Vincent van Gogh Myths: Myth #1
The myth: The institution of St. Remy and the man in charge, Dr. Peyron, strongly encouraged Vincent van Gogh to paint and cared for him using advanced modalities in the treatment of psychiatric illness.
The truth: The institution of St. Remy never encouraged Vincent to work; on the contrary, Dr. Peyron opposed the idea from the very beginning and with the greatest reluctance allowed him to paint. I am very glad to hear that they now offer workshops in art therapy, etc. but this was definitely not the case when Vincent was there. The sole treatment was hydrotherapy-hot baths, twice a week. The idea of any kind of work was anathema. There were no books in the asylum, no distractions except bowls and draughts. Vincent found it loathsome that they were given nothing to do. As he said, they were like vegetables, sitting around all day eating, digesting and waiting for their next meal.
If the authorities today claim otherwise they're lying. Vincent's letters prove it. Vincent suffered four attacks at St. Remy. After the final one Dr. Peyron forbid him to paint in spite of his pleading. It was then that he left St.Remy.
David Sweetman's The Love of Many Things - A Life of Vincent Van Gogh corroborates the official version. And what, pray tell, was Sweetman’s source? Probably the institution’s own account. Who do we believe, Vincent and Theo or Sweetman and the institution?
Vincent wrote to Theo at this time: “M. Salles has been to St. Remy – they are not willing to let me point outside the institution.” April1889. Theo, over the strong objections of the administrators, persuaded them to allow Vincent to paint and arranged that he should have two rooms, one to be used as a bedroom and the other as a studio. Both, mere dingy cells with bars like all the other cells. Sweetman's description makes it sound like a resort.Reiterating my earlier point, prior to Vincent, no patient at St. Remy was ever allowed to do any work of any kind. Their whole philosophy was to keep all the patients as quiet and inactive as possible. Vincent again, “Above all I must not waste my time, I am going to set to work again as soon as M. Peyron permits it; if he does not permit it, then I shall be through with this place. … The rather superstitious ideas they have here about painting sometimes depress me more than I can tell you.” January 1890. For them to claim that they pioneered the treatment of psychiatric illness (at least when Vincent was there) is belied directly by Vincent’s own account. Again: “The treatment of patients in the hospital is certainly easy for they do absolutely nothing; they leave them to vegetate in idleness and feed them with stale and slightly spoiled food.” Sept. 1889. “The food is so-so. Naturally it tastes rather moldy, like in a cockroach infested restaurant in Paris.” May 1889. As to the people, Peyron included, who ran the institution, “Perhaps they would like nothing better than for the thing to become chronic, and we should be culpably stupid to give into that. They inquire a great deal too much to my liking about what not only I but also what you earn, and so on.” August 1889.
Vincent’s stay at St. Remy was indeed a nightmare. For them now to try to rewrite history is very typical and very wrong. I made my film The Eyes of Van Gogh to set the record straight, to show what really happened there and also to reveal the truth behind his relationships to his brother, his father and Gauguin. All from his point of view.