In spite of all the torments of a life which ended, all too soon, in suicide, the painter Vincent Van Gogh enjoyed at least one, albeit intermittent, source of solace: the night, and what it represented. Call it, if you like, the comfort blanket of night.
There was something about the idea of the onset of darkness that nourished and calmed and also protected this so often tortured and febrile being. The fall of night set him to dreaming. When he was agitated, it served to calm him. It was a time to ponder and to reflect, to weigh up the happenings of the day just passed. Night too was a moment for the sudden bursting forth of creative energy – he often painted at night. And the extraordinary extent to which Van Gogh poured his creative energies into scenes of night and twilight is newly revealed in Van Gogh and the Colours of Night, a new show at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
What exactly was the matter with Vincent Van Gogh though? There was just one official diagnosis during his lifetime – that he suffered from epilepsy. But even as early as 1881 – ten years before he committed suicide - his parents were recommending that he go and see a doctor in The Hague because they were worried about his mental state. And what did Van Gogh himself think about it? ‘Well, he described his mental state in one letter as “vague,” Martin Gayford, a recent biographer, tells me. ‘The fact is that he behaved very oddly from early on in his life.’
After his death, and once he was proclaimed a genius, the theories came thick and fast, and they have never stopped coming. Madness. Terminal Syphilis. Alcoholism. Poison due to various ingredients in the paints that he used. Martin Gayford himself opts for a slightly different analysis. ‘I think that everything points to bi-polar syndrome,’ he told me this week. ‘Think of the range of his symptoms: hallucinations, depression, followed by exaltation and bursts of high energy, followed in their turn by troughs of despair, and spasmodic alcoholism. Yes, if he were alive now, perhaps bi-polar syndrome would be the diagnosis.’
Van Gogh speaks of the night time and time again in his voluminous correspondence. In a letter of 15 July 1888, written from Arles to his brother Theo (who himself died of syphilis within six months of the suicide of his brother), Vincent writes, lyrically, ‘there is hope in the stars…’. Here, as elsewhere, he associates the night with the afterlife. A little later on in that letter to which I have just referred, he speculates that after death, one might travel by celestial transport to the stars…
His reading – and he was, throughout his life, a tremendous devourer of books, and especially of poetry and fiction, in several languages – was often night-related. He sought out and often quoted in his letters, from fiction and poetry which speak of the night, and of its sweet and almost embalming influence. From quite early on in his life, his correspondence begins to refer to the night sky as a path or even as a map. He seems almost to be yearning to travel there. Similarly, buildings at night - a lone cottage in a hamlet, for example - with their tiny, welcoming lights, were, like the stars, a source of solace. Here is what he wrote in a late letter. ‘The sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, makes me dream. Why I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the spots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star.’
Before he became an artist, Van Gogh had planned to become a preacher like his father before him, and some of his early letters imbue the idea of the falling light of twilight with religious significance. In a letter of 1877, having just made a references to the Gospels, the young man of 23 has this to say: ‘The twilight says such things to those who have ears with which to hear and a heart with which to understand and to have faith in God – blessed twilight.’ This is three years before Van Gogh decided to become an artist. He had already begun to define one of his abiding obsessions as a painter, which was to capture the painted reality of darkness.
By the summer of 1888, the urge to paint night had passed from being a source of inspiration. It had by then become an obsession. In two letters of April of that year, he wrote to his brother and to his friend Emile Bernard about these yearnings. And then, in June, he said it all over again in the following words: ‘But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind?’ The writers that Van Gogh was reading thought the same way. They too were romantically infatuated by the idea of night. Here is a quotation from a story called Les Etoiles, by Alphonse Daudet, that Van Gogh would have known well: ‘If you have ever slept under the stars, you will know that a mysterious world awakens in solitude and silence as we lie sleeping.’
One of the portraits in the Amsterdam show is of his friend, the poet Eugene Boch. The poet, who, in the words of the painter, ‘dreams great dreams’ is shown against a rich blue night sky, complete with winking stars. The poet is set against the context of eternity. The presence of the night sky sweeps the poet up into a universal brotherhood of creative spirits.
But night was not always a source of peace, solace and nourishment to Van Gogh. The night could also be the hiding place of demons. In ‘The Night Café’, a painting made when Van Gogh was living with Gauguin at the Yellow House in the late Autumn of 1888 – the two men lived together for nine turbulent weeks - Van Gogh shows the harsh interior of a village cafe, peopled by drunks, and lit in the most garish of lights. He had stayed awake for three consecutive nights to paint it. It offered solace of a kind to those who needed it, but it was also a place ‘where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes,’ Van Gogh wrote. That interior possessed all the ‘ambience of a hellish furnace. It was meant to suggest the most ‘terrible human passions’.
Even more disturbing is a great painting called ‘The Starry Sky’, painted in that same year. Did Van Gogh really paint much out of doors at night? And, if so, how would he know how to differentiate one colour from another? ‘We don’t really know actually,’ comments Martin Gayford. ‘An early biographer talks of his having been seen out of doors with candles stuck in his hat, but later biographers have not necessarily endorsed that story...
‘The Starry Sky’ itself is a very disturbing painting. There is no evidence of peace, calmness or solace here. The sky is nothing but a whirling turbulence of hyper-activity. The terrible cypresses seem to be finger-jabbing heaven itself. ‘He did this painting at St Remy, working from his imagination in the manner advocated by Gauguin,’ Martin Gayford comments. ‘It’s straight out of his head. That church spire, and indeed even the landscape itself, don’t really belong to Southern Europe at all.
‘No, it’s not a calming image at all. In fact, I think he shouldn’t have worked in that way because it probably had a disturbing effect upon him. When he painted solid objects in front of him – such as a chair – that would be therapeutic. This synthetic image, straight out of a disturbed imagination, is likely to have opened a Pandora’s Box…’
Within a matter of months of painting ‘The Starry Night’, Van Gogh was dead. Night, so often a sweet and benign presence, had engulfed him at last.
‘Yes, and he himself ultimately didn’t think that those late paintings out of his imagination were very successful,’ adds Martin Gayford. ‘He was of the view that he worked better in front of a motif.’ Perhaps Van Gogh knew that it was better for him. Perhaps some part of him finally feared being sucked into the terrible, self-destructive maelstrom of himself.