“I am not, strictly speaking, mad” – Van Gogh
The perceptive remark, often quoted, in his letter of 22nd. March 1889 to his brother Theo from Arles is more precisely, “As far as I can judge I’m not mad, strictly speaking”. Paul Gachet, who ran a Sanatorium and was also a painter, housed Vincent in his establishment at Auvers-sur-Oise near Arles around this time. He encouraged the artist in the Romantic idea, then current that his mental illness and his tormented life were the outward signs of his genius. There were few other means available at the time to assist sufferers.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century Sanatoria generally resembled Dr. Downward’s establishment in Armadale, Wilkie Collins’ 1866 novel. Equipped with galvanic apparatus and Systems for electric treatment of nervous disorders, proprietors went to great trouble to avoid their establishments being referred to as madhouses.
Given van Gogh’s partiality to strong drink, easy-going woman and, it is believed a careless use of poisonous lead white paint such an establishment did not offer much to prevent the 37 year old van Gogh’s melodramatic death by his own hand in Arles in 1890.
Artists are more careful today how they handle chemicals and for health and safety reasons smoke less and discourage visitors from smoking while in a painter’s studio. The high health risks associated with ever-present toxic, inflammable and oil, varnish, thinners and solvent-based colours are, generally, familiar to all. Risks are still present particularly those colours that the artist will need use in their powder form. These are common in fresco painting and in ceramics. Finely ground artists pigments made from heavy metals are destructive to the nervous system, by being inhaled when smoking or absorbed through ones skin. The classical killer pigments were already recognised in the early eighteenth century.  They were largely based on lead. Lead white, red lead, flake white, lead chrome yellow and orange and Naples yellow (antimony).
Rembrandt van Rijn was an artist who conscientiously recorded himself in self portraits from his first tentative steps to establish himself as an independent painter in Leiden, his home town.
The ageing Rembrandt surrounded by friends.
Sanguine, graphite and watercolour on paper.
His paintings of himself continued regularly through his apotheosis as the most sough-after portrait painter for fashionable Amsterdam to his frugal and modest last years lived out in the low-rent Jewish quarter at 4, Breestraat.
What shocks you is the contrast between the self-portraits prior to his misfortunes to those paintings done at the end of his life where the rapid degree of his physical degradation is visible. The period covers the downturn of is personal and commercial fortune, bankruptcy and the inventory of his possessions made in 1656, onwards.
|Rembrandt van Rijn, 1652 Large Self-portrait. The artist was at the height of his artistic powers but on the brink of financial disaster. Oil on canvas, 112 x 81.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.||Rembrandt, 1669 Self-portrait. One of the last paintings the Dutch master is known to have completed. Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 57.8 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague|
There is a similar progression in JMW Turner’s paintings, moving from the cartographic style of his early topographic watercolours to the happy confusion of the 1844 canvas in the London National gallery, Rain, Steam and Speed–The Great Western Railway, where aerial perspective, atmospheric effects and splotches of colours give it a wildness and [lack of clarity]. His ground-breaking technique unsettled fellow royal academicians and his contemporaries in general strongly criticised an unortadox method of painting. This is without mentioning his sketchbooks, drawings and colour studies that the art world for many decades dismissed as wild jotting. For John Ruskin, Turner’s Boswell, his later works were of biographical value only, and the oil paintings and watercolour jottings done in this free and very calligraphic style, the physical evidence showing how the artist’s health not to mention his sight and his mind had deteriorated severely from 1845 onwards.
William Hogarth, the English eighteenth-century painter found himself in serious physical danger because of his art when, with a group of fellow artists that included Thomas Hudson, he took advantage of the peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle to visit Paris. While waiting in Calais for the boat to England on the return journey Hogarth was arrested by the authorities on suspicions of being an English spy. He was observed making drawings, possibly for military purposes, of the harbour gate and the drawbridge. The Governor of Calais, however, realising that he was dealing with a prominent artist eventually released him to continue his home journey.
Hogarth, who did not like the French, particularly as their artists were preferred by English art buyers to the home-grown product, in the long run got his revenge to this assault on his dignity. He converted the drawings he had made in Calais immediately on his return home in 1748 into an oil painting showing a side of roast beef being delivered under guard to an English tavern in Calais, the Lion d’Argent, watched enviously by starving French soldiers and a washed up Scottish mercenary.
William Hogarth’s signed and dated 1749 oil on canvas, 94.5 x 78.5 cm known variously
as The Roast Beef of Old England, or The Gate of Calais. Tate Gallery, London.
Monet was 65 years old in 1905 when he began to notice he was seeing colours less intensely than previously, a serious problem for an impressionist painter where the eye is everything. Over the next decade it became evident that his failing perception of colours was being caused by cataracts he had contracted in both his eyes.
Treatment for cataracts at the time was a very painful and troublesome procedure often with an uncertain outcome. However, at age 82 he finally accepted that there was no alternative and agreed that one of his eyes should be operated on. Following the intervention the artist was obliged to spent weeks immobile in darkness with both eyes covered in bandages.
Monet was able to continue working successfully into his eighties after the surgical intervention while making some compromises with his environment; using spectacles and avoiding the glare from sunlight by wearing a wide brimmed straw hat outdoors. His later paintings became increasingly abstract, with areas of broad sweeps of colour that made them resemble late de Koonings
Claude Monet was following in the tradition of those earlier master, from Titian, through Rembrandt, Turner and, later, Walter Sickert who adopted this style in their later years. It is always possible that some of these artist came to terms with the illness Monet suffered and turned it to their advantage, in the process creating works of art that were unique.
Maurice Utrillo was the son of the artist Suzanne Valadon then an eighteen-year-old artist’s model who posed for Berthe Morisot, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Puvis de Chavannes, and Degas, in other words, the cream of the Paris artistic milieu of the Belle Époque. He was put out to baby sitters and left largely to his own devices. Utrillo soon showed signs of mental instability, aggravated by alcoholism that he developed as a schoolboy. In the way of children attracted by fragile and feeble companions he was tormented and mobbed by schoolmates. A generally indolent student he nevertheless was a prize-winner in mathematics. There is a tendency to see Utrillo as having endured a deprived and loveless childhood. However Suzanne Valadon’s artistic talent ensured financial prosperity and her marriage to a wealthy stockbroker, Paul Moussis in 1896 when Utrillo was thirteen ensured that he frequented good private Paris schools.
His alcoholism and, like van Gogh a partiality for absinth, increased as he reached maturity. Utrillo took up landscape painting in 1904 encouraged by his mother who by now was a successful professional painter. Like van Gogh he regularly spent time in institutions for the mentally ill – his mother, briefly, had him interned in the St. Anne sanatorium at Neuilly. This and alcoholism created roadblocks in his artistic development, nevertheless, his artistic distinctiveness and quality as a painter emerged. The French government officially recognized his importance as an artist, honouring him with the Cross of the Légion d’honneur in 1920.
The always mentally fragile Utrillo eventually accumulated a circle of relatives and interested parties who, attracted by his financial success, encouraged him to constantly increase his output of the Montmartre butte quartier of Paris views in which he specialised. These were often inspired or copied from picture postcards showing picturesque scenes of Paris. Inevitably, one thinks back to the later paintings of the Renaissance, artist Pietro Perugino; his final canvases are often pastiches or careless recycling of his earlier works. Similar works by latter-day Utrillos are still available today in the Place du Tertre near the Sacré Cœur. Interestingly, the eventually deterioration of Utrillo’s artistic output was caused, not by his mental instability or alcoholism but rather by his internationally acquired fame.
Following in the tradition of mental instability, alcoholism and difficult rapports with women of/like van Gogh and Maurice Utrillo was their near contemporary, Edvard Munch. Born in Norway 1863 into a family itself with a history of mental instability and physical ill health he, on the other hand, was an artist able to channel his fits of depression, neurosis and a more than depressing death-ridden childhood into a form of art universally recognised as the precursor of Expressionism.
An extended version of this article can be found on the Art Monte-Carlo Blogs page.
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