When the name Van Gogh comes up, one can imagine sunflowers, stars at night, rice fields, and lonely portraits. His works resemble writing. (Berger, 2001, p.87) His life rendered to writing. When one hears his name, one remembers a song, a play, a book. Van Gogh’s appeal is world-wide. Collectors, dealers, and museums place a high price on a painting. Artists, art critics, and even an ordinary person who knows a thing or two about Western art can appreciate his works as well as his life story.
He was a post impressionist painter. One of the controversial paintings of Van Gogh is the Portrait of Dr. Gachet. The subject (Paul Ferdinand Gachet) was the painter’s physician and friend. He made the portrait six weeks before he committed suicide.
The subject in the painting occupied much of the space. It cuts a diagonal line in the middle of the canvass. The slant gives the mood of the subject.
Dr. Gachet is in a reclining position as if exhausted and sad. The subject’s outline – from his hat, to his shoulders, to his hand, was drawn with soft curved lines. The features of the face and the coat are also of curves. The curves give the work an over-all softness which contributes to the idea of sadness; as opposed to sharp lines which usually denote coldness. There were very few straight lines used. They can only be seen in the objects (two books) beside the subject.
There are also the famous small strokes using semi-curved lines used by Van Gogh to give texture.
The strokes have little space between them. And, the background colors of these strokes are still very visible. These small strokes create a pattern-like detail ( it used the principle of repetition) to the visual objects that uses them such as subject’s clothes and his background.
The main subject is oval. He is like a fruit reclining on a table. The dominant colors are blue and green. There are many shades using these colors. They are contrasting to the subject’s skin tone which is mostly a combination of yellow and cream. The face and the arms are fair with soft details using light brown and green. The contrast of the dark and the light colors brings attention to the face, and thus the mood of the subject; which as mentioned earlier looks exhausted and sad.
The subject was placed in the middle ground. The foreground are the other visual objects such as books, table and the flowers in a vase. The foreground gives an idea to the setting; that the portrait was done during a casual encounter. The background is an outline of a landscape (in dark blue) and sky (in pale blue). The background colors are of the same shade which create harmony.
The Portrait of Dr.Gachet was painted in 1890. Its size is 67 x 56 cm. It used oil on canvas.(paletaworld.org) Van Gogh used this medium the most as shown in his most famous paintings. There are debates on whether Van Gogh’s art is impressionist, expressionist or post-impressionist. Partly, due to the small brush strokes he used to give detail to visual objects, some say he belongs to the impressionist painters. The small strokes are signs of the artist’s swift motion during painting. Since the outline of the visual objects are simple, one gets the idea that the artist must have paid attention to the affect reality such as the mood or feeling of the subject at that time. This presents a way of seeing; as opposed to hyperrealist artworks which concentrate on the mastery of details. (Berger, 2001, p. 8)
The over-all impact of the painting is sadness. It was an intimate portrait because the painter was drawing out feelings. This can be seen in the choice of colors, soft lines and -most obvious- the details of the subject’s face. By the title alone – Portrait of Dr. Gachet, one expects to see a serious man. Visual details show the same characteristic as the subject appears to be a serious man. Beside the subject were books. Reading suggests educational or professional background. The subject wore a dark coat and a defined moustache -which are the common symbols of being proper.
The usual portraits are arranged like a pictorial. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet deviates from this. It is not a display of attributes. The painting is affective. This means that it shows a relation between the subject and the painter. The subject was relaxed enough to recline and show his emotions. He looks exhausted or resigned from something, and he is conveying it. The table used as a foreground suggests the looker (the painter) might be on the other end. Facts concerning the subject’s relation to Van Gogh came as no surprise. He was said to be unable to help Van Gogh in his depression and is suffering from it as well. (Bertman, 2006)
The subject’s relation to the painter is relevant. He was his doctor. And he was with him days before the painter’s death. The sad and tired look on the doctor’s face symbolizes surrender. The death of Van Gogh came days later. In the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh was painting vulnerability. He was keen to the moment being lived by himself and his subject.
The Portrait of Dr. Gachet stirred controversy for the high price it was bought and the mystery of its vanishing. It was auction in 1990 with a bidding that started with $20 million and sealed with $ 82.5 million. A Japanese industrialist kept it in a secret store room. He gained notoriety when he exclaimed in jest that the piece would be cremated with him. After his death, the painting was said to have been sold, but it was no longer seen by the public. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet is controversial not only because it was the painting bought with the highest price for an auction. The very manner of passing it from one collector to another who did not have any interest in sharing it to the public, and not even to view it himself, (Kleiner, 2000) show how art is a property of the privileged. Its vanishing act sparked further debates on the commodification of art. The common sentiment revolves around the seemingly waste of art because Van Gogh was important to the public. But, the privileged (collector) did not have the intention to give. It seemed their own love of art is a pretension. (Berger, 103)
The Portrait of Dr. Gachet is a portrait of many values. It is a portrait drawn to portray beyond social status. It also described social relations. It is an artwork about perception and emotions. It is an intimate portrait of a man who was supposed to cure the painter. It is significant to all who appreciate Van Gogh. It is also valuable to all who regard art beyond one’s private collection.