Cold Open - Theo Makes Vincent a Promise
A listener note: This episode contains depictions of suicide that may not be suitable for all audiences.
It’s August 1872 in the Hague, the Netherlands.
19-year-old Vincent van Gogh walks down a busy street alongside his younger brother, Theo. Both young men hold milk bottles at their sides as they take in the sights. Walking with his brother, Vincent feels happier than he has in months.
Vincent is in the Hague apprenticing to become an art dealer, but when he isn’t working, he spends most of his time alone. Theo’s visit has reminded Vincent how much he misses being with the people he loves.
Thunder rumbles in the distance. But the brothers are having such a great time, they hardly notice the dark skies gathering up ahead.
Soon, Vincent and Theo walk far from the bustle of the city center and make their way to a small bridge on the outskirts of town. Vincent leads Theo across the bridge, and into an open landscape dotted with flowers and trees. Vincent stops and takes in the beautiful view. He tells his brother that when the light is just right, this spot is the perfect place to paint. But before Vincent can go into further detail… thunder cracks overhead. This time, the brothers notice. They look up to the sky and see the storm moving in. The brothers decide to head back to Vincent’s apartment, but they can’t outrun the rain.
As the skies break open, Vincent and Theo run through the streets, laughing hysterically and splashing through pools of gathering water. Soon, they dart off the road and take shelter under the awning of an old building.
Trapped by the rain, Vincent and Theo open their milk bottles. They drink together and watch the lightning crack over head. As thunder rumbles, Vincent turns to Theo and tells his brother he doesn’t care about making money. All he really wants is to make art. Vincent says he knows their parents won’t approve, but he wants to be an artist. Theo sips his milk, looks Vincent in the eye, and tells his brother that no matter what their parents say, Theo will support him following his dream. And then Theo promises that he’ll do everything he can to help Vincent make it come true. Vincent smiles and hugs his brother. Then, he and Theo finish their milk and run back into the rain.
Theo van Gogh is true to his word. Years later when Theo lands a lucrative job as an art dealer in Paris, he supports Vincent financially, so Vincent can spend his time drawing and painting. With Theo backing him, Vincent sets out to hone his craft working in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. But even as Vincent grows more prolific, and more daring, as an artist, he struggles to sell his work.
As Vincent fails to achieve financial or critical success, he will suffer from severe feelings of loneliness and depression and will start to experience occasional outbursts of violence. In the end, Vincent will be consumed by hopelessness, and he will come to see no other way out, and deciding to take his own life on July 27th, 1890.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is July 27th, 1890: The Death of Vincent van Gogh.
Act One: Vincent moves to Antwerp
It’s April 1885 in Nuenen, the Netherlands.
Vincent van Gogh lights a fresh cigarette with the smoking remnants of his last one. He tosses the old butt to the ground, takes a drag, and paces around his small rural studio located on the family’s property. And since stares at the canvas in front of him. He’s happy with his latest work. He feels like he’s close to finally having a showpiece that demonstrates his skill as a painter.
In March, Vincent’s father died. And in wake of his death, Vincent retreated to his studio, choosing to live in the solitude of this small space rather than at home with his mother. She and Vincent have clashed over his decision to become an artist. She views his choice of profession, and his lack of income, as an embarrassment. But Vincent’s brother, Theo, has continued to support Vincent, which allows him to continue to work on his craft.
Vincent adds a stroke of black to the canvas and examines his work with a critical eye. He’s referred to this piece as “that thing with the peasants around a dish of potatoes in the evening.” Eventually, it will be called The Potato Eaters, and it will one day be lauded as one of Vincent’s “first masterpieces.” But for now, Vincent just hopes he has a painting he can finally sell.
The past several years have been difficult. Vincent’s struggled to find opportunities to showcase his work to potential buyers. And he hasn't made many sales. To cope with his own disappointment, Vincent often locks himself away. He believes isolation allows him to focus on his work. But when no one else is around, he has a tendency to spend his days chain-smoking and often forgets to eat. On his own, Vincent is also prone to depression and anxiety about his future.
And Vincent’s work isn’t the only cause of stress in his life. He has fallen in love with two women; one was his cousin who wanted nothing to do with him, the other was a former prostitute who had a young daughter and was pregnant with her second child when Vincent met her. Soon, they moved in together. And Vincent hoped they could make their newfound romance work. But ultimately, Vincent's courting a prostitute put strain on his relationship with his family; even Theo was against Vincent’s choice in a partner. Eventually, Vincent was forced to end it. His family was happy. But Vincent was again alone.
But today, as Vincent examines the painting that will become Potato Eaters, he feels something he hasn’t felt in a long while: hope. He tells himself to stop wallowing in the past. It’s time for him to rejoin the world, and leave his small, secluded studio behind.
So Vincent packages his latest painting and some of his other favorite works and ships them to Theo in France. He hopes his brother can sell some of them and at least make back a bit of the money he’s invested in Vincent’s career over the years.
And then Vincent leaves his studio and the Netherlands behind forever. His first stop is Antwerp, Belgium. Antwerp offers Vincent stunning views to paint, but that’s not his only reason for going there. Antwerp is also home to several artist clubs, where groups of painters study and work together. Vincent hopes that working alongside other artists will give him the chance to see different techniques and styles and push him to try new things. Plus, artist clubs will give Vincent a break from the isolation and loneliness he’s felt for so long.
Vincent enjoys his time in Antwerp, and his work starts to develop and change. During his time there, Vincent receives a letter from Theo telling that his paintings, like Potato Eaters, are too dark to sell in Paris. So Vincent starts working in brighter colors.
As he continues to paint in Antwerp, Vincent grows more assured in his skills, and confident that he can make a name for himself in a place like Paris. Vincent is eager to join his brother there, the center of the art world. He hopes the electricity of the city will inspire him to continue to develop as an artist and to create works far different from the paintings he made in the Netherlands or even Antwerp.
So in February of 1886, Vincent makes his way to Paris. There, he and his brother push Vincent’s career forward. But the pace of life in Parisian streets will prove too much for Vincent, and he will once again seek out solitude. And soon, Vincent will find himself fighting off loneliness again and will experience startling new feelings, bursts of anger, and breaks from reality.
Act Two: Vincent slices his ear off
It’s November 1887 in Paris, France.
Paul Gauguin walks through an art gallery, taking in an exhibition of paintings by an up-and-coming artist: Vincent van Gogh. Paul is especially intrigued by a series of “studies” of sunflowers that Vincent has on display.
Paul is part of a group of artists that Vincent calls “the impressionists of the petit boulevard.” Vincent believes this group includes some of the most talented painters in Paris, but none of them has achieved mainstream success. Paul is excited that Vincent and his brother Theo invited him to the exhibition. It’s a chance for Paul to talk to other artists and to get more acquainted with Vincent’s paintings.
As Paul walks through the gallery, Vincent himself approaches him. The two artists are aware of each other, but they haven’t met in person until now. They hit it off immediately. And by the end of the evening, Vincent agrees to trade two of his Sunflowers studies for one of Paul’s original paintings.
This meeting is the beginning of what will become one of Vincent’s most important friendships and collaborations. Soon after, he and Paul start working together. And they discover they have completely different approaches to painting. Paul generally paints from memory or from his imagination, while Vincent prefers to interpret people or objects that he can see directly in front of him.
It's through these differences though that Vincent and Paul inspire each other to take risks in their own work, risks they might not have attempted on their own. They also enjoy discussing and arguing about art. Vincent tells Theo that his conversations with Paul are so engaging and demanding, that he often feels drained afterward.
But as much as Vincent enjoys working with Paul, and being close to his brother Theo, Paris is starting to wear on him. Vincent feels like the noise and crowds of the city are too much. He longs for the seclusion he had in his small studio in the Netherlands. But he’s afraid, he tells Theo, because he doesn’t want to be alone again.
Theo is quick to remind Vincent that he has always enjoyed working with other artists. Perhaps there’s a way he can have the best of both worlds. And soon, Vincent comes up with an idea. He decides to leave Paris to create an artists’ residence; a place where like-minded individuals can work together and inspire each other in a place that provides a peaceful and calm respite from the city.
In the fall of 1888, with Theo’s help, Vincent secures four rooms in a large yellow house in the South of France. Vincent envisions the yellow house as a place where artists of all types can escape to. And before Vincent leaves Paris, he asks Paul to join him there. But it’s not an easy sell. Paul loves Paris, he adores the big city life. Still, the chance to work and spend time with one of his closest friends and collaborators is too good to pass up. When Vincent heads for the South of France, Paul is not far behind.
And at first, the yellow house is exactly what Vincent dreamed it would be. He and Paul both enter prolific periods of their careers. And the paintings they create will one day be seen as masterpieces. Vincent and Paul talk about art late into the night. And while their discussions often are contentious, the two friends never see their arguments as anything more than passionate but reasoned disagreements between colleagues.
But in December of 1888, something changes. Vincent starts to see Paul’s arguments as personal attacks. And in response, Vincent often lashes out. At times, Vincent even makes threats against Paul, only to wake up the next day with no recollection of what happened the night before.
Paul fears Vincent is suffering from some kind of mental illness. And soon, Paul no longer sees the yellow house as a calm and peaceful respite, but rather a hostile environment. On the night of December 23rd, 1888, Paul tells Vincent that he’s had enough and wants to return to Paris.
Paul leaves the yellow house for a hotel. But Vincent rushes out behind him, screaming and brandishing a straight razor. Paul escapes into the night. And Vincent returns to the house, angry and distraught.
Later that evening, Vincent is alone, still clutching the straight razor in his hands. He raises the blade to the lower part of his left ear and slices it off. Vincent then wraps the severed portion of his ear in a newspaper. He dons a hat and steps into the crisp winter air. He finds his way to a local brothel he’s familiar with. And there, he allegedly asks for a woman named Rachel. When Rachel appears, Vincent hands her the ear wrapped in newspaper and says, “Guard this object carefully.” But Rachel of course opens the package and is horrified to find what's inside. The following day, the police find Vincent in his bed, his sheets bloody, they take him to a mental hospital.
Theo will travel from Paris immediately to be by his side. And as doctors try to determine what’s wrong, Theo wonders if his brother has been working too hard. He hopes that rest and relaxation will make Vincent’s troubles disappear. But as time goes on, Theo will learn that his brother’s problems are not abating, they are instead getting much deeper - and darker.
Act Three: Vincent dies
It’s July 27th, 1890, at an artists’ residence near Paris, France.
Vincent van Gogh steps outside into the sunshine. He makes his way into a nearby wheatfield, where he’s been known to paint for hours on end.
Two years earlier, Vincent was released from a mental institution. But not long after, he fell into a depression again and started losing his sense of reality. He voluntarily checked himself into another institution, where he remained for a year. Now, Vincent has been out for a few months. He’s dedicated himself to his work, completing a new painting almost every day. And he’s told Theo that he feels truly happy.
And today, Vincent looks out over the wheatfield breathing in deep gulps of fresh air. It’s something he always does before he works. But Vincent has no intention of painting. Despite his claims that he’s happy, he’s feeling deeply distraught. There are moments where the mere thought of the future terrifies him. And Vincent has decided that he no longer wants to face that future.
And so standing alone in the wheatfield, instead of reaching for a brush, Vincent reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pistol. Then, he brings it to his chest and pulls the trigger.
He does not die immediately, instead, he is knocked back, covered in blood, and wracked with pain. Somehow he manages to stagger back to his bedroom. And eventually, a fellow artist finds him there, quickly getting word to his brother in Paris. Theo leaves the city to join his brother at his bedside as fast as he can. And when he arrives, he watches as a doctor tries to save Vincent’s life. Vincent holds on as long as he can, but there’s nothing to be done. On July 29th, 1890, Vincent succumbs to his gunshot wounds and dies in his bed with his brother Theo by his side.
Vincent van Gogh won’t live to see himself become one of the most famous and respected artists of his or any generation. He won’t live to see the world-renowned Vincent van Gogh Museum open in Amsterdam. And sadly, neither will his brother.
Following Vincent’s death, Theo suffers a nervous breakdown himself and his health quickly deteriorates. Theo dies just six months after his brother. But Theo’s wife, Johanna, commits herself to sharing Vincent’s paintings with the public. She works tirelessly to arrange posthumous exhibitions and to donate Vincent’s paintings to museums. It’s largely due to Johanna’s efforts that Vincent van Gogh and his work still live on far after the now legendary Dutch artist tried to take his own life on July 27th, 1890.
Next on History Daily. July 28th, 1821, The Legendary Military Commander, José de San Martín, liberates Peru and proclaims its independence from Spain.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.