On May 2, 1889, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo from the hospital in Arles with an improbable plan. He had decided that, for various reasons, the best thing would be for him to enlist in the army. Vincent was worried that if he attempted to do so on the spot, he might be rejected because of what he termed “his accident”. And, indeed, it is likely that he would have been. Just before Christmas the previous year he had suffered his celebrated crisis, culminating in the auto-amputation of part of his ear.

Since then he had had a series of mental breakdowns — involving, among other symptoms, auditory hallucinations and the paranoid fear that his neighbours were trying to poison him. He had spent most of the year to date under medical supervision.

The paradox and mystery — one of the greatest in art history — is that during the months leading up to this disaster, and even after it except during periods of severe dementia, he had continued to work, producing radiant masterpieces, now world famous, such as Vincent’s Chair and Gauguin’s Chair — both from November 1888 — which will be included in the remarkable exhibition that opens at the Royal Academy later in the month. No doubt the public will pour into Burlington House to see this, the most important exhibition of work by this supreme artist that London has seen in 40 years.


Martin Gayford
Times Online