Van Gogh: Suicided by Society

Breaking news from Paris:  Word on the street has it that visitors to the Louvre are twelve-deep behind the velvet rope, straining to get a view of the Mona Lisa. Only those with the sharpest elbows make it to the front for a ‘selfie’ with the engaging young woman with the enigmatic smile. Luckily, my companion and I have tickets, not for the Louvre, but for the museé d’Orsay, where the reserved line is moving smartly along.

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The museum -- originally known as the Gare d'Orsay, a railroad terminus -- is nothing short of stunning. Once inside, we bypass the crowd milling about in the center hall and head for the show of the moment: Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society.

And what does that mean, a man suicided by society? The premise comes from a treatise written by Antonin Arnaud -- a poet, writer, painter, iconoclast, intellectual -- who came to van Gogh's defense, denouncing the harsh comments from the painter's detractors.

But poor van Gogh! Despite his untiring efforts, both his search for love and for recognition of his work went unrewarded. Few wanted to buy his paintings --Too much passion! All those wavy lines! -- the very paintings that nowadays go at auction for astronomical amounts. It was a cruel fate. Unable to bear society's neglect any longer, he packed up his talents, folded his easel and went away. For good.

Indeed, had it not been for the moral and financial support of his brother, Theo,  for all those years, Vincent could not have afforded to buy his art materials, no less to rent that sunny bedroom in Arles, the blue bedroom with the yellow bed.

At least that's how I thought of it until I read his letters  to Theo. Only then would I learn that the walls were not blue but a 'light lilac' and the bed not any old yellow, but  a 'chrome yellow'.  Van Gogh was nothing if not explicit, detail-oriented and highly scientific in his approach to his art. The hundreds of letters exchanged by the brothers are a treasure to read -- a great study of undying fraternal love.

Having read the letters, I made it my business a few years ago to visit Auvers-sur-Oise, to climb the gentle hill leading to the cemetery and lay flowers on Vincent's grave. Quite fittingly, the brothers’ graves are side-by-side. What was surprising was to find that theirs are the simplest  graves in the cemetery.

Van Gogh's grave

But by one o’clock, we're out of the D'Orsay and looking for a place to have lunch, hopefully one not too far distant. (My companion is a reluctant walker.)

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Approaching a handsome well-dressed Parisian executive exiting a building -- Excusez-moi de vous déranger, monsieur, I ask for a recommendation. By the way, that simple phrase -- Excusez-moi de vous déranger, monsieur -- has the power to turn unaccommodating strangers into helpful guides. Watch what happens next.

A lightning-quick smile crosses his face and, asking  permission, he switches to English. (That's a relief.) He recommends a small restaurant, La Ferme St-Simon, where he guarantees we will find a good table, a fine meal. Walking us to the corner, he points us in the right direction.

However, after walking only a few blocks in the heat of the day, we're tuckered out and opt for a sidewalk table at a lively restaurant in St-Germains-des-Prés, whose name I no longer recall. We order a carafe of rosé, a bottle of Badoit, a salade Nicoise pour moi, et un croque monsieur pour monsieur. At which I look up to see at the far end of the street a canopy reading La Ferme St. Simon. We'll save the farm for another day. By the way, did you notice the lovely white table cloth? Van Gogh would have loved this! Bon appetit!

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