What defines brilliance?

What is the relationship between creativity and insanity?

How do you judge what is inspired and what is insipid?

What breeds eccentricity: extraordinary gifts, or the drive to be extraordinary?

What breeds the extraordinary: excellence, extremes, excess or some combination of the three?

Or something else altogether?

Is there really such a thing as an inborn artistic temperament, and how does one temper it?

Do you necessarily want to?

What makes the difference between a bright mind and one that ignites randomly, setting the soul on fire?

Whose self-painted eyes are these?

Why did he sell only one painting in his lifetime?

Why did his neighbors call him the “fou roux”, (the crazy redhead), demanding he be institutionalized?

Why did he cut off part (or some say all) of this ear?

Why did he admit himself for a full year to an asylum?

How could he paint, in that one year, 150 canvases?

And why did only seven of any of his canvases draw any public attention whatsoever during his lifetime?

Why, just a few months after that calming and productive institutionalization, and just as some of his work was noticed by critics for the first time, why then did he kill himself?

Why, a century later, are seven of his paintings among those that have drawn the highest dollar in history at auction? ($147 mill, $107 mill, $80 mill. . .)

Why are all those above-mentioned works among those he painted during that year in asylum, the last year of his life?

And why has this man — and why have his eyes —- followed me for the last five days? Stared me down for the last 35 years?


Five miles over the Alpilles from Maussane lies St. Rémy, a bubbling Provençal hub with its weekly market, grayed lavender and periwinkle blue shutters, squares shaded by speckled plane trees, and our favorite barber who for 42 years has cut men’s hair and shaved their beards in the same small shop off the plaza where (the same barbered) men used to play péntaque every day after lunch.

St. Rémy is a plateful of all you can hope for in deliciousness and a paletteful of all a painter could want in vividness. Yet acres and acres of soft slopes colored in peace and quiet.

That thick quiet suffused with a special light and the sun-warmed earth are what drew the crazy redhead to retreat here to a cloister called St. Paul-le-Mausole just outside St. Rémy’s center.

The cloister, dating from the early Christian period, is part of a small compound bearing the name of the nearby Roman mausoleum. The mausoleum – an imposing tower and arch — are the first structures discovered from the adjacent Roman community called Glanum, completely uncovered a generation after the painter lived a few hundred meters from it.

But the painter rarely if ever walked outside of the walls of the cloister. He wouldn’t have seen the tower.  In fact, his letters suggest he kept not just within the walls of the cloister, but mostly within the walls of his two rooms.

There, he seemed to find plenty to stimulate his acute eye and unquiet mind.

Asylum of St. Rémy

He wrote about what he saw through the small barred windows:

“A view of the garden of the asylum where I am, on the right a gray terrace, a section [of] the house, some rosebushes that have lost their flowers; on the left, the earth of the garden – red ochre – earth burnt by the sun, covered in fallen pine twigs. This edge of the garden is planted with large pines with red ochre trunks and branches, with green foliage saddened by a mixture of black. These tall trees stand out against an evening sky streaked with violet against a yellow background. High up, the yellow turns to pink, turns to green. A wall – red ocher again – blocks the view, and there’s nothing above it but a violet and yellow ochre hill. Now, the first tree is an enormous trunk, but struck by lightning and sawn off. A side branch, thrusts up very high, however, and falls down again in an avalanche of dark green twigs. This dark giant – like a proud man brought low – contrasts, when seen as the character of a living being, with the pale smile of the last rose on the bush, which is fading in front of him. Under the trees, empty stone benches, dark box. The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun – the last glimmer – exalts the dark ocher to orange – small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks.”

I’ll bet you’ve seen these paintings. Maybe you even remember, as I do, the first time you saw any of them.  Maybe the moment knocked you flat. It did me.


I’d just become a teenager and was in Europe for the first time, and found myself standing in a famous museum creaking along the wooden floors until I paused — froze — in the middle of a room entirely full of his works.  Irises.  Sunflowers. Cypresses.  Wheat fields.  A glimmering, disco-ball starry night.

In that hour I felt what you felt, too, probably: I and I alone had discovered electricity.

Not the Ben Franklin current. And nothing as banal as a pronged plug at the end of a twisted plastic chord.

What I’d found was more like what would have happened had I stuck my tongue right into the socket of the center of the universe.  Scorched through.  Whizz-zammed.  Lifted off my toes by thunder.

I crept closer to the canvas — as close as I could get without getting slapped by a guard — to see if the brushstrokes still smelled of oil. Weren’t they painted just an hour ago?  And then I looked both ways, thinking maybe if I staged the right distraction or turned at the perfect angle, I could lick the canvas.  Honest.  Weren’t chunks of color that fresh and moist made to be tasted?

Today, they are in every dentist’s office, those pictures.  And you can pick them up in every Three-For- $4.99 student print shop.  (You’ll find them right between the posters of greased surfers and kittens hanging on a clothes line by their paws.)

As soon as Randall and I, students at the time, had saved $20, we bought a “Starry Night.”

We framed it ourselves with a plate of discount glass and cheap little clippy thingies.  And it followed us in that simple frame from house to house for years.  When we eventually visited Amsterdam, we’d graduated from grad school and to a big, canvas reprint of those succulent almond blossoms.

We had it framed professionally this time (hand painted wood and all), and it’s followed us ever since.  Both works were painted in that intense last year at St. Rémy.

Much like they’ve become clichés those two pieces, so have the painter’s life and even his name. I heard, for example, an automobile manufacturer tried to market a family car using his name: Van Go.  The campaign didn’t make it out of the starting gates due to legal snags.

We can all thank our lucky starry nights.

And now here I was again, strolling the modest garden that once grew the irises he captured with his brush.

Walking by the old stone wall with his cypresses,

standing beside his bleached blue door,

circling the inner courtyard where he’d walked in an infinite loop for hours on end,

hearing his own description of what his peculiar and fiery eye saw. What my thick lenses hardly notice:

“You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red’.”

To a friend, he wrote of his

“. . .Moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.”

To his sister he wrote:

“I should like to paint portraits which appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavor to achieve this through photographic resemblance, but my means of our impassioned emotions — that is to say using our knowledge and our modern taste for color as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character.”

“Intensification of character.”

Van Gogh himself. As well as being a genius with his tormented, mercurial moods, furious and radiant manic episodes, passions at once so violent and so virtuous, he feared he was the devil and his brother thought he was a saint.  His vigor was physical, intellectual and spiritual, making for such a tempestuous existence, he seemed fated from early on to self-extinguish — destitute, alone, a pauper — as he in fact did at an early age.

And so I wonder.  I ask again all those questions at the top of this post.  Is “intensification of character” and all its distantly-related cousins — passion, zeal, pushing and obliterating boundaries, creativity, perfection, sensation-seeking — are they really, in the tragic end, all they’re cracked up to be? Isn’t surviving — reliable steadiness, normal plodding through, being there for others — a pretty intense quest? All by itself?

What price art?

I have no answer. Except perhaps to the first question:

What defines brilliance?

Well, that’s an easy one:

Which begs the obvious: What price no art? 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

6 thoughts on “Intensifigation

  1. Sometimes my desire to paint becomes overwhelming, I have an image or a mood I feel I must capture somehow, but I don’t paint. Instead I get up at five in the morning and pack lunches for my family. Plan for everyone, cook for them, wash for them and drive them everywhere. I encourage and console, I read to them and I listen to everyone. By the end of the day I go to bed exhausted and the last thing I see when I fall asleep is the image I still have not captured. Sometimes I think that the only way I will be able to paint is if I booked myself into an asylum or booked myself out of life for a year, but off course I am too sensible and sane for it and love the ones I sacrifice for too much.

      • Hi, Carolyn, That’s right, you can wait until then, til you’re 70. But I understand, as I’m sure you do, Janina’s hunger. It growls. Seventy years is a long time, don’t you think, to muffle growling hunger pangs. Doesn’t using our gifts —since they are gifts, things given to us from God — make us healthier and more energized in our caring for those other gifts — the people — also given to us by God? How to combine both, keeping both tempered, so you don’t slide into the crazy bog?

    • Janina,
      And maybe you think of Minerva Teichert, who lived on and worked a ranch in Cokeville, Wyoming, and had children (and grandchildren) whom she used as models for her murals and to whom she taught the gospel. . .and everything else she knew. I have often thought of her while trying to harness my intense personality with its intense need to care for those I have been given and the talent, too, I’ve been given with its grinding need to create. To be frank, the pulls compete. And sometimes leave a bruise to the heart. But I can add that the time does come —and it comes sooner than you could ever imagine — when your family’s needs shift and you can pull out your paint brushes (or pen and paper, or modeling clay) and pour yourself out into it. Until then, you keep a draft book, Janina. A highly detailed one.

  2. Fine essay, Melissa. Valuable to us who have been there at the sanitarium but didn’t see half of what you did.



    • D&D, thank you for braving the blog and commenting here! You must know, of course, that I saw those things in St. Rémy because you, my parents, blessed me from childhood on to pay attention to such things. My first trip there was with you, too, if you recall, like so much of the world I now call home. I thank you eternally.

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