We all know what Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork looks like, but do we know the stories behind the paint? In this blog, we’ll delve into the tales behind five of my favourite of Van Gogh’s masterpieces.
Skull – May 1887
Drying cracks are visible in many places, such as immediately below the skull. The paint has cracked because Van Gogh painted the skull over an earlier picture.
The Yellow House (The Street) – September 1888
This piece depicts where Van Gogh lived in Arles, Southern France, from May 1888 – May 1889. His four rooms, rented at 15 francs per month, are visualised by the green shutters on the building. Van Gogh sent a sketch and description to his brother Theo: “It’s tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue.” He had planned to turn it into a ‘Studio of the South’; a place where like-minded artists could live and paint in harmony.
It is here that he and fellow artist (and close friend) Paul Gaugin lived together, with Gaugin moving in on the 23rd October. However, their personalities began to clash; their contrary ideas on art strained their relationship. In December, their relationship hit the breaking point. In a fit of rage, Van Gogh cut off his ear and gifted it to a prostitute named Rachel to safe-guard it.
Van Gogh’s stay at The Yellow House ended on the 8th May 1889 when he willingly committed himself to the Asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.
Sunflowers – January 1889
Sunflowers used to be one of my least favourites of Van Gogh’s works, until I learnt the heartfelt story behind it. This particular piece was painted in Arles, at The Yellow house (see above) and, interestingly, only used three shades of yellow. In total, Van Gogh created five Sunflower canvases, two of which hung in the room of Paul Gaugin, as Van Gogh knew how much his friend and fellow artist loved the flowers. Gaugin was thoroughly impressed and considered them to be, “Completely Vincent.” He later requested one of the paintings as a gift, which Vincent was hesitant to give him.
Starry Night – 1889
One of Van Gogh’s most popular works, painted at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole; the Asylum he willingly committed himself to in May 1889. The Asylum is where Van Gogh was officially diagnosed with epileptic fits, and he was thought to have been recovering. However, he relapsed; he began to suffer from hallucinations and suicidal thoughts. This change is marked in Van Gogh’s artwork by the darker colours incorporated into his artwork. The blues of the ‘Starry Night’ dominate the piece. The swirls create a dreamlike and ethereal effect which highlights the rift between reality and Van Gogh’s dream-like state. The deep-black spire that essentially suffocates the painting represents Van Gogh bringing God to the depicted village. Moreover, unlike the majority of his work, it is completely imaginary; it does not represent the scenery from around the Asylum.
Almond Blossoms – February 1890
A hugely symbolic painting of Van Gogh’s. Almond trees bloom in early spring and represent new life, awakening, and hope. This masterpiece was a present to his brother Theo and sister-in-law Jo for the birth of their son, Vincent Willam. Their son went on to found the Van Gogh Museum.
“As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and courageous as you.” -Theo, to Vincent Van Gogh.
Flowering trees appear to have been important to Van Gogh, as he painted a series of other almond blossoms paintings: Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass – 1888 and Blossoming Almond in a Glass with a Book – 1888.
Monday walks like he doesn’t want to.
His blood is pure coffee,
the bags under his eyes, 5p at Aldi.
Tuesday sees an open door, walks into the frame-
reacts five minutes later,
interrupts your conversation with pointless crap.
Wednesday is the optimistic one:
“Keep going! You’re halfway there!”
(Everyone wants to punch her in the face.)
Thursday would go out for a pack of cigs,
listen to their Wallowing in Self-Pity playlist,
not come back to their wife and kids.
Friday is in pyjamas,
smells of pepperoni pizza,
is quite the master thief in Skyrim.
Saturday destroys their liver, “What the hell!”
She wears cheap perfume
that fails to mask her sweaty skin.
Sunday bakes cookies for Mum because,
“She was looking a little pale,”
the white dove of the group.
A stone body; cement eyes
dominate with their Medusa stare.
Steel fists— a burst of movement.
Crimson poison gushes through split knuckles;
A crumpled body; eyes a dam
until the defences crumble
and the river overflows.
The soul cleansed of poison;
the stains washed out.
On the doorstep of a Saloon Bar
the two lovers’ Summer starts.
Their bodies pressed together,
their lips slightly apart.
His ringed hand reaches round her neck-
entwined in mahogany hair,
slides under her pearl earring;
Eyes closed, they break their stare.
Her hand lies gently on his hip-
I watch it slip under his shirt.
The fabric feels smooth to her skin,
smooth like the gold of my locket.
Within the locket his framed face
smiles sweetly up at mine.
Now, he smiles sweetly down at her.
Their hearts joined, mine frozen in time.
I slip a shadow in the dark,
slam my hand into his chest;
his head cracks the doorknob-
he slumps to the floor, at rest.
On the doorstep of a Saloon Bar,
my Summer suddenly ends.
Pride like a peacock in
his rich blues, greens, yellows
stands tall— overshadows
his brothers. Or so he thinks.
Greed’s safe bulges with gold,
locked in chains.
The key is “lost,” even for
a starved child, a homeless man.
Lust is cloaked in goat furs—
when he’s even dressed at all.
He strips with graceful power.
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?
Envy snakes in silence, stares—
his pupils vertical slits.
He marks his prey, he slithers;
he licks his lips, he slavers.
Gluttony talks in grunts, snorts.
Cheese, chicken, fish, sausage, bread
a constant guest in his hand.
The guests do not remain long.
Wrath does not walk. He charges.
His eyes wild, mane red, he roars.
His whisper louder than a
pride of deafening lions.
Sloth drapes himself across chair,
floor, sofa, other people.
Where he is, is where he lives.
A snail. A slug. A maggot.
Anyone who knows me knows how obsessed I am with my dog, Molly. Here she is now-
Look at her tongue!
Pets do magnificent wonders for our mental health. Whenever we’re down and lonely, their innocent little selves are always there to give us affection, to keep us active, to remind us we aren’t alone.
Here are some beautiful stories (and beautiful pets) that show just how important pets are for helping our mental health.
“Charlie lets me hold onto him during anxiety attacks and helps me steady my breathing of we’re home alone, if other people are home he sits down next to me and barks until someone comes to help.” -Annie O’Neill.
“Dogs are like old people in that they sit happily blinking on couches only vaguely understanding what is going on in the world around them. They don’t have body dysmorphia or a Xanax addiction or an absurdly long therapy waiting list, and yet they have everything they need: they can smell when dinner is being cooked and brought to them, they can hear the loving tone in every word their family says to them even if they don’t always know what they mean, and they can enjoy the feeling of the sun on their face without having to question it in the slightest. This is why I love Cosmo. Sitting next to him on the sofa, listening to him snore or seeing him glance up at rattly kitchen noises with light gleaming off his little white head, remind me that life— for all its pretentious tomfoolery— is really a nice simple business there to be enjoyed and cuddled. And although he may wee on the carpet, at least he never voted for Brexit.” -S.B.
(Above: left, Jester. Right, Candy.)
“One time I was crying, and Jester jumped onto the sofa and lay on his back on my belly and just fell asleep there until I stopped.” -Anonymous.
“When College finished, all my friends drifted apart and all I had left was my dog, Milly. She died just before Uni started, and it was the saddest I’ve ever been.” -Anonymous.
“When I was in a crisis, I was able to convince myself that if I did commit, my family would overtime be able to understand and kind of move on, but one of the main reasons why I didn’t go through with it was because I realised Lenny would not have ever understood. It broke my heart to imagine him coming into my room and looking for me and that he would never see me again, especially since when I was having extreme depressive episodes I would spend time with him, because he never pressured me to talk about my feelings and I felt safe, so for me he was the one I could go to when my mental illness was telling me that I couldn’t trust anyone and that I shouldn’t be alive.
I guess you could say he saved my life in a way, because he was there for me when noone else really knew what was happening.
“When Lenny died only a few months later, I started to slip back into my depression, but I was able to stay strong because I knew how much hiss loss had affected my family and I was able to power through it. Even when we got Evie and she was a little rat, I remember my Dad commenting about how happier I seemed and how much more time I was spending with the family, rather than staying in my room and having low moods. I genuinely believe that having a pet, especially one that gives you affection, is the sure for mental health problems. Sure, they won’t fix everything, I still have low moods and panic attacks, but I know that no matter how I act or what problems I have, my dog will unconditionally love me and I think every single person should experience that.” -L.S.
“This is my cat Sam. He purrs like a lawn mower and basically just lazes about the house all day and he licks you if he really loves you. He’s a very loyal cat even if he can be a grumpy old man. We lost him for 5 years but he came back to us.” –Hannah Docherty
(Above: left and middle, Poseidon. Right, Neptune.)
“Tilly was more of a therapist for me. I would go to her and just vent my feelings and get hugs- she was like… all the emotional support I got at home.
“Poseidon and Neptune… they get me out of a rut. I can no longer lay in bed and dwell on how I feel and be lazy when things get bad because they are so dependent on me. I have to get up and feed them and clean their litter tray and make sure they are safe. And because I’m not laying around all day I start to feel better an it kinda gives me a sense of purpose because they need me.” -Sahra-anne
‘The aim in this book isn’t to say that everything is a disaster and we’re all screwed, because we already have Twitter for that.’ — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 12
This book isn’t just for people who struggle with mental illness. It discusses the topic in regard to society as a whole, and how modern life, particularly in regard to social media, affects out mental health.
‘The question this time was a broader one: how can we live in a mad world without ourselves going mad? — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 9
Matt Haig’s ability to put across such strong messages in such a small chapter is phenomenal. He doesn’t drag it on to be something it’s not, simply for the sake of a long chapter. He’s short. He’s precise. He’s truthful.
‘I am trying to write about the messiness of the world and the messiness of minds by writing a deliberately messy book.’ — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 176
Thoughts on mental health are often fragmented. The thoughts take time to piece together. We don’t sit there, mid-panic attack, or mid-depressive episode, and bash out a novel’s worth of deep thoughts on mental health. We piece it together over the years. We learn.
Matt Haig portrays this wonderfully. His short chapters, linked together under the wider sections of the book, fit the tone perfectly.
The perfect combination of personal pronouns and polysyllabic language makes it feel like we, the reader, are have an intellectual discussion with Matt Haig. Not being talked down upon. Not being mansplained to.
The perfect combination of humour, and formal lexis makes it a more enjoyable read without deviating from the serious topic at hand.
‘There are days when I’d find it easier to talk North Korea out of its nuclear weapons programme than to talk myself out of checking social media seventeen times before breakfast.’ — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 152
If you don’t struggle with mental illness, you should read this to understand the people who do. If you do struggle with mental illness, you should read this to understand you aren’t alone. You’ll realise the little things you do don’t make you weak. Or weird. Or abnormal. Other people do them too, experience them too.
‘I am a catastrophiser. I don’t simply worry. No. My worry has real ambition. My worry is limitless.’ — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 24