A Letter from Author Carol Wallace
Vincent van Gogh
Are you a longtime fan of Vincent van Gogh? If so, you’re a step ahead of me. I’ve always loved art and haunted museums, but until I wrote Leaving Van Gogh I could walk past Vincent’s paintings with only a passing glance.
Even now I’m a little bit surprised that I’ve written a novel about him. I came across Dr. Paul Gachet while I was researching my master’s thesis in art history, back in 2005. Gachet was a doctor who treated mental illness in Paris in the late 19th century, and was also a friend of many of the great painters of the era. He seemed like a terrific subject for a novel. I thought I’d write about his collection of paintings, many of which ended up at the Musée d’Orsay.
And what happened? Vincent van Gogh hijacked the narrative. As I was writing, Vincent walked into Dr. Gachet’s sitting room in Auvers, France, a village northwest of Paris. He put down his portable easel and paint box, and started to talk. The focus of the novel shifted from the doctor’s pictures to the painter’s pain. Well, you can understand why. We novelists are looking for drama. We need pressure and conflict. Vincent van Gogh, in May of 1890, was a man under terrible strain. He wanted more than anything else to paint. But he had been mentally ill, confined to an asylum for a year, and he knew that he was still menaced by his demons. That, obviously, was my story.
But before I could write the whole book I needed to do a lot of research. When it became clear that Vincent was going to be the star of the show, I started to read his letters and that is how my affection for him took root. He was such a stoic. He endured such anguish, and scarcely complained. He believed in his art when only his brother Theo and Dr. Gachet shared his enthusiasm. He wrote to Theo, “It is my earnest hope that I am not working for myself alone.” He never knew how much he would matter to us all.
Dr. Gachet’s side of the story fascinated me, too. It was a period before doctors had many tools to deal with mental illness, but Gachet took a humane and sympathetic stance toward his patients. A man who had always been fascinated by melancholy, he was in some ways the ideal physician for Van Gogh. He was certainly one of Vincent’s greatest fans, even after the painter’s death.
From Publishers Weekly
With several middle-grade books behind her, Wallace makes her adult fiction debut with an intense look at the last months of Vincent van Gogh through the eyes of Paul Gachet, a doctor specializing in mental illness. In the spring of 1890 Theo van Gogh, Vincent's younger brother, approaches Gachet with a request. Vincent was moving to Auvres, France, to paint and seek peace in the countryside. Theo wants Gachet, who once lived in the region, to supervise his brother. Gachet, a known patron of the arts and an amateur artist himself, agrees and is immediately drawn to van Gogh's luminous work. As the seasons pass he bears witness to the painter's mental anguish and struggles to determine what maladies so consume him. As he watches the artist's troubling downfall, Gachet must determine how best to care for van Gogh—and the family his death would leave in need. Tapping a deep well of research, Wallace paints a portrait of how madness can both make and break a man. But by making the clinical Gachet his narrator, the author pushes readers away, rather than giving them a chance to get to know the haunted figure behind the canvas. (Apr.)
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