Magazine article The Spectator

Did the Doctor Do It?

Magazine article The Spectator

Did the Doctor Do It?

Article excerpt

Who killed Vincent Van Gogh? And another question: who painted Van Gogh's famous portrait of Dr Paul Gachet in the Musee d'Orsay? In both cases, the answer might seem pretty obvious, Van Gogh did it himself. But over the years an alternative perpetrator has been suggested for both (and also for a number of other paintings attributed to Van Gogh and Cezanne). As in numerous detective stories, it is claimed, it was the doctor who did it, that is, Dr Gachet himself, whose art collection is the subject of an exhibition, Le Docteur Gachet: Un Ami de Cezanne et Van Gogh currently at the Grand Palais, Paris (until 26 April), and soon to move on to the Metropolitan Museum, New York and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

It isn't, frankly, the kind exhibition which would lure anyone to jump on the next plane. Most of the best exhibits are generally on show at the Musee d'Orsay, and those that are not consist mainly of amateur copies of various degrees of competence. In addition, there is a good ideal of technical information - naturally in French. Nonetheless, it has a fascination both because of the art-historical conundrum it presents, and the rich eccentricity of the central figure.

Dr Gachet was a medical man with artistic interests under whose supervision Van Gogh spent his final months. On the face of it, it seemed an ideal arrangement. The painter was in a precarious mental state and in need of some intermediate way of life between incarceration in an institution and full independence. He might have lived with the Pissarros, but Madame Pissarro vetoed that, fearing for the safety of her family if the ear-amputator came to stay. So, instead, Pissarro suggested his old friend Dr Gachet at Auvers-sur-Oise, not only a specialist in melancholia, but also an ardent supporter of avantgarde art.' As a bonus, Gachet, born in northern Lille, could speak to Van Gogh in Flemish.

The more one considers Dr Gachet, however, the more unconventional he seems. He had private means and took ten years to qualify as a doctor. The lapse of time is to be explained, according to the catalogue, by the amount of time Gachet devoted to contemporary art. He got to know Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, and may have been the first person ever to buy a Cezanne. Cezanne lived contentedly in Auvers from 1872-4, during which time Gachet bought plenty more.

By the time Van Gogh encountered him, he had been a widower for years, and was definitely a trifle odd. He dyed his hair to the bright yellow shade we see in the celebrated portraits (locally he was known as Dr Saffron), and dressed in a military great coat and white cap. His house was overrun with cats and dogs (eight of each), his garden. with fowl; he took his pet goat for walks on a lead. He lived among pets, great Impressionist paintings, and sombre furniture (`Black, black, black,' Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo). For three days a week he practised medicine, homeopathic as well as conventional. The rest of the time he pottered about with his art collection, his print-making press and his own painting.

When Van Gogh shot himself after slightly more than two months at Auvers, Dr Gachet took charge. David Sweetman, a biographer of Van Gogh, has pointed out that Van Gogh had attempted suicide on at least four previous occasions. Was this another cry for help? Certainly, he shot himself in a somewhat imcompetent fashion, not in the head or heart, but low in the chest, damaging no major organ. He died two days later, of an infection. `The widely eccentric Dr Gachet,' Sweetman concluded, `seems to have decided to let him have his wish and made no attempt to operate. …

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