In May 1890, after a brilliant but lunatic period of art-making, Vincent Van Gogh left a mental asylum in the south of France in hopes of a new beginning. He went to Auvers-sur-Oise, a village just north of Paris, where his brother Theo had arranged for him to stay under the supervision of Dr. Paul Gachet, a specialist in psychiatric disorders. In Carol Wallace’s gripping novel “Leaving Van Gogh” (Spiegel & Grau, 265 pages), Gachet tells the story of the last 70 days of Van Gogh’s life, a fervent spell of painting that ends in his mysterious suicide.
Wallace deploys her research with ingenuity, filling in the true story’s many unknowns with imaginative insight. The mythic artist becomes a human being in these pages, derelict, unpredictable, industrious and slightly dangerous in his isolation from others.
Gachet, a widower with two adolescent children, is tenderly drawn as a nurturing but world-weary man. An amateur artist acquainted with the great Impressionists, he is knowledgeable about both creativity and madness (perhaps personally: Van Gogh wrote that he was “sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much”), and he leads us into the ghastly realm of the treatment of mental illness at the dawn of modern psychiatry.
Wallace — whose bibliography includes “20,001 Names for Baby” and “To Marry an English Lord,” an inspiration for the hit TV costume drama “Downton Abbey” — discussed “Leaving Van Gogh” with ArtsATL during her recent teaching gig at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. The conversation has been condensed and edited.
ArtsATL: Why did you take on Van Gogh as a subject? He’s already such a legend as a difficult person.
Carol Wallace: It was really fortuitous. When I started the book I wasn’t aware of the letters. [The Van Gogh Museum has made the painter’s extensive correspondence with his brother Theo and artist friends such as Gaugin available online.] You read this stuff and you realize he was highly intelligent, spoke three languages, was extremely well read, thought very carefully about what he was painting. We have this idea of Van Gogh trudging around the fields in his battered straw hat, which is the legacy of [the book and film] “Lust for Life” and which is one side of him. But the other side is that he was much more intentional and refined.
Also he had a really, really hard life, and he did not complain much. I think that’s deeply, deeply admirable. There’s a stoicism to him that’s very touching. That was part of my access to sympathy for him, because aesthetically he’s not one of my favorites. I like Manet. I like earlier painting. I’m not a great fan of color. So Van Gogh’s work is a little bold for my taste.
ArtsATL: You obviously did a lot of research on the treatment of mental illness in the 19th century. What was that like?
Wallace: Isn’t everybody fascinated by mental illness? We all know someone who struggles. We all do. I could just have gone on forever [with the medical research]. You work your way backward through the bibliography until you get to the primary sources. For instance, I was able to get my hands on Dr. Gachet’s 1858 dissertation for medical school. Sadly, it was completely useless. He did write about melancholy, so that was kind of interesting. It was an obsession of his, right from the get-go.
One of the other very useful things was that Charcot [noted French neurologist who appears in the novel] was quite a self-promoter and had a publishing wing at the Salpetriere [Paris psychiatric hospital in the 19th century]. The volumes of his Tuesday lessons [on mental ailments] were printed with photographs, and they were available at the Columbia Med School. I live just up the street, so they were really easy to get to. And the rare-book librarian is very lonely, so he was my best friend for a while.
ArtsATL: Did you visit the Salpetriere asylum, where you set an amazing scene of a masquerade ball for the mad?
Wallace: I did go to Paris, of course. The Salpetriere is now a big-city hospital. While the buildings I write about still exist, they’re surrounded by modern medical buildings. I wasn’t sure I could get access. By then I had built up an idea imaginatively [of the 19th-century hospital] and didn’t want to tamper with that.
The mention of the ball, when I found that, maybe in a French newspaper, I was just astonished. I knew that had to be a scene. But I had to figure out how to make it necessary; something emotional has to be happening. It was probably a very old tradition, and probably felt very different to them than it does to us.
This is the big trick to writing historical fiction: you have to be able to see things from a chronologically appropriate point of view. No post-Freudian analysis here. That’s just not possible. And yet you have to remain accessible to your 21st-century reader. It’s a fine line.
Wallace: The book was originally going to be an art-forgery thriller about Gachet’s son [who is purported to have painted forgeries]. It was going to flash back and forth between a contemporary plot line about the discovery of a forged Van Gogh and the past.
Honestly, it was going to Auvers that made the difference. Three years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Paris and went to Auvers just for a day, not expecting much. I knew I needed to see it. Went to the grave, went to the church. It’s amazing how well preserved it is.
I had the good fortune of being alone [in the room at the inn where Van Gogh died of a gunshot wound]. It’s a nice little tourist attraction now. When I went in, the young woman who took my five euros said, “Oh, you can be alone upstairs with your heart.” And I thought [laughs], “Really? You really said that?” I went upstairs [to Van Gogh’s bedroom]. All it is is a garret—there’s nothing in there, just a chair and a bed frame. And I burst into tears. It has an aura. It really does. It completely ambushed me.
They had a slide show in a neighboring room. So I was sitting there, snuffling, watching the slide show. The door creaks open and someone sits down next to me, also snuffling. Then the lights go up and this young Japanese woman turns to me and says, “It’s too sad. The story’s too sad.”
And I thought, yes, this story is very, very sad. And this is the story: the story is Vincent. The story is not really this forgery nonsense.
When you’re writing a novel, you have to lead into the drama. You have to find the drama. The drama is not some tale tacked on. The drama is this guy, with the best intentions in the world, painting because he thinks his paintings help people, unable to continue to do that because the mental illness is simply overpowering him.
ArtsATL: What about Gachet? How much is known about him?
Wallace: Gachet was more complicated because he’s a much fainter presence in history. He’s much more made up [in the novel]. His son Paul was his biographer, and he was a suspect source because he was all about creating his father’s myth. We also have images, of course, and that’s helpful. Dr. Gachet was very vain and was photographed and painted whenever possible. Cezanne made a nice little sketch of him.
I found a catalog of the auction of the Gachet collection. I think it was auctioned off in the mid-20th century, maybe after his son’s death. He was a pack rat. So I’m really putting together bits and pieces. One of the key elements about Gachet was that he seemed to be deeply empathetic. When I found out that he’d planted sunflowers at Van Gogh’s graveside, it was a crucial piece of information. I could imagine from that a sensitive man.
ArtsATL: There’s the question of what role mental illness played in Van Gogh’s art. Was it a creative force? A destructive force? Did his genius depend on his instability?
Wallace: I don’t know where I come down on that question, but I have an innate distaste for attributing the quality of the work to mental illness.
I don’t even like parsing certain canvases as having been created under mental strain. There’s the famous “Wheatfield and Crows,” which for years has been read as an expression of Van Gogh’s despair and his illness, based largely on the loose quality of the brushstrokes. That is a possible reading, but I don’t really share it. There’s another painting which Van Gogh made in the asylum at St.-Remy, which is a portrait of an old man. It’s quite remarkable. This is one where I think Van Gogh’s own sympathy for mental illness shows on the canvas. It looks as if he has smeared the canvas with his hands so there are these wings. You do get a sense of Van Gogh portraying the disorder in the guy’s head and potentially in his own head.
ArtsATL: There are all kinds of theories out now about Van Gogh’s death. A new biography,“Van Gogh: A Life” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, proposes that he didn’t commit suicide but was shot by a village boy. Did you ever consider this possibility?
Wallace: I never did consider it wasn’t suicide. The record shows Van Gogh said that he did commit suicide. [He slowly bled to death in his room at the village inn, though he didn’t shoot himself there.] The authors of this new biography concede that he said that, but they claim he was covering for the young man. That theory begins to emerge around the 1930s. So we have two possibilities. On the one hand, we have Van Gogh himself saying before he dies, “I killed myself.” On the other hand, we have a theory emerging 40 years later, when Van Gogh is beginning to become famous, that’s much more complicated and secondhand. To me it sounds like people trying to muscle in on his fame. People start to come out of the woodwork, saying I saw this and I did that. As a novelist, clearly the suicide is much more dramatic and it completes the arc. It’s perfect.