Reviewed by Linda Rimel
LINDA RIMEL is an author and playwright.
“If anyone knows my name a hundred years from now, it will be in connection with Vincent van Gogh. His portrait may make me immortal. If it does, I will also be known as the doctor who let him die.”
So writes the narrator in the prologue of Carol Wallace’s absorbing novel, “Leaving Van Gogh.” He is Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, and, although van Gogh’s portrait of him will sell for $82.5 million in 1990, the Dutch post-impressionist painter of it has, in 1890 when the two men meet, hardly sold a painting. He has lived in an asylum and has amputated part of his own earlobe, something he cannot recall doing. His younger brother Theo, a Parisian art dealer, has asked Dr. Gachet to supervise Vincent when he relocates to the town of Auvers to “paint and live.”
Dr. Gachet is confident that he can help. He has, after all, worked with mental patients and is sensitive to their exploitation when artists paint them and art students cavort with them at costume balls. He is something of an artist himself and has been a friend to Cezanne, Pissaro, Courbet, Monet and Renoir.
To his supervisor’s surprise, it is Vincent who sees so perceptively and so instantaneously the essence of his subjects that this ability strikes the doctor even more fiercely than Vincent’s startling use of bold colors. When the doctor sits for Vincent and then looks at the canvas, he sees that “for all the physical resemblance, what makes this portrait a marvel is not the way it captures anything specific to me. It is more than that. Vincent used my features to create a portrait of world-weariness.”
Yet Vincent has seen Dr. Gachet individually, to his core. “After all,” Wallace has Dr. Gachet muse, “I was the doctor who had not saved his [own] wife. No one knew this. No living person knew how I had failed Blanche. Yet Vincent’s uncanny eyes had discerned my grief.”
The time Vincent spends in Auvers in contact with Dr. Gachet and his family is the painter’s most prolific period. He paints the doctor’s daughter at the piano, and the son—whom the father later in this fiction will discover forging a Cezanne—follows the eccentric painter like an overly eager puppy through fields of wheat, poppies and sunflowers.
Wallace, succinctly mentioning a few brush strokes and spots of color, calls to mind specific paintings. Working from a wealth of letters and paintings, she makes sure the 19th-century physician misses the significance of what contemporary readers will see in lead-based paint, turpentine and paint fumes in poor ventilation, a “shambling gait” and absinthe.
The easy familiarity with the doctor’s family comes to an end after the narrator observes a violent streak in Vincent. So, to some extent, does the force of Wallace’s tale. As the evidence from paintings and letters grows scarce, Wallace is on her own in ascribing motivation and actions to her narrator. The story has been intriguing enough that the conclusion does not drag, however, despite the frustration of unanswered questions.
The frustration comes from the enigma of Vincent van Gogh himself. His art may be a mirror held up to the human race—or it may be a medical scan of an injured mind.
The book cannot provide an easy explanation of cause versus effect or where genius ends and madness begins.