Why do art? For the immense intrinsic reward and the hope of touching others as the artist himself has undoubtedly been touched. The artist hopes to share his own attempt to make sense of his experience, with the aim of adding meaning to the lives of others. Vincent van Gogh was a perfect example of this artistic vision. He is also an example of how it can all go wrong. His early works depict toiling peasants and nature, but as he developed as an artist, he became obsessed with bright colour. He ended his tormented life by shooting himself with a revolver in a field filled with ripe golden wheat, the colour of which must surely have reminded him of the huge yellow sunflowers he loved so much and is so famous for painting.
Riddled with guilt, Van Gogh had always been unstable, but he became increasingly restless and troubled during his poverty-stricken time in Paris. Drawn by the sunshine, the prospect of a less hectic life, and a lower cost of living, he left the crowded northern metropolis and went to the warm flower-strewn Midi region of France. He was going to live quietly and capture the vivid colours and clear light so prevalent in the area.
The urge to escape is common among people with a strong need for greater psychological and emotional independence. Flight is a concretized response to the inner feeling of being smothered or hemmed in. Whether the strategy works depends on the personality of the person seeking greater freedom. Unfortunately, Van Gogh was unable to tolerate a lot of solitude, a situation that prompted wild self-obliterating overwork thereby continuing the state of over-excitement that life in Paris had inflicted upon him and which he had sought to evade.
The arrival of Paul Gauguin, who had come to share a house with Van Gogh, only made matters worse. Gauguin was famously hard to get along with and as the pair plunged into a thrilling exploration of expressionism, the interpersonal tension and artistic stress overwhelmed Vincent. He suffered an abrupt and violent breakdown from which he never really recovered.
Van Gogh would later sum up the results of his ill-considered move with these simple words, “My journey South was a shipwreck.”
Van Gogh’s nervous breakdown unnerved him and collapsed the artistic vision that had heretofore sustained him in the impoverished frustrating life of an unsuccessful artist. He had suffered a shock and now saw things differently feeling that art had kept him away from “real life.” The instinctual urge to marry and have children took hold of him. Artistic ambition had led him astray leaving him dependent on his brother Theo for financial support and with no profession other than that of failed artist. He had moved to an even deeper level of personal crisis. Theo was devoted to Vincent and brought him north again establishing him in a small village near Paris. Vincent, however, was never the same. He took to leaving his paintings strewn about where the elements might damage them and remained despondent until the end.
After his vision had broken, he declared, “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”