused to pass. Dark moods, you know, haunted me every bit as much as art did. But there is just something about color…
My first attempts at painting were rather drab, with somber colors and earthy tones that often suited my darker moods. The Potato Eaters was my first work to gain notice, really. I must confess when it was criticized by Anthon van Rappard it did make me reconsider my abilities as an artist. Of course, hearing your work is not as good as you think it is, from someone you consider to be a friend, is never an easy thing to take. The doubts ate away at me though I did my best to push them to the back of my mind.
Moving to Paris, I think, was the smartest thing I ever did. For the first time in my life, I was content and as close to happy as I could ever hope to bewhile living with the debilitating loneliness that had seemed to settle deep into the pit of my soul. It was there I discovered the French Impressionists and it all came back to me. The desire to create hit me hard and I could focus on nothing else. Of course, those of you who know me best always knew I was a little…obsessive? Perhaps I did well in creating over 200 pieces while living in Paris.
Yet depression would still come seeping in at unforeseen times and those who claimed to love me would turn away in fear or disgust, sometimes both. Most people simply cannot be bothered to tolerate the moods of others, or any hint of negativity, for they are too caught up in their own worries. Who has time to waste on a negative soul in need of comfort? Who can love the crazy?
I guess artists are always doubtful of their ability and always in need of approval. It is the one thing I hate most about being creative. Nothing ever turns out as you’d like. Although I was ecstatic to form a friendship with a fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. He shared a love of art and a passion for life that bordered on perverse and for that I loved him dearly. The city life had begun to wear on my shattered nerves, the wormwood beginning to affect my health, and the years of smoking had caused a chronic smoker’s coughthat seemed to annoy most people. So I decided a change of pace might do me some good.
It wasn’t until I had truly started to notice the sun-kissed earth and vivid skies in Southern France that I began to actually crave colors almost as much as I craved closeness. The brightness of the land kind of settled into my soul, a nice contrast to the darkness of my mind that I had tried to keep subdued and hidden away. There was also a sense of freedom and wonder that I found intoxicating, and such unspeakable things of pleasure as would have made me blush a deep red in my missionary days. It was a lovely thing. A total departure from the gloomy, cold, and sterile attitudes thrust upon me during my childhood. It was the first time I had ever really noticed how beautiful the world can be.
I threw myself into my work and took delight in the bright sun and vivid colors of nature. Nature was a constant — even while surrounded by people who were anything but. People come and people go, but the earth rarely changes. I came to love color more deeply than ever and to be obsessed. Obsessed with painting. So much in fact that I created 300 paintings and sketches while in Arles alone. I thought often of Gauguin and dreamed of starting an artists’ colony there someday, but mostly I just worked.
In my loneliness I often sought comfort in the arms of various prostitutes of both sexes. I was honestly seeking love in the purest form anywhere I could. It was always an elusive thing. The only person who seemed to be genuinely kind and caring was Rachel. I appreciate her deeply but then you can never be sure if such people only care because they are paid to. Things would go smoothly at times, like the nights filled with Absinthe, wine, opium, and decent companyunder the city lights. Sometimes the brightness of the lights made you forget you couldn’t see the stars. But you know when the moments of despair bring you to your knees, there really is no one to give a damn. I didn’t. And I did enjoy demolishing my room, much to the dismay of my landlord. I got labeled a problem tenant but sometimes it felt good to just destroy things. Once, after gashing my hand after a drunken night alone and neglected, I decided blood was a gorgeous color. I did a tiny still life of poppies…the blood drying to a far darker shade than in real life.
Later, I lit it on fire and watched all go up in flames as I nodded off to sleep. The ashes scattering in the draft from the open window as I listened to the sounds of the night below.
Of course the anxiety and depression were becoming worse, stirred by a countless number of untrustable and uncaring souls bent on nothing but the satisfaction of self. At times the loneliness would become so unbearable I could do nothing for days. And on the worst of days you could never find those who were all too happy to pass the time as long as you provided them with drink or drug or some other strange and temporary longing of the soul. Sometimes I thought I should have never left the missionary. There were days I could write nothing and could stand the company of no one, but on those days I felt compelled to create…something.
I was thrilled when I learned Paul was coming to visit, and had high hopes that maybe he would help me build the community of artists I had long since envisioned. It started out well enough, it was nice to have company for a little while and I did admire his abilities. But he was controlling and opinionated and of course I was just a little mad and antisocial. After awhile my mood swings clashed with his need to always feel superior, though they did encourage him to believe himself above me in most things. I tried to overlook it, for it is hard to find people to trust,much less people to love , as flawed as they may be. I had long since come to believe that flaws were every bit as important to the character of a person as their virtues. I have always relished the things that make us…uniquely individual. I had come to cherish the time spent working and living side by side with Gauguin but it was my deepest fear that he would abandon me sometime in the pursuit of his own artistic endeavors. When you have been alone most of your days you do come to cherish the ones spent in like company. Never mind he didn’t really understand or appreciate the fact and thought he was above the company of such a clearly mad soul such as I.
It all ended the day I heard he was leaving and that my fears were very well-founded. I had grown tired of the criticism and the insinuations. And he had grown tired of my widely varied moods and so-called strangeness of character. I had began to believe maybe he was right. The locals had begun to see me not as an artist but as some sickly, disagreeable…thing. During the days and weeks that followed, the Rue du Bout d’Aeles became my second home. I avoided people in general and sank into the deepest depression I have ever suffered.
The thought that I’d soon be left alone as I had been tormented me to the point of madness beyond all belief. I passed the hours drinking heavily and indulging in the pleasure of the flesh as if they went deeper than skin deep,though there was no real closeness to it. Until that one fateful evening that is now shrouded in legend.
I had far too much Absinthe and I knew it. I just didn’t care. The world was dark and unkind and there was nothing but pain. Rachel had been trying to distract me as usual though it just seemed empty and cold. Love is one thing after all that cannot be bought nor faked. And she simply saw me as work. Then again,she had gotten good at pretending to care and at times it had been enjoyable but I was tired of the fake things in life and terrified by the thought of endless loneliness that stretched ‘til the end of my days.
I don’t remember the exact details,you know. I do remember the feelings. The hopelessness and loss and overwhelming sadness that left a deep feeling of numb indifference and darkened my spirit. I remember the gleam of the metal in the lamplight, and Rachel screaming. I laughed as she screamed so loud I thought she’d break the mirror on the wall. I didn’t feel the pain as my ear detached from my head, I did feel the blood spill out in torrents as the world went muffled. I remember thrusting it into her hand as she screamed naked on the floor with a look of sheer terror in her eyes. I told her to take it and keep it carefully. I honestly had hoped she would appreciate the gesture of someone loving you and trusting you enough to give you their very flesh that she might wear it on cord around her neck…but I knew she didn’t appreciate it as much as I would have. I should have expected it.
Staggering back to my room still in a stupor and relishing in the chance to finally feel nothing, the city seemed more alive than ever. The rain was falling lightly. There were a few people on the streets, everyone lost in their own worlds and worries. No one noticed the man with his hand to his ear who spoke quietly to himself of love and loss and God. Of course, in my recent state of disrepair I had grown quite unextraordinary and uninteresting to most of the world. What was one more artist who had went mad from the work?
Paul found me lying on my bed with blood plastered to my head and all over the sheets. I am sure it was quite a thing to find. I awoke the next day in the hospital and for days I asked for him. My latest action had appalled him to the point he couldn’t dare to acknowledge my existence. He lied and said he had returned to Paris but I heard the nurses talking in hushed tones and knew I had been tossed away and forgotten like a nightmare on waking. I had expected him to help me recover, but I should have known better. People do not have the time to care.
I spent the following months in and out of the hospital and at the Yellow House. The hallucinations and delusions seemed to never cease and every second was either delightfully blissful or pure, unspeakable hell. The things I saw and heard I could never repeat. Though at times I did enjoy the conversations from the voices. I was forever on guard. They kept trying to poison me you know. It got to the point I couldn’t even accept a drink of water. Everyone was out to get me and no one gave a damn. I was evicted when the townspeople labeled me the redheaded madman. There were innumerable moments of anguish and I had no sense of time. All I knew was there was nowhere I fit.
A couple of months later I went to stay at Saint Paul-de-Mausole. The former monastery with its cornfields, vineyards, and rural atmosphere was a much welcome change from the busy pace of the cities and I enjoyed painting the gardens and grounds. I found the people there most interesting. Each with a different flaw that left them outside of the scope of normal with a uniqueness of spirit that was beautiful and overlooked by society on whole. It was the first time I had realized that being different wasn’t the curse I had been led to believe and that freedom was a state of mind. I’d have fleeting moments of contentment but for the most part I felt trapped. There is no feeling like being forgotten. It was a feeling that would hide itself away at times.
There were moments of clarity; I’d work for hours on end and into weeks at a time and enjoy it for awhile. I had come to love nature as I had as a child. The blue skies and wind on my skin had come to mean more to me than the money I had craved when I first started my career as an artist. I could get lost staring at the clouds and for a moment I’d forget the pain. The despair never left for long and the times when I could do nothing annoyed me to no end.
It was July 27, 1890. The air was warm and the skies were blue, and the wind would stir the trees from time to time. The voices were back, telling me as they always did that no one loved me, my work was not good enough. They whispered terrible things in my ear and reminded me I had no one and nothing. No one seemed to remember I even existed.
I took a walk to one of the fields I had often painted. I’d passed hours trying to capture the wonder of it all on canvas. I had dozed on its ground to awake from the sweetest dream. A dream in which I was not alone. She was there, I did not know her name but I knew her spirit. It was an overwhelming feeling of safety and belonging and…love. Of being held close and tight by arms that adore you, that live to comfort you. In that dream the world ceased to exist and there was nothing but joy. I had often thought as a child with all my religious misgivings that heaven must be like that. I thought of that dream and saw her face as I laid my head on the soft grass and looked up at the clouds in the sky, the wind picked up for a moment and the voices got louder. All the terrible things, I couldn’t shut them out! The noise was deafening and it made me laugh, I had just gotten used to how things sounded since the…incident, and now for the first time since,my hearing was clear as a bell…the sound of the wind in the leaves of the trees was soothing as the voices got louder and louder, it hurt my ears and just when I thought I could stand no more I hear…her, whispering in my ear that she would love me…always, as the wind blew in my hair like a soft caress. In that moment I finally felt loved and my soul finally felt at peace. It was like all of the terrible things in life had never existed. She was smiling at me as she had in the dream and for a moment the voices finally stopped. Then there was a blinding flash and the world went black.
It is funny how no one ever appreciates your work til you are dead. It is of no consolation whatsoever really. You work yourself to the point of madness hoping someone will love you for it someday and in the end you still just end up…dead. Your work gains praise, but what does it matter when you are dust? It seems strange to me that often times the love we crave in life is only given after we are gone. Centuries later I am remembered for the work that drove me insane and accepted in a way I had never dreamt possible. And still when you get right down to it, all that really matters is love.”