Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh

“I have a portrait of Dr. Gachet with the heart-broken expression of our time.”

Van Gogh wrote to Gauguin. Then to his brother Theo: ‘I had to paint [him] like that to convey how much expression and passion there is in modern heads… that is how one ought to paint many portraits’. The painting, done in heavy brush strokes typical of the artist, shows the doctor with his head propped on his right hand; his elbow rests on a table next to a purple foxglove and two books, Germinie Lacerteux (1865) and Manette Salomon (1867), both by the Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules.

Some experts have suggested that the doctor is shown suffering from depression and the deep, heavy colors were van Gogh’s way of communicating the doctor’s deep emotional malady. Look closer at his expression and you will see the droopy eye lids, the distanced, disengaged glance, the twisted expression on the doctor’s face… Van Gogh wrote that Gachet’s face was ‘grief-hardened’; ‘… he certainly seems to be suffering [nervous trouble] as seriously as I’, and ‘he is sicker than I am’.

Dr. Paul Gachet (1828-1909), born in Lille, studied medicine in Paris and Montpellier, and wrote a thesis entitled Étude sur la mélancolie.1 In 1858, he returned to Paris to practice as a doctor and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in 1872. There he befriended many painters, including Cézanne (who painted The House of Dr. Gachet), Daubigny, Guillaumin, and Pissarro. Gachet himself became an artist, signing his works ‘P van Ryssel’.

Vincent van Gogh moved to Auvers on 20 May 1890, after leaving the asylum at St-Rémy. He made three portraits of Gachet, an etching (May 1890) and two paintings (June 1890)—the second, for Gachet himself to keep, a near copy of the first.

Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 oil on canvas “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” is number 11 on the The Economist’s list of the most expensive paintings sold at auction, but according to economists, the price, counting for inflation is still higher than the Francis Bacon triptych that is currently holding the number 1 spot. This iconic van Gogh masterpiece was sold at Christie’s in New York on May 15, 1990 for $82,500,000.

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