PROLOGUE

ARLES, SUNDAY 23rd DECEMBER 1888

 

Vincent Van Gogh knew he was descending into another period of madness. He’d experienced the signs only too often in the past. The first was acute agitation, usually over some perceived slight against him by someone who might be a complete stranger – a wrong word out of context that he took like a punch on the nose – quickly followed by a rush of violent anger over which he had no control.
He knew what had brought on this current attack: he’d been betrayed. Yes, betrayed by the one man he believed he could trust with his very life: fellow artist Paul Gauguin, the man he’d invited to join him here in his little house – the Yellow House, in Arles, South of France.
The more he dwelled on Gauguin’s betrayal, the more it affected him.
 Earlier that same evening the two had argued bitterly, until finally Gauguin, in his own fit of temper, had snatched his jacket and hat and stormed off into the wintery night, despite the steady cold drizzle. As if in a bid to divert his anger, Vincent had taken up a blank canvas, plonked it on his easel and had begun to paint a portrait of Paul Gauguin from memory. Loading his brushes with thick paint, he stabbed and twisted them into the canvas with almost demonic rage, as if attacking the very face of Gauguin himself.
Vincent Van Gogh was in total despair. What was he to do about Gauguin? It seemed that from the day of his arrival eight weeks earlier, all they had done was argue. But it had never reached this pitch of intensity – and over a woman, or that woman: Millie Calle, a local prostitute working at Madame Chabaud’s brothel a few streets away at No. 1 Rue Bout. And Vincent was certain that it was to her that Gauguin had rushed off, to sip cognac at the bar of Madame Chabaud’s while he awaited the services of Millie. The thought of Gauguin and Millie in her cosy bed, naked bodies welded together by hot passion, further fuelled his confused thoughts until his very head was spinning with these tormenting mental images. It felt as if his skull was about to explode.
It had been eight weeks since Gauguin’s arrival. It had been Vincent’s suggestion: that the two artists should spend time painting together in the Yellow House which Vincent was renting, with the intention of providing them with a base from which they might start a vibrant artistic community here in Arles, where the sunlight was so invigorating and very different from the northern light they were used to. In the first weeks they had worked side by side, either out in the Midi landscape or in the room they used as a studio. Spurring each other on, they had produced perhaps some of their best work to date and Vincent his Sunflowers paintings that one day would fetch the highest price for a painting in the history of art.
But at this low point in his life he was living as a virtual pauper, relying on his art dealer brother, Theo Van Gogh, for money to sustain him. Only Theo had the insight to see that Vincent’s painting had the promise of taking art into the modern era. At this particular moment in time, Vincent was no longer buoyed up by his dream of creating a future art colony in Southern France; his world was disintegrating around him as it had on numerous occasions throughout what he now knew had been a miserable and unfulfilled life. All he had ever wanted was to have a happy home life, settled in a relationship with a woman and family, and to continue his painting. Since switching from his first life’s passion – to become a Christian missionary –- to that of an artist, it was this passion that now got in the way of his longing for domestic bliss. It came before anything else. His ill health had been caused by his pursuit of painting; of weeks and months of going without proper food while he worked feverishly away at canvas after canvas – and, he sometimes argued with himself, for what purpose? What few paintings he’d sold had hardly covered the cost of materials! His peers were mostly scornful of his work – even Paul Cézanne, who was himself engaged in the struggle to move art forward, had called his painting ‘the work of a madman’.
            Suddenly the front door opened and from the drizzle stepped Paul Gauguin. Physically, he was a short man of stocky build that at times made him a pugnacious person to deal with. Rain-spattered, he stood a moment in the doorway, his heavily lidded eyes taking in Vincent, carefully gauging what mood his friend was now in. Seeing him stood trembling with emotion at his easel, brush in one hand, palette in the other, Gauguin saw that he was working away at a new portrait of him; saw that it conveyed something of Vincent’s anger. The brush marks were ragged, agitated and executed without thought. Squinting at the canvas, he could see that the thick paint smeared about it was straight from the tube, unmixed, vibrant red clashing with chrome yellow. It was Vincent’s anger expressed on the canvas rather than a considered study. But Vincent didn’t give his fellow artist time to further dwell on the painting.
            ‘You’ve been with her, haven’t you? You’ve been to Madame Chabaud’s,’ flashed Vincent.
            ‘What if I have?’ said Gauguin gruffly, moving into the room and closing the door behind him. Paul Gauguin had much in common with Van Gogh: both came late to painting, Vincent at the age of twenty-seven, Gauguin at thirty-five. Both were passionate about painting to the point of self-destruction. What drove them forward was their dissatisfaction with European painting, which they felt was too imitative of other artists. Both artists were constantly experimenting. Like Vincent, Gauguin’s finances were always precarious and he had largely agreed to join Vincent in Arles largely to curry favour with his brother, Theo, on whom he was relying to sell his paintings.
Gaugin now stood, taking off his hat and jacket and shaking the rain from them. ‘The atmosphere there is more conducive than here. At least the place is warm, the cognac cheap and the company more pleasant.’
Vincent looked at him intently through eyes narrowed with distrust as Gauguin moved to his favourite chair and slumped down, and began to fill his pipe with tobacco. In truth, Gauguin had had enough of his stay in Arles. He found the town boring and too uncosmopolitan for his taste; and living with Van Gogh was not easy, with his often hot temper and sudden mood swings. He had to constantly warn himself not to antagonise him, aware that they were living cramped under the same roof, that their bedrooms were only inches apart. To try and steer Vincent away from their earlier quarrel, he eyed the new painting and delicately ventured, ‘I see you’ve started a new portrait of me. It’s different – the style more rapid, more spontaneous.’
But it was as if Van Gogh hadn’t heard Gauguin as he shot back with:
            ‘You’ve been with her, haven’t you? With Millie. She took you to her bed, didn’t she?’ Gauguin offered a shrug of his broad shoulders and concentrated on filling his pipe while still keeping half-an-eye on Vincent just a few feet away, as he might a dog stricken with rabies. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone: ‘The place was quiet, Vincent – the rain has shut the town down. Even the soldiers haven’t ventured out of the barracks. Stayed in warming their hands and arses over their blazing stoves.’
            ‘Ah! Then it is Millie you’ve been with!’ accused Van Gogh, believing he’d caught his so-called friend out.
            ‘What of it?’ countered Gauguin, wanting to settle this petty issue that had come to absorb Van Gogh so much. He raised his voice to make his point. ‘I tell you, there were no customers.’ He struck a match, the yellow flame illuminating the room, heightening the shadows and animating them as the flame flickered. Gauguin drew on the flame through his pipe, inhaling the thick, pungent tobacco.
            ‘You could have gone with one of the other girls. You didn’t have to go with Millie.’
            ‘Only Millie and Rachel were available. I’ve told you, the town is quiet. The other girls had retired for the night. Madame Chabaud was even thinking of locking the door and calling it a night.’ 
Van Gogh took a slow pace towards him, his eyes suddenly ablaze with a potent mixture of jealousy and madness which was conveyed in his voice. ‘Did she speak of me? Well, did she?’
            ‘Why would she want to talk about you?’ asked Gauguin evenly, aware of the sudden change in his friend’s demeanour and now warning himself against antagonising him further. Drawing on his pipe and sending a cloud of acrid smoke to the ceiling, he quietly said, ‘We talked about the weather, how quiet business was, and of Christmas.’
            ‘Ah! yes; Christmas,’ scoffed Van Gogh, tilting his head to the ceiling to give off a little laugh. Then refocusing on Gauguin: ‘Did you tell her what I’m buying her? Well, did you?’
            ‘No, I didn’t,’ Gauguin snapped back a little harshly, beginning to tire of the conversation. ‘What you do with your money once you’ve paid your weekly dues is none of my business.’
Wrongly thinking Gauguin was rebuking him for his extravagance, Van Gogh quickly replied in a defiant tone, ‘I’ll willingly give up food for a week to pay for it. I’ve asked Madame to put the present to one side and wrap it.’ (The present was a bottle of perfume that Vincent had seen in the grocery shop next door.) ‘You don’t have to worry about me taking money from the weekly kitty – count it if you wish. I’ll use my food money to pay for it.’ With this he abruptly turned his back on Gauguin and returned to his painting, but without his earlier gusto, as if now wanting to slow down to put some order to the confused brushwork.
Gauguin quietly observed him. Despite their often tense relationship, he felt sorry for Vincent. Losing his head to Millie, a simple prostitute who openly laughed at him behind his back and mockingly referred to him as  ‘that crazy artist’. Even she, used to dealing with drunks and abusive men, had expressed her disdain for Vincent. Often, after they’d had sex and if no more clients were awaiting her down in the bar, she would relax next to Gauguin with a cigarette and complain about Van Gogh; of how he would come to Madame Chabaud’s and attach himself only to her, whether over a drink in the clients’ bar or when in her room. He was always wanting to take her out of the brothel and set her up in the Yellow House as his little wife. Last time she’d talked about it to Gauguin she’d recounted through a childish giggle, ‘He thinks he will be saving me from a terrible fate. Reforming my bad ways, as he puts it. He’s crazy. I should know. Back last summer, before you arrived, he had me sitting in that poky room he calls his studio in that filthy yellow house almost a whole week, painting my portrait. I only suffered it for the money.’ Then losing her giggles and tapping a finger at her forehead, she had declared, ‘I tell you, he’s crazy. He thinks I will go to that stinking little house you live in, be his dutiful wife; cook him regular meals and clean up after him while he paints his childish pictures – and what about those ugly sunflowers he keeps painting? He seems to only use yellow paint.’ Then with a sudden thought, ‘Why don’t you ask him to paint something with more colours, like a vase of lovely roses?’
In the beginning, when she’d spoken like this, Gauguin had stoutly defended Van Gogh, explaining to her that with his commitment he might one day start to sell paintings – enough to provide for himself and a wife. But Millie Calle was a simple girl, with no understanding of art. So Gauguin would simply suck on his pipe and think of other things.
            Rather like a hungry dog with a bone, Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t quite let go of the issue of Millie. He turned from the painting, waved his brush menacingly at Gauguin and declared, ‘One day soon she will be my wife. I’ve spoken to her of the matter. I will persuade her to give up her life at Madame Chabaud’s.’
But Gauguin had had enough of this stupid nonsense, and through a hollow laugh said aloud to emphasise the point,  ‘You’re wasting your time thinking she will give up her life at Madam Chabaud’s to marry you.’ Then, wanting to reach him on a personal level, said, ‘Listen, Vincent, you’re like me: too committed to your painting. Having a wife would be a distraction. I should know; I still have both a wife and five children, remember.’ After a moment’s thought, as if in an attempt to rid himself of his own family failings, he continued, ‘Millie wants to live in style; wrap herself in Russian furs and ride in a rich man’s carriage through the Tuileries on Sunday afternoons to enjoy being admired by the Parisian bourgeoisie – not dress in rags and be married to a penniless artist.’
On hearing this, Van Gogh suddenly threw his brushes to the floor, pulled open the drawer of his worktable and took out a photograph and, in a hand shaking with raw emotion, held it out to Gauguin.
‘You’re wrong! See; I have evidence of her feelings for me. Look! A photo of us taken together in August, before you came. She came to the photographer on Place du Forum.’
Gauguin eyed the photograph of Van Gogh standing rigidly in his best clothes next to a seated Millie Calle, whose expression was one of absentness and detachment, and gave a snort. ‘She hardly looks like a willing bride, Vincent. I don’t see her expressing any love – rather like she’s in mourning.’
Still holding the photo out to him, Vincent turned it over. ‘This is what we agreed. Look, wrote it myself: Sunflowers speak of love. Millie Calle, betrothed to Vincent, Arles, 1888.’
Gauguin spat a piece of tobacco to the floor and said in a meaningful tone, wanting him to use common sense: ‘Vincent, I’m your friend. Believe me; she has no more feelings for you than any of the soldiers who visit her. Get her out of your head.’ Then he conceded, ‘OK, visit her for a regular fuck, pay her the two francs and then get on with your painting. She’s nothing more than a common prostitute.’
This obscene description of the woman he loved had Van Gogh suddenly and blindly lashing out at Gauguin with the flat of his hand. It caught him unexpectedly on the side of his head, almost knocking him from the chair; his pipe toppled from his mouth and fell to the floor. Gauguin, himself quick to anger, recovered quickly, jumped to his feet and violently shoved Van Gogh away from him, shouting, ‘She was right! She calls you a madman!’ and with his volatile temper now roused, continued his verbal attack. ‘Get it into your head that she has no feelings towards you! She sees you for what you are! A madman!’
Given his present fragile state of mind, these words only served to antagonise Van Gogh more and he again blindly lunged at Gauguin; but he was bigger and far stronger than Vincent and had no difficulty pushing him away a second time. Van Gogh careered backwards, colliding with the table that held his paints and materials and sending them crashing to the floor. Gauguin used this moment to stride back to the door, and for the second time that evening snatched up his jacket and hat and pulled open the door. Before storming out, he turned and shouted back at Van Gogh, ‘I’ve finally had enough of you and Arles! Forget our arrangement! Tomorrow I return to Paris!’ The  door slammed closed behind him. Vincent Van Gogh stood there in the small studio, surrounded by paintings that would someday be worth many millions of pounds and hailed by the art world as some of the greatest paintings ever produced in Western art. Unable to rationalise his anger, he simply picked up his brushes from the floor and threw them against the door through which Gauguin had just departed, swore to himself and slumped down in his chair, elbows on his knees, hands clasping his head as if trying to squeeze from his skull the renewed throbbing.

                       *                           *                              *

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting there, slowly beginning to feel enormous regret about his row with Gauguin, when suddenly he heard a rapid knock at the door, followed by a second. He immediately jumped up and went to the door, believing it to be his friend, come back to apologise. Ah, they would throw their arms around each other like true comrades, forget their stupid spat and resume living together as two committed artists. He threw open the door and felt the damp night hit him in the face like a wet flannel. It was not Gauguin standing there. Instead, he saw the bedraggled and diminutive figure of Millie Calle.
         Her only protection against the drizzly night was a shawl covering her head and body. Vincent looked down at her and immediately felt a physical pang of love towards her quicken his heartbeat. She seemed no more than a child, vulnerable and fragile. She gazed back at him through almond-shaped brown eyes that held only suspicion and contempt for him, but Vincent’s obsession with her made him blind to this. Her nose was slightly snubbed, as if a thumb had been pressed against it at birth. Though her mouth was small, her lips were full and always seemed slightly open, a glint of teeth within. Without invitation she pushed her way into the small room. She stood there and taking in the disordered scene, demanded, ‘I’ve come to see Paul –’ then spun round to confront Van Gogh.
He slammed the door closed and with his back against it he looked at her, unsure of what to do or say, other than, ‘He’s gone – left me.’
She stood in the middle of the studio amid the wreckage of the argument, looking for signs of Gauguin. Then, pulling her shawl more tightly around her as if in protection against the mad Dutchman, challenged, ‘I don’t believe you. He was at Madame’s less than an hour ago. Said he was coming home to bed. So I know he’s here.’ Van Gogh moved gingerly towards her, as if about to embrace her. She stiffened her body and fixed him with a hostile stare that dared him to lay a hand on her. This was her defence against any drunk who might believe he could take a chance with her. Vincent stopped dead in his tracks, and in the same hostile manner she warned, ‘You stay away from me. I’ve come here to talk to Paul. Now, where is he?’ On getting no reply she caught sight of the door that led to the hall and, from her week posing for her portrait, knew it led to the stairs. Without further comment she made immediately for them, believing that Gauguin must be in his bedroom. Van Gogh made no attempt to stop her, but followed to the foot of the stairs, then quietly watched as she climbed, her boots clomping upwards as she searched out Gauguin. Then he was silently following her like a faithful puppy dog. He waited quietly in his small bedroom as she searched the other three gloomy rooms, calling for Gauguin, her boots click-clacking urgently over the wooden floors.
With her futile search over she entered Vincent’s room, defiantly crossed her arms over her breasts and once again confronted him. ‘OK, he’s not here. So where has Monsieur Gauguin gone?’
‘I told you, he said he was leaving Arles for good. Going back to Paris.’
She fixed him with a slither of a cold smile. ‘Not at this time of night. Next train is early in the morning.’ She moved forward, seeking the landing and the stairs. Vincent automatically moved sideways to block her, then in a beseeching voice, pleaded, ‘Millie, forget Gauguin. He’s gone. You can come and live here with me. We can make a home together.’ But she was already laughing in his face.
            ‘And live like you? In that kind of mess downstairs? Stinks of paint, tobacco and filth!’ She moved determinedly towards the door again, but this time Vincent took hold of her by the shoulders, wanting to draw her to him in an embrace. For the first time she was aware of her vulnerability, trapped in this small, dark room with someone she felt was dangerous. She tried to shake him off, but Vincent was also determined and took a stronger hold of her, pulling her towards him in an endeavour to deliver a kiss that would hopefully calm her and be reciprocated, as she did when he paid her the two francs at the brothel. On this occasion his effort had the opposite effect and she struggled harder. But she found that the shawl wrapped tightly about her acted like a straightjacket; their struggle caused her to lose her balance and she fell backwards onto Vincent’s bed. He moved towards her, his voice again desperately pleading.
            ‘All I want is a kiss, Millie. I’ll even pay you your two francs.’ As he tried to join her on the bed, she broke free, managed to shake off her shawl and tried to climb to her feet, but Vincent was already pulling her down with a strength that had her suddenly panicking as his face changed into an expression of open sexual lust. He now tried to climb on top of her, his contorted features so close she felt his spittle on her face as he attempted a jumble of words of endearment, but they came out as a garbled stream, incoherent and foolish. The smell of his bad breath almost overwhelmed her, acting like an anaesthetic that threatened to render her unconscious.
The small room of which Vincent had painted a picture that would in years to come be turned into countless millions of vibrantly coloured reproductions of almost nursery-book appeal now filled with the sounds of their violent struggle, and the bed sagged and squeaked in protest under their combined weight. It was only her desperation that gave Millie the strength to wriggle free. Terrified and breathless, she got to her feet, eyed the door and realised that Van Gogh was again moving to block her escape. He was now rambling incoherently, sometimes in French, then slipping back into his native Dutch. Desperate to flee the room, she looked around for another escape route, but found none. Then she caught sight of his open razor glinting on the washstand next to the window. With the kind of survival instinct that only prostitutes seem to possess, she grabbed hold of it and as Van Gogh moved towards her she lashed out blindly at his face with all the strength she could muster. It happened in an instant. Vincent gave out a loud yell as blood spurted from the left side of his face. The shock of her action had him staggering backwards like an animal mortally wounded, his hands clutching the side of his head, warm blood seeping between his dirty, paint-caked fingers. In her panic, she threw the blood-stained razor to the floor, hitched up her dress and while Van Gogh writhed about the room in agony, made her escape. Fighting back the searing pain, Vincent didn’t hear as she ran down the stairs and back out into the wet night.
            Without looking back, Millie Calle ran as fast as she could to the brothel at No. 1 Rue Bout d’Arles. It wasn’t until she reached its safety that she finally stopped, breathlessly brushed past Bernard, the burly doorman whose job it was to protect the premises, and ran into the bar. It was almost empty: only Madame Chabaud and another prostitute, Rachel, were present. On seeing the blood-splattered and distressed Millie, Madame Chabaud put a hand to her throat in a reaction of sudden shock and gasped, ‘Millie, what has happened? Has someone attacked you?’
But Millie Calle did not want to discuss her recent ordeal. Instead she took the brandy handed to her by the barman and gulped it down in one go. Then, still fighting to get her breath back, said, ‘Please, Madame... I am not injured... Please, I must go to my room and clean up... Do not concern yourself, I will be fine.’ Then she ran from the bar and climbed the stairs to her room.
For several minutes, those still in the bar speculated on what could have happened to Millie, with all that blood on her clothes? They were used to violence in the town, usually among the soldiers and the immigrant workers who came over from Algiers to work on the local farms. Earlier that year two men had been murdered outside the brothel, and most weekends saw bloody fights caused by drink and arguments over one of the girls. Had Millie got herself involved with two rivals out on the street? Given the inclement weather, it seemed unlikely.

                             *                           *                              *

Back in his bedroom, Vincent Van Gogh was desperately trying to stem the bleeding from his partly severed left ear. Eventually he staggered back down the stairs, holding a towel to the injured ear and fighting back the pain now throbbing from the injury. It also had the effect of arresting his mental state, as if man’s natural instinct for self-preservation had finally kicked in. In the two rooms downstairs he again frantically searched for more towels, which he pressed to his ear in a bid to stop the bleeding. Eventually it seemed that, with the loss of blood, Vincent’s anger had finally subsided. In its place came another thought: to confront Millie Calle with the evidence of her violent attack upon him.
In the kitchen, he washed his partially severed ear in cold water, then found a piece of the Forum Republican newspaper and carefully wrapped it. With a towel forming a crude bandage around his head, Vincent put on his jacket. In order to hide his wound, he picked up one of Gauguin’s berets and pulled it over his head, his trembling fingers easing it painfully over the wound. Then he left the Yellow House to make his way to the brothel at No. 1 Rue Bout, a short walk away. 
Madame Chabaud, Rachel and the barman were still quietly speculating as to how Millie had come to be in such an emotional state and her dress covered in blood when a commotion came from the brothel entrance. They turned to see what was happening and almost immediately they saw Vincent Van Gogh, that mad artist from the Yellow House, stagger in, a hand pressed against his wounded ear, obviously suffering acute pain. An alert Bernard was at his shoulder, ready to eject him on Madame Chabaud’s order. The sight of this wounded creature initially froze the two women in the bar to the spot. Van Gogh used this same moment to lurch a few paces forward, asking in a pained voice, ‘I’ve come to see Millie.’
‘She’s not here,’ came Madame Chabaud’s authoritative reply. Recovering from her shock, and used to having to deal with drunks and awkward clients, she placed her clenched fists on her wide hips in a display of confrontation and took several paces towards him, addressing him sternly. ‘I suggest, Monsieur Van Gogh, that you leave straight away and seek medical attention. You seem to have come to some harm.’
With his breath coming in quick, painful gasps, Vincent seemed impervious to her threatening stance and merely repeated his request. ‘It’s Millie I’ve come to see.’
It was the prostitute Rachel who addressed Vincent next. Knowing that Madam Chabaud and Bernard were there to protect her, she now took a pace towards him. ‘Madame is correct. Millie went out some while ago. As it’s so late, she won’t return till morning.’
Vincent could do no more than take in the implacable faces around him; aware of his own growing fatigue and of a desperate need to sleep, he decided to retreat. But first he slipped a hand into his jacket pocket, took out the wrapped newspaper packet that contained the severed part of his ear, and handed it to Rachel, saying in a measured tone, ‘This is my gift to Millie. Guard this object very carefully and give it to her when you next see her.’ He turned and staggered away.
            Curious as to what gift this crazy Dutch painter intended for her friend Millie, Rachel slowly unwrapped it. When she saw the grisly remains of an ear, she gave out a scream and fainted to the floor.
 
                              *                           *                              *

AUVERS-SUR-OISE, SUNDAY 27TH JULY 1890

 

Some seventeen months after this incident in Arles, which had led to Van Gogh’s catastrophic mental breakdown and his eventual voluntary admission into the local asylum some fifteen miles away in the village of Saint-Rẻmy, under the supervision of Dr Peyron, Vincent Van Gogh was finally painting well. Despite numerous relapses of mental illness over the preceding months, it seemed that he was finally over the worst of his periodic mental crises and, he agreed with himself, was producing work he was proud of. Not only that; back in January he’d finally sold a painting at an exhibition in Brussels for a good price, four hundred francs, and had received an encouraging review from the art critic Albert Aurier. It was real progress, believed Vincent. Yes; he could look forward to a future as a painter.
 Discharged from the lunatic asylum at St. Remy in May, Vincent decided to move back north to be closer to his brother, Theo, and was now settled in the small community of Auvers-sur-Oise, twenty miles north-west of Paris. His output was more prodigious than ever – some forty odd paintings in just under nine weeks. This new burst of life prompted him once again to think of a future with Millie Calle.
He decided to write to her in Arles, telling her of his new life; that he was finally cured of his madness and was working with great vigour. And, he added, he’d finally sold a painting at a good price, had received great reviews, and Theo was planning further exhibitions. His long suffering and mental torment now seemed at an end and he had a bright future to look forward to. In his letters he pleaded with Millie to join him. When she’d not replied to his first letter, he’d written more, sometimes two a day, each one more urgent until they lapsed into almost incoherent ramblings. The promise of a new life together grew in intensity until finally he lost count of the number of letters he’d sent. In his last letter, he’d even enclosed his treasured photograph of himself and Millie, the one shown to Gauguin and upon which he’d written: Sunflowers speak of love. Millie Calle, betrothed to Vincent, Arles, 1888, to remind her of her unspoken promise to him.
 It was some two months later, Sunday 27th July, that he finally received a reply, handed to him by Gustave Ravoux, in whose inn he was lodging. On seeing it was post-marked Arles, Vincent’s heart began to race. It could only be from one person – his beloved Millie! He went immediately to the privacy of his cramped room, his boots tramping up the wooden stairs. He sat down on his bed and tore the letter open in full anticipation that Millie Calle would soon be joining him, that their silly quarrel could be forgotten. He held the letter firmly in hands that shook with anticipation, his eyes squinting at the small writing. He gave an amused laugh at the knowledge that he had never seen Millie’s handwriting before, yet the neatness of her hand filled him with wonderful joy. But, as the contents of the letter sank in, Vincent’s spirits plummeted. He had to read it several times, as if his mind and eyes were playing a cruel trick on him.

                                                           
Madame Virginie Chabaud
                                                            No. 1 Rue Bout
                                                            Arles
                                                            Provence
23rd July 1890

            Monsieur Vincent Van Gogh,

I am writing to you at the request of Mademoiselle Calle. I must first tell you that she is no longer working at this establishment, but has moved. I have forwarded all your letters to her and she has conveyed to me her distress that you are making these determined efforts to contact her, and was also upset by their content. She has written to me with some urgency to the effect that, flattered as she is to read of your love for her, she wishes me to convey to you that she has never had any feelings of love for you. The reason for her leaving Arles was because of the events of the evening of 23rd December 1888, when your madness at my establishment left her both distressed and very afraid. She asks that you immediately cease further letters, which she finds increasingly alarming, and that you make no further contact. She also wishes you to know that she has fallen in love and is to be married within a few months. She then plans to leave France to live in another country. I trust, Monsieur Van Gogh, that this letter finally ends this matter and that you will leave Mademoiselle Calle to enjoy a peaceful life with her new husband. Finally, she has firmly instructed me that should I receive further letters from you, I am to immediately take them to the Arles Police Commissioner J. d’Ornano and request that he inform the Police Chief in Auvers and have you pronounced mentally ill so that you may once again be sent to a mental hospital to avoid similar events that occurred at my establishment on the night of 23rd December 1888.

Madame Chabaud.

 

This brutal letter was the end for Vincent Van Gogh. Millie was his love. She was the one woman in the world he believed could fill his desperate loneliness, as she had done in their moments together at Madame Chabaud’s, or when she’d come to the Yellow House to sit for him in the summer of 1888 and he’d painted her portrait. Yes, he had his painting, but he’d always longed for the domestic bliss he believed she could provide for him – children, a warm fire and Millie to care for his everyday needs. Now that possibility had been brutally wrenched away. To make the matter crueller, Millie was to marry another man! He now saw this as a personal slight against him. Clearly Madame Chabaud’s letter was intended to further humiliate and punish him.
Everything was now suddenly very clear, believed Vincent, still sitting on his bed. It had started back in Arles, when despite his pleas she would not give up her ways and live with him in the Yellow House. Instead she’d turned to Gauguin; he in turn, after betraying him, had walked out and returned to Paris. He felt the old rage rush back through his tortured body; his head began to fill with that familiar pounding that had come to scare him over the years, for he knew it was a sign that his mental health was again deteriorating. As if to try and assuage the demons in his head, he tore at the letter and raged incoherently, ripping at the flimsy paper until it had been reduced to confetti, then threw the pieces at the floor. His thinking became confused. He saw conspiracies, faces from the past: those of Gauguin, a fellow artist in whom he believed he could trust and who eventually destroyed their life together in Arles. Then of the women in his life – there had been Eugenie Loyer, his landlady’s daughter when he’d been living in London back in 1873. That relationship had also ended disastrously. Then he’d fallen in love with his widowed cousin, Kee Vos-stricker. When he asked her to marry him, she had also deserted him and had fled to Amsterdam. As with Millie, he had also pursued her, again only to be rebuffed and humiliated by her family. Then there was the reformed prostitute Sien Hoornik and her children, with whom he’d lived quite blissfully for nearly two years in the Hague before she, too, refused him marriage and had asked him to leave. And finally Millie. Now these faces flashed through his mind like fireworks exploding in a night sky. After another half an hour of trying to rationalise his thoughts, he felt his whole being was shaking. He knew these dangerous signs only too well from his mental breakdowns over the past seventeen months – they always led to the loss of self-control. Next moment he jumped up from his bed, went to a chest of drawers, yanked open the top drawer and pulled out a loaded revolver that had been loaned to him by one of the villagers to shoot rabbits when out painting. Now in an extremely agitated state, he secreted the weapon inside his coat, much like a thief stealing a valuable trophy. Clamping it under his left armpit and pulling his jacket tightly around him, he hurried from the room. He scampered down the stairs as if the building was burning around him. He rushed from the inn and hurried off to the fields, the same fields where earlier he’d been painting, full of renewed optimism.   
Completely alone, in a state of mental confusion and torment and breathless from his exertions, he lifted the revolver to his chest and aimed at his heart, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.
The loud explosion panicked a colony of crows from their treetops and sent them flapping off into the distance. The force of the bullet hitting his chest threw him violently to the ground, where he lay as the pain rushed over him. His aim had been poor and he’d missed his heart by several inches, leaving him mortally wounded. After several minutes Vincent managed to struggle to his feet and stagger back to his lodgings. Fighting off the debilitating pain, he pulled himself up the stairs to his room and collapsed exhausted on the bed. His landlord, on hearing Vincent climbing the stairs and appearing to be in some painful state, went immediately to his room. He saw Vincent’s blood-spattered clothing and asked him what had happened. In response, Vincent quietly asked him to hand him his pipe. While lighting it for Van Gogh, the landlord used the moment to look closer at the wound and could see that it had been caused by a gunshot to the chest.
He immediately summoned the local doctor, Dr Gachet, who was also treating Vincent for his mental condition and had befriended him. An urgent telegram was then dispatched to Theo in Paris, and though his own health was beginning to fail at this time, he rushed to Vincent’s bedside.
 The following day, Monday 28th, they were of the belief that Vincent would survive his suicide attempt and recover, but Vincent had had enough of life’s struggles, of being rejected by both the art world and by the people around him he believed he could trust – especially Millie Calle, with whom he was much in love. Having lost Millie to someone else, he simply gave up the struggle for life. Vincent Van Gogh died in his brother’s arms at 1:30 the following morning, aged thirty-seven.
            Yet tragedy had not yet finished with the Van Gogh brothers. In September of that same year, only months after Vincent’s violent death, Theo also descended into mental collapse and illness. He died of tertiary syphilis on 25th January 1891 aged only thirty-three and was buried next to Vincent in the town of Auvers.
            Over the next century, Vincent Van Gogh would come to be recognised as one of the greatest artists that ever lived. His paintings, once considered to be worthless and the work of a madman, would be seen as visionary, the work of a genius, and would soon be the inspiration for future ground-breaking artists such as Matisse and Picasso through to the present day, continuing to fetch some of the highest prices ever paid for a painting.


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