THE ARTFUL HEALER : 'Cezanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Dr. Gachet'

Article excerpt

At the center of "Cezanne to van Gogh: The Collection of Dr. Gachet," on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until August 15, is the relationship between the homeopathic physician Dr. Paul Gachet (1828-1909) and the brilliant, short-lived painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). The story begins with the elder of the pair whose willingness to accept paintings in lieu of money for his medical services, coupled with his sincere appreciation for the most advanced art of his time, gave him a certain renown in the artistic circles within which both Vincent and his brother Theo traveled. Gachet had settled in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1872, a small village north of Paris made attractive to a number of artists with the arrival of the landscape painter, Charles Daubigny. The impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his family moved to nearby Pontoise in the summer of 1872, followed soon after by Pissarro's young protege, Paul Cezanne. Pissarro had known Gachet since 1871 and had called on him from time to time to treat members of his family. An amateur artist, Gachet exhibited some of his own work under the pseudonym, Paul van Ryssel. His home in Auvers was a gathering place for artists where still lifes were set up and painted, etchings were produced in the attic studio, and painting excursions were planned. Gachet built a collection of paintings, prints, sketches, artifacts, and souvenirs given to him by his patients, friends, and colleagues.

In December of 1888, van Gogh was in Arles painting at breakneck speed and producing some of his most accomplished works. Without warning, he suffered the first in a series of unexplained and violent seizures. Subsequently, it was impossible for him to live without medical supervision. Hospitalized after cutting off part of his ear, he was released, then readmitted after the local population petitioned to have him incarcerated. To avoid the police, van Gogh voluntarily placed himself in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Remy-de- Provence where he continued to suffer from periodic incapacitating fits. It was here that his disease was finally diagnosed as epilepsy. Shut off from family (most significantly his brother Theo, whose emotional and financial support was critical for Vincent's survival) and friends, the painter was desperate to leave the south of France. His brother worried about Vincent's condition and his own ability to manage a future crisis, so Theo proposed that van Gogh stay in Auvers under the care of Dr. Gachet. On May 20, 1890 the artist arrived in Auvers, met the doctor, and took up temporary lodgings in a nearby inn. In a letter to Theo written that day, Vincent describes the doctor as "being rather eccentric," adding that "his experience as a doctor must keep him balanced enough to combat the nervous trouble from which he certainly seems to be suffering at least as seriously as I. …