From Hospital to Asylum
Although he was was formally discharged from hospital on February 17, Vincent Van Gogh's problems were hardly over. As far as the good people of Arles were concerned, the artist was dangerously insane and a public petition asked the mayor to have him locked in an isolation cell for a month. The Yellow House where he and Gauguin had lived was sealed by police and he was banned from returning. In bringing Theo up to date on what was happening, Van Gogh had to reassure him in a letter that "As far as I can judge, I am not really mad." His artist friends continued to visit and they even went to the Yellow House together to make fun of the police on guard. Van Gogh also began painting again although he was afraid of setting up a new studio on his own. He and his brother began discussing his going to a nearby asylum as a precaution and he was realistic as her evaluated his condition. As he wrote to Theo, "What comforts me is that I am beginning to look on madness as a disease like any other and to accept it as such".
Becoming more used to the fixed hospital routine, Van Gogh became increasingly afraid of reentering the world (a common problem with psychiatric patients facing release). Along with the stigma attached to his mental illness, he also reported feeling "crushed by guilt and inadequacy" and hints of suicidal thoughts, which were nothing new to him, became more frequent in his writing. He was also worried about money despite Theo reassuring him that his business as an art dealer was going well. At one point, Vincent even suggested enlisting in the Foreign Legion (yes, people actually did that back then although Theo quashed this idea). By late 1889, Van Gogh left Arles for the last time and went to the St Paul de Mausole asylum in nearby Saint-Remy. As he explained in a letter to his sister, Wil, "In all, I have had 4 major attacks, during which I had no idea what I asid, what I wanted or what I did, not to mention the three times before when I had fainting fits for inexplicable reasons, being quite unable to recall what I felt at that time".
Life in the Asylum
Even as a patient, Van Gogh kept up his painting. Along with sending him painting equipment, Theo kept his brother informed on what was happening in the Paris artist community and which of his paintings he would be entering in art exhibitions. Although Van Gogh's doctor limited his freedom of movement at first, that changed as staff became more confident that there would be no more self-harm incidents. Vincent also studied his fellow mental patients with keen interest and wrote to Theo that "my fear of madness is wearing off markedly, since I can see at close quarters those who are affected by in the same way that I may very easily be in the future... For though there are some who howl and rave a great deal, there is much true friendship here. They say we must tolerate others so that others may tolerate us, and other very sound arguments, which they put into practice too. And we understand each other very well. Sometimes for instance, I can talk with one of them - who can only reply in incoherent sound - because he is not afraid of me".
He was also a keen observer of his mental processes before and after his psychotic episodes and carefully documented these changes in his letters (the equivalent of blogging back then). As he commented in a letter to Theo, "Again- speaking of my condition- I am so grateful for yet another thing. I've noticed that others, too, hear sounds and strange voices during their attacks, as I did, and that things seemed to change before their very eyes. And that lessened the horror with which I remembered my first attack, something that, when it comes on you unexpectedly, cannot but frighten you terribly. Once you know it is part of the illness, you accept it like anything else. Had I not seen other lunatics close to, I should not have been able to stop myself from thinking about it all the time. For the suffering and the anguish are not funny when you are having the attack...I like to think that once you know what it is, once you are conscious of your condition, and of being subject to attacks, then you can do something to prevent your being taken unawares by the anguish or the terror. Now that it has been abating for five months I have high hopes of getting over it, or at least of no longer having such violent attacks."
Though restricted to the hospital grounds (with supervised visits to the local countryside), Vincent managed to continue his painting and Theo's letters were full of praise for the quality of his work. In one letter, he praised Vincent for "conveying the quintessence of your thoughs about nature and living beings, which , you feel are so closely bound up in them. But how that brain of yours must have laboured, and how you have risked everything in venturing to the very brink, where vertigo is inevitable." Theo wasn't the only one to recognize the genius of his brother's work. The time Van Gogh spent in hospital marked some of his most amazing artwork, including The Reaper, Cypresses, and his best-known painting, The Starry Night (later the title of a Don Henley song about his life).
Despite a psychotic attack in mid-July that threatened to delay his release from hospital, Van Gogh slowly improved. His doctors had misgivings about his recovery though. According to one doctor who privately reported to Theo, "his suicidal tendencies have gone, the only thing that still troubles him is having unpleasant dreams." There was also the question of where Vincent could go after his release. While he wanted to go north to continue his painting, he hesitated since "there are so many people there". This recovery was delayed further by a serious attack in December, 1889, almost a full year after the Arles episode. Since he tried to commit suicide by swallowing paint, his doctors restricted his painting and confined him to drawing instead.
Once he had recovered enough to write to Theo and Johanna again, Vincent described himself as feeling "like a broken vessel". Despite further setbacks, Vincent was cheered by the birth of a nephew (named "Vincent" in his honour). Despite serious epileptic seizures and more setbacks to his recovery, Vincent Van Gogh kept up his painting and his correspondence with friends and family. There were also long silences during which he didn't write at all and Theo noted sadly, in a letter to him on April 23, 1890, that "your silence is proof that you are not yet well." Van Gogh did his best to reassure Theo and finally left the asylum to travel to Paris.
To be continued