- - Monday, September 19, 2011

By Carol Wallace
Spiegel & Grau, $25, 268 pages

While Carol Wallace was researching her masters thesis in art history in 2005, she came across the name of Dr. Paul Gachet, a French physician who specialized in diseases of the nerves and mental illnesses at the end of the 19th century. One of his patients was the painter, Vincent Van Gogh.

In her novel, “Leaving Van Gogh,” Miss Wallace tells the story of Van Goghs last months in the summer of 1890, when he was a patient of Dr. Gachet. It is through the doctor’s eyes and heart that the anguish and passion of the painter are explored.

Dr. Gachet was a widower in his sixties, living with his daughter, son and housekeeper in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village “nestle* along the bank of the Oise northwest of Paris. The town fits into a narrow band between the river and a high chalk plateau. … The plateau is planted with wheat, and the fields along the river are a patchwork of peas, asparagus, and grapevines.”

The doctor commuted by train to his Paris practice a few days each week. His treatment of the mentally ill was more compassionate than that of his colleagues, at a time when little was known about the workings of the mind. Dr. Gachet had studied painting as a boy and continued to paint as an adult. Many of his friends were artists. He owned a collection of paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Sisley, Monet and Renoir.

Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother, visited Dr. Gachet and requested that he take Vincent, who had returned to Paris from his time in an asylum in the south of France, as a patient. It was during his time in the asylum that Vincent had cut off his ear.

Gachet agreed, but he was not prepared for Vincent’s physical state, a man with “blue eyes, fair skin, and reddish hair,” pronounced cheekbones, and skin that was “rough and uneven, as though it had been ruined by sun or by poor nutrition” Gachet was struck by Vincent’s alertness, how he “could see him looking. It was as if his eyes had a special sensitivity.”

Vincent explained to the doctor how unhappy and afraid he had been, how he had done “terrible things,” things of which he had no memory. He described the “enormous stars, the crickets, the warm air like a current of water, the sense of all the tiny creatures of the night moving around you.” In Paris, he “felt like a little moth, or a tamarisk leaf. Buffeted. So much movement, so much noise, and all of it human!” Overwhelmed by the city, Vincent found relief in moving into a humble room above a tavern in Auvers.

Vincent spent his days in Auvers painting the wheat fields, the flowers, and portraits of locals, as well as of Dr. Gachet and his daughter, works now familiar to art lovers the world over.

“‘I believe that, with color, I can capture a more enduring truth, he said. ‘Something more in the nature of a dream, that has a truth of its own that may be different from what we experience every day.’”

“[H]e could not be deterred by discomfort or fatigue or discouragement. When a painting did not please him, he thought of another way to approach the subject. … His speed reflected a kind of hunger to make the beauty all around him his own. …[H]e applied the paint in waves or dashes or thick swirling rosettes. Sometimes he would cover a background with a kind of woven effect, painstakingly applied.”

As the summer wore on, the cause of the painter’s illness eluded Dr. Gachet and he realized he could not cure his patient. He also was aware that Vincents brother, Theo, Vincent’s sole source of support, was dying of syphilis. Vincents isolation and despair increased until he was unable to paint.

He told Gachet that “‘It has always seemed to me that if I could only paint, my life, all the difficulties, would be redeemed. I painted, and trusted that someday my work would be understood. … Painting was my one escape. I have tried not to pity myself, though my life has been hard. If I cannot paint, there must be an end to it. There is no reason for me to draw breath.’”

No longer able to paint, he did indeed put “an end to it.”

“Leaving Van Gogh,” however is about more than the artist’s last months. It offers a fascinating look at the treatment of mental illness in the 19th century, when melancholia or epilepsy were the principal diagnoses. Dr. Gachet had worked at Salpetriere, the hospital for female mental patients in Paris. Little was done for the women incarcerated there. There are bizarre moments, such as the ball attended by the inmates, the doctors and nurses, art students and the public, a vision comparable to a Bunuel surrealist dream.

In the novel, Gachet helps Vincent commit suicide by leaving a gun for him to find. (In real life, it was never discovered how Vincent obtained the gun, nor was it ever found.)

Miss Wallace has done remarkable research, and her portraits of the doctor, his children and the van Gogh family - Vincent, Theo and Theos wife, Joanna - are drawn in exquisite detail. “Leaving Van Gogh” is based on fact, but it is, in the end, a novel, a fascinating and moving one, told with rich detail.

Dr. Gachet concludes that Vincent van Gogh “changed the way I saw the world. To this day, I look at the shadow beneath a bank of willows and see the brown, the green, the purple tones together, contrasting with the yellow, green and even orange of the leaves. I notice patterns in the windows of city buildings or the ties of a railroad track, and I am always aware of the relations between colors, like the way a brick wall heightens the intensity of a green vine. … [Vincent] was able to create haunting images that reached the heart of the viewer. That was his astounding gift to the world.”

So too, do Miss Wallace’s words heighten the pleasure of reading historical fiction.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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