I knew very little about Van Gogh when I went to a ‘Van Gogh and Britain’ exhibition at the Tate.  I still wouldn’t claim to know a great deal about him but I came away with some strong impressions.

This was a person who finally found his vocation as an artist only after working first as an art dealer and then as a lay pastor.  You get the impression of a man in a hurry from that point on.  Van Gogh was avidly learning, learning about painting.  And most of his prolific output was crammed into ten years.

Van Gogh and suffering

I was struck by his compassion for the ordinary people, the little people, the destitute and the suffering in an often grim, brutal and uncaring society.  He said that he was doing his art for them.  He identified with their suffering – perhaps because of his own.

Van Gogh’s suffering, of course, lay above all in his longstanding mental illness.  Towards the end of his life episodes of that were accelerating to a frequency of every few months, every few weeks, even every few days.  You have the feeling of him being trapped by them and it must have been terrifying.

Yet it was precisely at this time that some of his greatest works were painted.  The luminous intensity of their colours takes your breath away.  That includes the two paintings he was working on when he shot himself, dying two days later.

A solitary painter?

The nineteenth century and much of the twentieth were not kind to those suffering from mental illness or indeed to anyone who did not fit in for whatever reason.  Maybe that explains in part the traditional view of Van Gogh as a solitary artist. But noone’s entirely solitary (Van Gogh actively sought out the company of other painters) and no ground breaking work comes entirely out of nowhere. There are always influences and always causes.  Van Gogh often wrote about the many artists and authors who were influencing him.

Our interconnectedness

This interconnectedness goes against the grain of our own culture’s preferences where everything is about me and my choices.   But that narcissism is at odds with reality.  We are all linked.  We are all the product of others.  Just think of all the people who have influenced you in your life and who now live on inside you making you the person you are.  Include among them countless generations of biological influence.  Every person is a group.  One senses that Van Gogh instinctively knew that.

Putting fish back into water

The chances are that if he had been alive now his mental illness could have been brought under control.  We have all sorts of treatments available, some based on medication, some on talking.  Among the latter, there’s group analysis.   Who knows – perhaps that, among other things, could have helped Van Gogh.

Group analysis is a therapy that’s based precisely on the idea that ultimately there’s no such thing as an individual separate in their formation from the rest of humanity.  And because of that there’s the belief that in some ways the patient treated psychologically in isolation, while perhaps being greatly helped,  may yet miss out on something, like a fish out of water.

So there’s the belief too that to put the patient into group therapy is to put the fish back into water and that areas of the self can thereby be reached and healed that are perhaps inaccessible in any other form of therapy.  Problems originate in groups – families – so where more appropriate to resolve them than in another group?

The tragedy is that it all came too late for Vincent Van Gogh.


‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

and therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’     

John Donne


‘You always lose when you’re isolated’. 

Vincent Van Gogh