Wheat under troubled skies

July 27, 1890: On this day in 1890 Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in a wheat field outside Auvers-sur-Oise, France; he died two days later, at the age of thirty-seven. Van Gogh’s letters provide a detailed look at his painting and personal worries over the last few months, although there are only hints of a suicidal mood. He had been released from his latest hospitalization for mental illness to the care of his doctor, but Van Gogh was not optimistic: “I think we must not count on Dr. Gachet at all. First of all, he is sicker than I am. . . .” Instead, he sought therapy in the countryside, and his painting of it:

I have painted three more big canvases…. They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness…. I almost think that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, the health and restorative forces that I see in the country.

In the last letter sent to his brother, Theo, just a few days before the suicide, Van Gogh offers thanks for the usual money, puts in a new paint order and says goodbye with his customary, “handshakes in thought.” In an unmailed letter to Theo found on his body, there are darker tones: “Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered because of it….”

Because a suicide, Van Gogh was denied funeral in the local church, but a nearby village finally agreed to accept the body. The service, described here by long time friend Emile Benard, took place in Van Gogh’s room:

On the walls of the room where his body was laid out all his last canvases were hung making a sort of halo for him…. The coffin was covered with a simple white cloth and surrounded with masses of flowers, the sunflowers that he loved so much, yellow dahlias, yellow flowers everywhere. It was, you will remember, his favorite colour…. Near him also on the floor in front of his coffin were his easel, his folding stool and his brushes.


When he was nineteen years old Picasso came to Paris, that was in 1900, into a world of painters who had completely learned everything they could from seeing at what they were looking. From Seurat to Courbet they were all of them looking with their eyes and Seurat’s eyes then began to tremble at what this eyes were seeing, he commenced to doubt that if in looking he could see. Matisse too began to doubt what his eyes could see. So there was a world ready for Picasso….

—from Picasso, by Gertrude Stein, who died on this day in 1946