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a slightly bitchy assessment of van gogh’s dr. gachet (the person, not the painting)

This is the Dr. Gachet you’re probably familiar with.   He’s at the Musee d’Orsay, wearing what Van Gogh described as “the heartbroken expression of our time.”

Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

If you were really paying attention, you might have noticed Dr. Gachet hanging out in other famous museums, looking entirely different.

Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet was no ordinary artists’ model.   Nor was he an ordinary doctor.   His specialty was melancholy, professionally and personally.   Van Gogh was under his care during the last 80 days of his life (and proclaimed the doctor “sicker than I am” in a letter to Theo).

Gachet was friends with and treated Pissarro, Renoir, Manet and Cezanne just to name a few. He had amassed one of the largest impressionist art collections in Europe before he died in 1909.   Oddly, the information out there on him is pretty sketchy.

A little backstory:   He was born to a well to do manufacturing family in Lille in 1828.   He became interested in art as a teenager, but went on to study medicine in Paris.   In addition to earning his medical degree in Paris (his thesis was a study of melancholy), he became friends with some of the more revolutionary minds in Paris who acquainted him with the modern art scene brewing in the city.  He was hooked.

As he grew his coterie of artist friends (and his art collection), Gachet also married Blanche Castets in 1868.   He was said to be passionately in love with her, although I’ve yet to find a photo or evidence of her existence, except their two children, Marguerite and Paul fils (jr).   More on them later.  Here are some portraits of Gachet by his friends and patients.

Paul Gachet, portrait by Ambroise Detrez (1850/52)

 

Gachet in uniform, Regiments der Jäger zu Pferd (1849)

Paul Ferdinand Gachet by Armand Gautier

Dr. Paul Gachet by Armand Guillaumin, 1972 (or so)

The painting below is Van Gogh’s second painting of Gachet.  It’s been missing since the 90’s when it was purchased by a Japanese industrialist.   Shortly after that, he went broke and died.   Nobody knows where the painting is.   He may have sold it off when he went broke, but there were also rumors that he was buried with it (which would be pretty selfish of him). 

Shrouding the painting in more mystery, is the theory that it’s actually a copy made by one of the Gachets from the blue one (both Dr. Gachet and his son were notorious copiers of art in their possession).   But before we jump to forgery conclusions (which I’d love to do), I should mention that Van Gogh mentioned painting this one as well as the blue one in letters to Theo.    Also, copying art was a learning technique of the day and practiced by other painters and teachers.

The missing Dr. Gachet by Van Gogh

 

Etching of Dr. Gachet by Van Gogh, 1890

 

Paul Gachet, by Norbert Goeneutte, 1891 (also in the Musee d'Orsay)

Here’s a photo of Dr. Gachet for comparison.

 

Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet

 

After a brief stint as a front line doctor during the Prussian seige of Paris in 1870, Gachet moved his family and ailing wife to Auvers-sur-oise, where he became friends with Pissarro, Cezanne and Guillaumin (clearly the dude was an artist groupie).   His wife died in 1875.   His home, garden and daughter became a frequent subject for painters.

House of Dr. Gachet, by Cezanne
House of Dr. Gachet by Cezanne, 1972
Dr. Gachet’s garden by Van Gogh, 1890

The following two paintings were done when Marguerite Gachet was 19 years old.   The novel “The Last Van Gogh” is based on the premise that Van Gogh and Marguerite were having an ill fated, secret affair.   There’s no evidence of this, but it’s a good story.   Marguerite was rather mysterious, never married and rarely left her father’s house in Auvers until she died in 1949.   Van Gogh did have a habit of falling for the first available female in the room, even if they happened to be his own relative (he was heartbroken by a cousin who rejected his marriage proposal when he was a young man).   The author, Alyson Richman Berkley, says she was inspired by Van Gogh’s portrait of her at the piano

Marguerite Gachet in Garden, by Van Gogh, 1890

Marguerite Gachet at Piano by Van Gogh, 1890

Here a a couple of photos of the subject, Ms. Gachet:

Marguerite Gachet at piano, clearly taken when she was older

Marguerite Gachet, date unknown

Dr. Gachet was more than a mediocre doctor.  He fancied himself an artist and engraver.   He practiced his art under the nom de plume (or is that nom de peintre?), Paul van Ryssel.     His most famous work is a sketch of Van Gogh on his death bed..   In my book, it makes him more like paparazzi than a doctor.   Michael Jackson’s final doctor (Dr. Conrad Murray) comes to mind.

Van Gogh on his deathbed by P van Ryssel (aka Dr. Gachet)

Here are some other examples of Gachet’s art that  I’ve found:

Cholera ward, by Dr. Gachet (signed P van Ryssel)
Gachet’s version of Cezanne’s “A Modern Olympia”

See the original by Cezanne.

"les pommes" by P van Ryssel

Snow on the route to Auvers by P van Ryssel (aka Gachet)

Unlike his artist friends, Gachet had enough money to buy a press and copper etching plates.   He shared it with his good friends Pissarro, Guillaumin and Paul Cezanne.   One blog I read claims that the artists had such similar approaches, they each adopted an emblem to distinguish their work from one another.   Pissarro was a flower, Guillaumin was a cat, Cezanne was a hanged man and Gachet was a duck.   The stamps on some of the following prints don’t quite jibe with this theory.

An engraving by Dr. Gachet “Le chemix creux d’Auvers” 1972
A study of Van Gogh’s “Les vaches” done by Gachet
See Van Gogh’s original
by Paul van Ryssel (aka Dr. Gachet)

Paul Gachet fils (son of Dr. Gachet) was an art dealer, which makes perfect sense for someone who inherited hundreds original works art and no discernible talent or skill.     Like his father, Paul Gachet fils  dabbled in creating mediocre art.   He painted under the name Louis van Ryssel (L. van Ryssel).    He was born in 1873 and died in 1962.  A couple of samples here.

Copy of Dr. Gachet's sketch of Van Gogh on his deathbed by L van Ryssel

By L van Ryssel (aka Paul Gachet fils)

Gachet’s house and garden today:

Dr. Gachet's house from the street, today

overhead view of Gachet's house

Dr. Gachet’s homeopathic garden today
Gachet grew his own herbs and made his own extracts and sold them to patients to cure what ailed them.   Can you say “snake oil salesman?”
Dr. Gachet's homeopathic medicine kit

Dr. Gachet's homeopathic medicine kit

Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet died in 1909 at the ripe old age of 80.  He’s buried at Pere Lachaise in Paris.   Even in the afterlife he’s mingling with people more talented than himself.   I’m sure he’d like that.

Some good articles on the subject:

“Dr. Gachet, Friend to the Painters,” New York Times 1999

“No Cachet in a Gachet”, The Independent 1999

“Van Gogh’s Vanishing Act,” US News and World Report, 2000

35 Responses

  1. Thank you for this fine overview of Gachet and van Gogh’s association with him. I love that you have a typo that says his “god” friends Pissarro, etc. instead of good friends. I think they are gods too!

  2. Thanks, Mari. I’m sorry to tell you, I fixed the typo. Even though I personally think Pissarro deserves a little worship.

  3. […] mind you. Fortunately, my prozac and wellbutrin cocktail is a lot more effective than Vincent’s Dr. Gachet, who actually proclaimed Vincent cured a week before he killed […]

  4. This is really one of the best art-blogs I’ve ever seen, thank you!

  5. Intersting Note: My wifes grandfather was an AndresGachet (they say Gachet – Monet?)who left France for Ecuador.There are two families there now Gachet – Giocometti and Gachet Valencia. Her father returned to fight in World War Ialong with Giocometti ,Charpentier and one other frenchmen with art connected names. We are trying to trace the family! Suggesstions appreciated…

  6. Fantastic and informative site…I just finished The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman and I look forward to her new book, The Lost Wife…

    Thank you again for your amazing insight…and BTW, I don’t think you were “bitchy”…just honest

    • Thanks, Trish. I FELT bitchy when I wrote it. There’s something really dodgy about Gachet and I just don’t like him. I’m sure I’m projecting every shrink I ever had onto him.

  7. Please read my book, Van Gogh’s Women (Carroll & Graf) for evidence of an affair between Marguerite Gachet and Van Gogh, notably the symbolism in three paintings: Marguerite Gachet at the Piano (very romantic when you consider the bright red gown she is wearing has faded to light pink over the years), Marguerite Gachet’s Garden (dressed as a bride in a wedding garden) and Landscape with Two Figures, showing Vincent and Marguerite as a bride and groom (Vincent in top hat) in a cathedral of trees.

  8. Really intersting and informative! Thanks!

  9. In those times the preponderance of doctors were homeopathic practitioners. Homeopathy never worked for me but others I have known have had good results from it. Today’s medicine will be viewed as “snake oil” in the future. Most of the diseases and physical disabilities I suffer from in my old age were caused by doctors. To dislike doctors is easy but not always fair; theirs is a very difficult profession even under the best of circumstances and the techniques and practices of the late 19th century didn’t give the practitioners much to work with.

    As much as I experience intense empathy for Vincent (many of his paintings can make me weep) I’m thinking he must have been a handful to live with or around.

    • I think Vincent was most definitely a pain in the derriere to have around. But Gachet annoys me more–he seems to have had that depressed artist temperament, without any of the talent. And he didn’t seem to be much of a Doctor either, homeopathic or otherwise. I don’t have any problem with Doctors whatsoever (lawyers are a different story). Quacks however, are another matter.

  10. Maybe it was Gachet who shot him in the field of corn. Is there not a new theory that he was shot by 2 young lads (I nearly wrote 2 Yung lads)

    • You think it was Gachet on the grassy knoll? Anything is possible, including the two boys theory. But I think he probably did it to himself. It’s not like depression and suicide attempts was a new phenomenon for Vincent.

  11. Even if your essay is very interesting and rich in new facts etc. I have to disagree on one point: in my knowledge Vincent NEVER mentioned in his letters a second portrait of Dr. Gachet and in a very detailed and convincing books (even if a bit too passionate), L’Affaire Gachet by Bernanrd Landais (you know, no doubt) the thesis of the false portrait of Dr. Gachet (the very one exposed in France; the real deal being in some Japanese miliardaire safe) is quite blattant. (http://ivdanu.wordpress.com/) I would appreciate if you could tell me in which letter Vincent mentioned the SECOND portrait…

  12. Enjoyed reading this, which I came to after reading a great short story “12 portraits of Doctor Gachet.” This is in Doug Dorst’s story collection “The Surf Guru” – good stuff!

  13. And who could ever content that art history is dull? It’s quite fascinating to learn more about the Gachet clan (or Gachet groupies?). I appreciate all the photos and research.

  14. Il dottor Gachet è un assassino.

  15. oh, this is great information for me to make an app. related van gogh.
    Thanks for your struggle. from Korea.

  16. I arrived at your delightful blog by way of a link on Christopher Moore’s chapter guide for Sacre Bleu. What a delicious adventure. Love your research, your humor, and your personal interpretation.

  17. There was an affair between Vincent and Marguerite. She was pregnant with his child when her father finally found out. He confronted Vincent in the fields and during an argument he shot Vincent, not premeditated, but nonetheless he did. Marguerite was quickly shuttled off on the premise of a visit with relatives. Actually she was sent off to have an abortion. The reason the gun that was supposedly used by Vincent to kill himself was never found, is because it was Gachet’s gun and he was certainly not going to leave it at the scene. Marguerite spent the remainder of her life in solitude and morning, both for the dead Vincent, and the child that was never born.

    • Well, that’s as good a theory as any. But as much as I’d like to blame Gachet for his murder, I’m more likely to believe that Vincent shot himself and the only thing Gachet was guilty of was malpractice.

      • The man in the book trailer is Dr Paul Gachet

      • Well, there is a lot more to this.

        After the death of Vincent, Marguerite Gachet became a hermit, staying within the walls of her father’s house for the remainder of her life. Why would someone do this over the death of an unknown artist whom she supposedly knew only casually through her father.

        Adeline Ravoux’s signed statement about what happened during the days after the incident is curiously consuming. For instance, her father, who was in the room when Gachet visited Vincent to administer doctorial assistance, never spoke a word. Nor did Vincent. Strange that two men who were so closely connected never said a word to each other. Even if they had been strangers, one would imagine that a physician treating a conscious man with a gunshot wound, would at least have said something to him. Her father found this rather strange, so did Adeline.

        The gun that Vincent supposedly used to shoot himself was never found, why is that?

        Dr. Gachet had an associate, an artist, and they had copied many of the works that Gachet had acquired which they later sold as originals. These works have contributed to the controversy over the authentication of numerous works by Vincent, Cezanne, etc.

        The age old story that Vincent reportedly became upset, even incensed, when he found a canvas unframed and warping in Gachet’s possession was really not about it being unframed or uncared for, rather it was his reaction to his realization about Gachet – that works were being forged to later be sold as genuine. This, in addition to the relationship between Vincent and Marguerite led to the anger and hostility that eventually led Gachet to the meeting in the fields that resulted in the shooting.

        If a contemporary detective of serious skills were presented with the facts of what occurred during the short time Vincent was in Auvers, I am certain he would raise more than an eyebrow at the conclusion that is was a suicide- just the fact that the weapon was never found would be a major issue.

        Nonetheless I know it was not a suicide. And like much of history, the more convenient explanation has been universally accepted – and in this case, accepted because it fits the portrayal of the mad genius who could no longer cope with life.

        You seem very interested in Vincent. Perhaps you might, on your own, purse these facts, and in time come to understand what really happened and the full scope of it.

        One last thought – Vincent was not guiltless. His association with a young woman still in her teens – regardless of the honesty of his feelings – was something he should have given far more thought to. But the truth of what he was and is – that power of his passion – overruled what he knew to be a volatile situation at best.

        Cordially,

        Felix

        urthly:

    • I find this comment/post fascinating. Do you have any evidence to support your claim?

  18. Gracias amigo por el gran post que hiciste, esta lindo y muy bueno. Saludos :)

  19. […] πράγματα, αλλά υπάρχουν κι άλλα ακόμα να ερευνηθούν. Ο Gachet είχε την τύχη να τον ζωγραφίσουν κι άλλοι σημαντικοί […]

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