Van Gogh, Vincent. Extraordinary autograph letter signed (“Vincent”), in French, 4 pages (8 x 5 ¼ in.; 203 x 133 mm.), on grid paper, “Saint-Remy de Provence,” 20 January 1890 to “M. & Mme. Ginoux” (Joseph Ginoux and Marie Ginoux-Julien); with envelope addressed in Van Gogh’s hand to: Monsieur Ginoux, Cafe de la gare, Place Lamartine, Arles; spotting, repair to page fold.
Less than seven months before his death, Van Gogh shares his thoughts with an ailing friend: Illnesses are there to make us remember again that we are not made of wood.
With great poignancy and introspection, Van Gogh writes to his friends, the proprietors of the Café de la Gare in Arles, after learning Madame Ginoux has taken ill again. Madame Ginoux had suffered from a bout of the flu and was then suffering from nervousness and anxiety most likely related to menopause. Finding parallels with the timing of the bouts of their respective illnesses, Van Gogh offers words of encouragment and extends his friendship. Less than seven months before his tragic death, Van Gogh could not be more lucid and reflective on the subject of illness.
Van Gogh writes in full: I do not know whether you remember- I think it quite strange that about a year ago since Mrs. Ginoux was ill at the same time as I was; and now it has been so again since— just around Christmas —for a few days I was taken quite badly this year, however it was over very quickly; I have not it less than a week. Since, therefore, my dear friends, we sometimes suffer together, it makes me think of what Mrs. Ginoux said — ‘When people are friends, they’re that way for a long time.’
I myself believe that the annoyances one experiences in the ordinary routine of life do us as much good as bad. The thing that makes one fall ill, overcome by discouragement, today, that same thing gives us the energy, once the illness is over, to get up and want to discover the next day.
I can assure you that the other year it almost vexed me to recover my health —to be better for a longer or shorter time — continuing always to fear relapses— almost vexed —I tell you—so little desire did I have to begin again. I’ve very often told myself that I’d prefer that there be nothing more and that it was over. Well yes— we’re not the masters of that— of our existence and it’s a matter, seemingly of learning to want to live on, even when suffering. Ah, I feel so cowardly in that respect, even when my health returns. I still fear. So who am I to encourage others, you’ll rightly say to me, it hardly suits me.
Anyway, it’s only to tell you, my dear friends, that I hope so ardently, and that moreover I dare hope, that Mrs. Ginoux’s illness will be of very fleeting, and that she’ll recover from it entirely enlivened. But she isn’t unaware how fond we all are of her, and wish to see her well.
As for me, illness has done me good— it would be ungrateful not to acknowledge that; it has calmed me , and I have had more luck this year than I dared hope for, quite unlike what I had imagined.
But if I hadn’t been so well cared for, if people hadn’t been as kind to me as they have been, I think I would have dropped dead or completely lost my reason.
Business is business, then duty too is duty, so it’s only right that I soon return for awhile see my brother. But it will be hard for me to leave the south, I can assure all of you who have become friends to me—friends for a long time.
I’ve forgotten again to thank you for the olives you sent me the other time and which were excellent; I’ll bring you back the boxes soon.
I’m therefore writing to you, dear friends, to try to distract for a moment our dear patient so that she resume her habitual smile, to please all of us who know her. As I’ve told you, in a fortnight I hope to come and see you again, quite cured.
Illnesses are there to make us remember again that we are not made of wood. That’s what seems the good side of all this to me. Then afterwards one goes back to one’s everyday work less fearful of the annoyances, with a new store of serenity. And even if we part, it will be while yet saying to oneself again: ‘and when people are friends, they’re that way for a long time—for that is the means to be able to leave one other.’
Well, more soon, and my best wishes for Mrs. Ginoux’s speedy recovery.
Van Gogh suffered from acute anxiety and frequent bouts with mental illness for much of his adult life. In February 1888, Van Gogh moved to Arles after living two years in Paris. He arrived ill from alcohol abuse and smoker’s cough and soon found himself at the Café de la Gare, where he became friends with the proprietors, Joseph and Marie Ginoux. The interior of the establishment was made famous in Van Gogh’s painting The Night Café. In Feburary 1890, just weeks after writing the present letter, Madame Ginoux became Van Gogh’s subject of five paintings entitled L’Arlésienne. The version intended for Madame Ginoux is lost; it has been theorized that it was Van Gogh’s attempt to deliver this painting to Mrs. Ginoux that precipitated a crisis that was “the starting point for one of the saddest episodes in a life already rife with sad events” which began on 22 February. This spell of depression lasted until the end of April, during which time Vincent was unable to bring himself to write though he did continue to draw and paint. On 27 July 1890 Van Gogh, at the age of 37, shot himself in the chest. The bullet was deflected by a rib bone and passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal organs, probably stopped by the spine. He was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux where he was attended to by two physicians. Neither had the capability to perform surgery to remove the bullet, so they left Van Gogh alone in his room smoking his pipe. The following morning, his brother, Theo, rushed to be with Vincent and within hours he died due to an untreated infection to his wound. Theo reported his brother’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever.”
An astonishing letter clearly revealing Van Gogh’s awareness of his own illness as he attempts to console another. Letters by Van Gogh are extremely rare at auction and the present letter is arguably the finest Van Gogh letter in private hands.
References: Vincent Van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, 2009, letter 842.