Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Leaving Van Gogh.
In Leaving Van Gogh, Carol Wallace explores the torment that often accompanies artistic genius - or more specifically, the juxtaposition between Vincent van Gogh’s dark emotional state and his vivid canvases. His story is told from the perspective of Dr. Paul Gachet, who had a complex and tragic relationship with van Gogh in the final months of the artist’s life.
In his Paris office, Dr. Gachet, a physician specializing in mental disorders, receives a visit from Vincent’s brother, Theo. It is Theo’s hope that he can send Vincent to live in Gachet’s village of Auvers-sur-Oise. Vincent is desperate to leave the asylum in order to paint as he wishes; however, he is unable to live independently. Gachet agrees to supervise Vincent while he’s in Auvers, confident that he can help him.
As an amateur artist and collector with several artist friends (Cézanne, Renoir and Pissarro among them), Gachet has special insight into the artistic temperament. He welcomes the chance to bring another artist into his circle.
Vincent arrives unexpectedly at Gachet’s house several weeks later, unkempt and frighteningly thin. Before long, he becomes a frequent visitor to the doctor’s home. Gachet is astonished and inspired by his massive talent, as well as being intellectually stimulated from the challenge presented by his illness. The doctor’s teenage son idolizes the painter, and his daughter, who poses for Vincent, seems to fall under his spell. Vincent brings some spark to the Gachet family’s otherwise quiet and mundane country life.
At first, he seems to respond well to his new environment. He appears to be happy at times, demonstrating affection toward friends and family instead of his usual withdrawn and antisocial behavior. His paintings – not yet known or appreciated by the art world – are bold and alive, inviting Gachet to look at his familiar surroundings in a different way.
Inevitably, Vincent’s personal demons take over. After a couple of violent episodes, he loses the ability to paint and falls into hopeless despair. He feels that only death can release him from his anguish. Gachet, realizing that he failed Vincent as a doctor, does the only thing he can do for his friend, performing one final act of compassion to help Vincent end his misery.
Wallace handles the delicate topic of mental illness with sensitivity. Vincent is a kind and good man who is at times completely calm and lucid, and at other times, insensible. Gachet, who carries his own emotional baggage and deep-seated insecurities, struggles between hope and futility as he tries to support Vincent in his illness and his art. Their relationship is based on mutual dependence, with Gachet needing to help van Gogh as much as van Gogh needs someone to help him.
Throughout the novel, Wallace reverently describes Vincent’s paintings and the Auvers landscape that inspired him during the summer of 1890. She remains as true to the actual events as possible, although the exact circumstances surrounding van Gogh’s suicide remain a mystery. Leaving Van Gogh is a beautiful and heartbreaking tribute to a true genius – gone too soon – now made immortal from his body of work.