`Leaving van Gogh` a revealing portrait of doubt

Last Updated: Apr 22, 2011, 09:44 AM IST

London: Although he merely dabbled with paint and brush, French physician Paul Gachet occupies a significant place in art history.

The intriguing novel ‘Leaving van Gogh’ imagines what the good doctor might say in looking back on the two months in 1890 during which he tried — and failed — to rescue the painter Vincent van Gogh from madness.

Author Carol Wallace`s sympathetic portrait of van Gogh is secondary to that of Gachet himself, a man of science who marvels at the artistic talent of his 37-year-old patient. He treats van Gogh`s mental illness with modern methods, at least for the late 19th century. His chief tool is a sense of compassion for the tortured soul.

Just as van Gogh studies Gachet and others for portraits during his stay in the French countryside, Wallace offers her own study of the doctor. He mourns a dead wife, tries to be a good father to a blossoming young daughter and maturing teenage son, and seeks worth in a practice that often deals with the deranged.

Gachet is aware that he, too, is on an emotional tightrope at times, if not as lacking as van Gogh in maintaining mental balance. He shares another quality with the troubled artist: self-doubt. In Wallace`s rendering, the doctor`s memories are coloured by the elation that comes from having discovered a genius in his midst — and the knowledge that the tragedy that lies ahead, like his wife`s fatal illness, proves to be beyond his powers to prevent.

Many readers will come to ‘Leaving van Gogh’ with their own knowledge of the painter`s life. (The famous incident in which he cut off part of an ear took place before he met Gachet.) In sublime prose, Wallace subtly refers to van Gogh`s artworks, and his signature style, as she allows Gachet the opportunity to lift the burden of regret from his mind.

Most appropriately, a sense of melancholy marks ‘Leaving van Gogh,’ though it makes the novel no less enjoyable. And there is no small amount of irony attached to the subject of van Gogh and Gachet: In 1990, van Gogh`s portrait of the doctor sold for USD 82.5 million, then the highest price paid at auction for a work of art. In his lifetime, van Gogh managed to sell but a single painting.

Bureau Report

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