First Impressions

Van Gogh & Gachet at Auvers

The Colby College Museum of Art recently acquired Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet: L’Homme à la pipe, the only etching made by the Dutch artist. In this post, Justin McCann, Lunder Curator for Whistler Studies, shares the history of this print, made at a pivotal moment in the artist’s life, and offers his own analysis of this exceptional addition to the Lunder Collection.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet: L'Homme à la pipe, 1890
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet: L’Homme à la pipe, 1890. Etching with drypoint in black ink, 15 3/4 x 11 in. (40 x 27.9 cm). Colby College Museum of Art, The Lunder Collection, 024.2015

Lunch had just ended when Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet reached across the table and handed Vincent van Gogh a copper etching plate. The doctor puffed on his pipe and instructed the artist to make his portrait. Gachet and Van Gogh, who had recently arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise, had only known each other for a short time, but they were quickly becoming friends and collaborators. [1]

Van Gogh had moved to Auvers, an hour north of Paris, in late May 1890 for his art and to seek treatment from Dr. Gachet, an expert on “melancholy,” the nineteenth-century name for what we today would call depression. Since 1888 Van Gogh had been suffering from mental and physical illnesses—characterized by deep depression and seizures—which he often simply described as a “crisis” or an “attack.” Prior to his move to Auvers, he had been in the care of Dr. Théophile Peyron at a hospital in Saint-Rémy in southern France. Van Gogh had grown to despise that hospital. He worried that his artistic skills would deteriorate in an environment he likened to a prison. In the winter of 1890, he began to consider a move north and a return to plein air painting.

Vincent van Gogh, Corridor in the Asylum, 1889.
Vincent van Gogh, Corridor in the Asylum, 1889. Oil color and essence over black chalk on pink laid (“Ingres”) paper, 25 5/8 x 19 5/16in. (65.1 x 49.1cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1948, 48.190.2

Camille Pissarro, the Danish-French impressionist painter, had recommended the services of Dr. Gachet to Van Gogh. Theo, Van Gogh’s brother, acted as an intermediary and made arrangements on behalf of the artist. Van Gogh wrote optimistically to his brother that spring, “I’m confident that I can prove to this doctor you speak of that I still know how to work logically, and he’ll treat me accordingly, and since he likes painting there’s sufficient chance that a solid friendship will result from it.”[2]

For Van Gogh, Auvers symbolized a range of new possibilities for his art. The town and its countryside had a rich and well-established artistic heritage. But what may have excited Van Gogh the most was Gachet’s own interest in the arts. He was not the type of asylum doctor who had treated Van Gogh in the past. Gachet was an amateur artist, collector, and friend to many of the leading artists of the day. He would care for Van Gogh medically and support him artistically, acting as a potential catalyst for his career.

Upon their first meeting, Gachet gravitated toward Van Gogh. He encouraged the artist to devote himself to his work, seeing it as his best course of therapy. The two made preliminary plans to make prints of Van Gogh’s paintings, and they quickly formed a close bond with Van Gogh referring to Gachet as his “brother.”

However, Van Gogh could not ignore the physical and emotional facts that he saw sitting across from him that early summer afternoon when he took up the needle to etch Gachet’s portrait. The doctor exuded a melancholy that resonated with the artist, but which must have concerned him too. Writing to his brother after meeting Gachet for the first time, Van Gogh reported, “I’ve seen Dr. Gachet[,] who gave me the impression of being rather eccentric, but his doctor’s experience must keep him balanced himself while combating the nervous ailment from which it seems to me he’s certainly suffering at least as seriously as I am.”[3]

Shown with heavy, strained eyes, Gachet, an aging widower, appears forlorn and weary. Van Gogh transferred his characteristically energetic and rhythmic lines from his painting to express Gachet’s anxiety, and the heavily inked lines add weight to his exhausted expression. With the etching needle, Van Gogh diagnoses Gachet, and the portrait acts as a visual medical report of the doctor’s “melancholy.” Van Gogh pictures Gachet enduring a similar malady to that which he suffered from, and he no doubt looked upon the doctor’s tired face with empathy and understanding. As an etching drawn spontaneously on the spot, the portrait speaks to the complex and unconventional doctor-patient relationship that was burgeoning on that day. Van Gogh used portraiture as a way to learn about his sitters and his relationship to them. Reliant on Gachet for his success and health, Van Gogh attempts to assess the person he now had to depend on. The activity of making the portrait reverses the power dynamic between the two of them, and Van Gogh scrutinizes Gachet as a person, to make sense of this promising but worrisome relationship. Who is Gachet, Van Gogh asks? In the doctor, Van Gogh had found a partner, a brother, but also a fellow patient.

[1] For information on Van Gogh’s time in Auvers see Peter Knapp Wouter van der Veen, Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days (New York: Monacelli Press, 2010).
[2] For the correspondence of Vincent van Gogh see Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Nienke Bakker (eds.), Vincent van Gogh—The Letters. Version: December 2010. Amsterdam & The Hague: Van Gogh Museum & Huygens ING Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, May 2, 1890, letter 866.
[3] Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, May 20, 1890, letter 873.