Vincent van Gogh

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van Gogh





Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe

So who was Vincent van Gogh?
One of the world's most famous artists, and arguably the most talented colourist of all time, Van Gogh's paintings sell for tens of millions of pounds today. Yet, despite his background as an art dealer, he is known to have sold only one painting during his lifetime, and that to a mate's sister. Just as his public recognition was building, he shot himself.

Where did he drink?
Van Gogh was a denizen of cafes, the bars of their day. He painted them. Drank in them. Hung out in them. He often painted their owners, too. In Paris, he frequented the Café du Tambourin and the Moulin Rouge cabaret. In Auvers, it was the Café de la Mairie (now Auberge Ravoux). In Arles, he lived in, drank in and painted the Café de la Gare (today the Café Van Gogh).

What did he drink?
Absinthe is the drink most often associated with Van Gogh - it was so popular in the Paris of its day that cafes had an Absinthe Hour as bars might have a cocktail hour. Yet he also drank wine, beer and brandy, chain-smoked and mainlined coffee. Sometimes he'd pay for both meals and drinks with still life paintings for the café walls.

Any famous drinking buddies?
Vincent had a turbulent relationship with the artist Paul Gauguin, whom he met in Paris - his brother Theo had to bribe Gauguin to visit Vincent in Arles. He was friends, too, with the painter and sculptor Edward Degas, but probably closest to Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted him in a Paris café, absinthe in front of him, looking raddled, exhausted and, well, absinthed-out.

How did drink change his life?
Most famous for his landscapes, floral still lifes and self-portraits, Van Gogh also painted beer tankards and beer jugs. Sketches show glasses brimming with wine. In paintings, light floods through glasses of the absinthe he loved so much. He wrote in a letter about a colour: "the red of wine, and it is warm and lively like wine."

To begin with, Van Gogh used beer and absinthe socially, to break down his reserve in Paris cafes with hard-drinking friends. Yet drink became too much for him, and he left Paris for Arles in order to detox, before crashing off the wagon with a mixture of absinthe and brandy.

Van Gogh himself blamed drinking too much for the psychotic breakdown that saw him hospitalized not long before his death. Today, some scientists think that he became addicted to the terpenes found in the absinthe of his day, leading him to drink turpentine, eat oil paints and inhale camphor.

Others speculate that poisoning with thujone, a chemical found in absinthe, may have actually given him his eye for colour and shaped his later art. People with thujone poisoning are hyper-sensitive to yellow.

Any drinking stories?
Van Gogh could be a challenging drunk, and is probably most famous for cutting off his ear while under the influence. Some historians now think that he fought with Gauguin over the favours of a prostitute called Rachel. Van Gogh pulled out a cut-throat razor, Gaugin a sword, and Van Gogh lost his lobe. What's not disputed is that a tired and emotional artist then presented the bloody piece of his ear to the lady herself.

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