For a small country, Holland has made a big impact on the world. It has produced great scientists, philosophers and writers, but its most successful export has been its painters. From Rembrandt and Vermeer to Hieronymus Bosch and Rubens – to name but a few – Dutch artists have delighted millions of eyes for hundreds of years. The art-galleries of the world compete for their paintings, but even the biggest gallery would find it hard to afford work by perhaps the most famous Dutch artist of all: Vincent van Gogh.
It is exactly 125 years ago, on the 27th July 1890 in the south of France, that van Gogh shot himself. He died two days later, ending what must have seemed to him a life that was short in years and long on misery. He couldn’t have guessed that his work would soon bring him world-wide fame or that one of his paintings, “Sunflowers”, would one day fetch the highest price ever paid for a work of art, nearly forty million dollars. But if he had enjoyed a lot of success during his lifetime, perhaps he wouldn’t have created some of his best paintings.
After all, if you think “tortured genius”, then “Vincent van Gogh” is one of the first names to spring to mind. His mental illness caused him great suffering, but without it he might never have created such vivid and compelling art. He used colours like weapons in a war on darkness – the darkness of his own mind. In the end, his artist weapons weren’t enough and he turned on himself. He famously cut off part of one of his ears, then painted himself wearing the bandage used to protect the wound. Today he might have successfully treated. In the late nineteenth century, the brain was even less understood than it is today and his illness worsened.
You can see what he experienced in some of his paintings: the canvas is a battleground for violent strokes of paint, blazing colours and contrasts. He was fighting for his own sanity. In the end he lost, picked up a gun and chose to end his life. His story raises many questions about the links between genius and madness, but it raises a more general question too: why do some people choose to commit suicide? At one time suicide was regarded as a great sin. In fact, it was illegal and if someone attempted suicide they could be prosecuted for it. A successful suicide was a shameful act that was concealed by perpetrator’s friends and relatives when possible, so that the perpetrator could receive a normal burial.
If no concealment was possible, someone who had committed suicide was traditionally buried at a crossroads, symbolic of the uncertainty of their destination in the afterlife. And the person might even have a stake thrust into their heart, so that they wouldn’t rise and wander, returning to trouble the living because they had left the world in what was seen as a God-less and unnatural fashion.
As attitudes towards suicide became more sympathetic, burial in a churchyard was permitted, but a special section of ground was set aside. Today suicide is no longer regarded as a great sin and people who attempt it are given psychiatric help, not taken to court and prosecuted as they once were. But suicide is still something that raises troubling questions and causes strong reactions. A funeral director needs special care and sympathy when dealing with the friends and relatives of someone who has committed suicide. Perhaps the art of Vincent van Gogh can be a help in this situation. He killed himself to end his suffering, but he left paintings that make the world a better place. And his most best-loved painting is not one of his battles with darkness but his celebration of a beautiful plant that delights in light and warmth: his golden “Sunflowers”.