Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace

April 19, 2011
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Leaving Van Gogh
Carol Wallace

Random House
4-19-11
Hardcover/288 pages
ISBN: 978-1400068791
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". . . a small tale about towering genius with an existential crisis at its sad heart."

Poignant and sad fantasy of Vincent Van Gogh’s last days.

It may have been Dr. Gachet’s painting or simply his name in conjunction with another painter that sparked Carol Wallace’s interest in Vincent Van Gogh’s last months in bucolic Auvers, but Dr. Gachet is imagined into existence. All of this seems to come from Van Gogh’s portrait of the psychiatrist who unofficially treated him.

Much about Van Gogh’s life is known and has been fully chronicled. Wallace gives depth and weight to the quiet days that dwindled down into his suicide and protracted death. The possibility that anyone other than Van Gogh’s family could care so much for him lends a size and shape to his sad life.

Wallace begins with Dr. Gachet and Theo Van Gogh’s request that the doctor agree to treat his brother, who has just come out of the asylum. Dr. Gachet was the best choice since the doctor had treated other artists and was an artist himself, or so it seemed. By opening up Dr. Gachet’s family life and his relationships with various forms of madness, Wallace sets a course that leads unerringly to Van Gogh’s death.

By incorporating passages from Van Gogh’s letters and the doctor’s reactions to his paintings and style, each detail shines an oblique light on the artist and the man who befriended and treated him. Van Gogh saw Dr. Gachet as damaged goods, an artist blind leading the blind when it came to treatment and possible cure. Wallace also shows that the doctor is observant and unerring in his diagnoses of Theo and Vincent while pointing up Dr. Gachet’s inability to help either one.

Although Leaving Van Gogh is a quiet novel full of little details and subtle insights, Wallace uses anecdotal history and personal letters to fill in the blanks between the lines history has left blank. Van Gogh emerges as an erratic man with a clear and overwhelming mission to render the landscapes of the outer world into a coherent and disturbing portrait of sadness and inevitable death that elevates this small corner of artist history in soft contrast to the bold brilliance of Vincent’s inner demons. Leaving Van Gogh is a small tale about towering genius with an existential crisis at its sad heart.

Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell

 

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