Largely on the basis of the works of the last three years of his life, van Gogh is generally considered one of the greatest Dutch painters of all time. His work exerted a powerful influence on the development of much modern painting, in particular on the works of the Fauve painters, Chaim Soutine, and the German Expressionists. Yet of the more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings that constitute his life’s work, he sold only one in his lifetime. Always desperately poor, he was sustained by his faith in the urgency of what he had to communicate and by the generosity of Theo, who believed in him implicitly. The letters that he wrote to Theo from 1872 onward, and to other friends, give such a vivid account of his aims and beliefs, his hopes and disappointments, and his fluctuating physical and mental state that they form a unique and touching biographical record that is also a great human document.
The pictures he created over the following 12 months—depicting blossoming fruit trees, views of the town and surroundings, self-portraits, portraits of Roulin the postman and other friends, interiors and exteriors of the house, sunflowers, and landscapes—marked his first great period. In these works he strove to respect the external, visual aspect of a figure or landscape but found himself unable to suppress his own feelings about the subject, which found expression in emphatic contours and heightened effects of colour. Once hesitant to diverge from the traditional techniques of painting he worked so hard to master, he now gave free rein to his individuality and began squeezing his tubes of oil paint directly on the canvas. Van Gogh’s style was spontaneous and instinctive, for he worked with great speed and intensity, determined to capture an effect or a mood while it possessed him. “When anyone says that such and such [painting] is done too quickly,” he told his brother, “you can reply that they have looked at it too fast.”
Disaster struck on Christmas Eve, 1888. Physically and emotionally exhausted, van Gogh snapped under the strain. He argued with Gauguin and, reportedly, chased him with a razor and cut off the lower half of his own left ear. A sensational news story reported that a deranged van Gogh then visited a brothel near his home and delivered the bloody body part to a woman named Rachel, telling her, “Guard this object carefully.” The 21st-century art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, however, examined contemporary police records and the artists’ correspondence and concluded, in Van Gogh’s Ohr: Paul Gaugin und der Pakt des Schweigens (2008; “Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence”), that it was actually Gauguin who mutilated van Gogh’s ear and that he did so with a sword. Whatever transpired, van Gogh took responsibility and was hospitalized; Gauguin left for Paris.
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Gogh, Vincent van: Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant)Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant), oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh, 1889; in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. 73.66 × 92.07 cm.Photograph by Jenny O'Donnell. Indianapolis Museum of Art, gift of Mrs James W. Fesler in memory of Daniel W. and Elizabeth C. Marmon, 44.74