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Opinion

Look again at Vincent van Gogh

New claims that he didn't cut off his own ear give us an opportunity to clear the clouds of 'madness' and see the true light of his work.

By Jeanne Colette Collester / May 11, 2009

Vincent van Gogh: A woman looks at, "Olive Orchard" (Saint-Remy, June/July1889) by Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, as part of the exhibition "Vincent van Gogh between Earth and Heaven: The landscapes" last month, at the Kunst museum in Basel, Switzerland.

Nicholas Ratzenboeck/AFP/NEWSCOM

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Alameda, Calif.

In 1889, two weeks after voluntarily admitting himself to Saint-Rémy's psychiatric hospital in southern France, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo from his asylum room: "Through the iron-barred window I see a square field of wheat in an enclosure ... above which I see the morning sun rising in all its glory." He remained in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence for a year, producing more than 140 paintings.

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He suffered from what both he and the asylum director described as epilepsy, yet today we still read comments about Van Gogh's "madness." Indeed, the true light of his work has often been darkened by the shadow of insanity. Museumgoers may miss the spiritual import of a painting such as "The Raising of Lazarus" if they think of the artist primarily as someone disturbed enough to harm his own ear.

So it's welcome news that two German art historians have brought into question the self-mutilation claim. They speculate that rival artist Paul Gauguin cut Van Gogh's ear with a sword. Their revisionist claim gives us an opportunity to revise our own estimate of Van Gogh's work.

Certainly there were periods of debilitating crises for Van Gogh, of depression and loneliness, as well. His was an emotional intensity, a highly developed sensitivity – pure concentrated orange juice, one might say, that both attracted and frightened his friends. But mad? Never. Diagnoses aside, his paintings and letters reveal periods of great lucidity.

Many of his most inspired paintings and drawings from Saint-Rémy were conceived and produced inside this asylum, most frequently inside his small bedroom cell or studio room with only an iron-barred window to view the outside world. From his bedroom window facing southeast, he could see the sun rise over a vast expanse of wheat fields and the undulating shape of the Alpilles mountain range beyond. At night or in the very early morning before sunrise, he could see this countryside with "nothing but the morning star, which looked very big."

When painting these views, however, Van Gogh eliminated all references to "the iron-barred window." The window and its bars just disappeared. What remained were vibrant images of wheat fields in different seasons, of men plowing the furrowed ground and reaping the yellow wheat. Or images seen from his window combined with those remembered from his youth – a brilliant starry sky above the slopes of the Alpilles and a small Dutch church with its elongated spire nestled into the center of a village. Van Gogh refused to let asylum bars define who he was and what he saw. Rather, he honed his talent in the midst of these circumstances.

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