Saturday, December 19, 2015

Doctor Paul Gachet: Van Gogh's Physician

Doctor Paul Gachet, as painted by
Vincent Van Gogh
Doctor Paul Gachet was the last personal doctor employed by the great post-impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh. He was a mysterious man, in a way. Vincent did a gloomy etching of the physician, not long before he died. That etching and his treatment of Vincent landed Dr. Paul Gachet in the pages of history, but very little is known about the man himself.

In May of 1890, Vincent van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he could be closer to his brother. He had just gotten out of an asylum for the mentally ill (he admitted himself) and he was in need of some recuperation. However, he was still in need of medical supervision, as his mental condition was hardly getting any better. Doctor Paul Gachet was recommended to him and began working for him that month.

Paul Gachet was an avid lover of the arts and an aspiring artist himself. He spent time among such men as Victor Hugo and Gustave Courbet. Vincent’s brother Theo, who was very close to the artist, thought that Gachet was a good choice, considering his love of art. Some people believe that Theo was wrong, given the events that followed.

Vincent became agitated during his time in Auvers-sur-Oise, but was also very productive. He created the etching, his first and only etching, of Doctor Paul Gachet while he was there, as well as other paintings. During this time he said this of his physician “sicker than I am, I think, or shall I say as much . . . ”

What did Vincent mean when he said this about his doctor? Some people believe that Doctor Gachet was not fit to treat Vincent and that Vincent knew that. Could these words have revealed a truth about the doctor, of which no one else was aware? Could Paul Gachet have been mentally or physically ill while he was treating Vincent van Gogh? There is also the possibility that these words were the blathering of a man who was a brilliant artist, but also very strange and suicidal. Unfortunately, no one was ever able to find out what the artist meant by his words.

On July 27, 1890, Vincent van Gogh went into a field to paint and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He managed to make it back to his room and Dr. Gachet was summoned. The wound was inoperable and so Vincent died two days later with his beloved brother by his side. Some of his last words to Theo were “The sadness will last forever.” Theo himself died six months later.

Whether or not Doctor Paul Gachet should have been able to prevent the 37-year-old artist from killing himself, seems to be a matter of speculation. Some people believe that there is some mystery surrounding the doctor’s inability to do just that. However, Vincent van Gogh was suicidal for many years before he met Dr. Gachet and the doctor had only treated him for a few weeks before his death.

We know now that a few weeks is not sufficient to treat such a deep seated mental illness, which may have been coupled with epilepsy. It would seem that Doctor Paul Gachet was just a melancholy-looking fellow who was treating the wrong patient at the wrong time. For that, he is sometimes scrutinized. However, this may simply be due to the lack of information about the relationship between the patient and doctor and a lack of clarity regarding some of the patient’s words.

None of Vincent’s family held Doctor Paul Gachet responsible for the painter’s death. In fact, Theo’s wife even had her husband and brother in law’s graves decorated with ivy from the doctor’s garden. That very same ivy is there to this day.

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