The good doctor

The good doctor

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a homeopathic physican, whose portrait by the great Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh went on to become one of the world’s most distinct works of art. 
Doctor Gachet was close to many impressionist artists of his time. He was also an art collector who built up a massive collection of more than 500 paintings and drawings of many celebrated and budding artists in his lifetime.  
Befriending the likes of Camille Jacob Pissarro (1830-1903), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Claude Oscar Monet (1840-1926) and Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), the good doctor rendered medical assistance and services to them and quite often, got artworks in exchange.

For instance, Gachet treated Pissarro and his family during their ailments, and the impressionist painter and influential teacher (who counted Paul Gauguin and Cezanne among his many students) showed his gratitude by giving him no less than 13 paintings and more than a dozen prints. 

Similarly, Renoir rewarded the doctor with a painting when he took an urgent call on one of his favourite models. Monet, who was to become the most radical artist of his time, borrowed money from Gachet and repaid it through two paintings.
Gachet acquired several works from Cezanne, including the famous ‘A Modern Olympia’ (1870). As a matter of fact, he was the first person to take interest in Cezanne’s work and the first one ever to buy the artist’s painting! He even invited Cezanne to live in his house at Auvers-sur-Oisel. Cezanne acknowledged the doctor’s kindness by painting ‘The House of Doctor Gachet in Auvers’ (1873).

It was not only painters who benefited Gachet; it is said that musicians and actors who were treated by him also compensated him with tickets for their performances.
Gachet (who was also known to be an ‘eccentric’ doctor) considered himself to be an artist as well. He made etchings in his attic and published them in journals. He also learnt the techniques of painting by watching other artist-friends and quite simply copying their works.

Patient van Gogh
While Gachet’s camaraderie with many artists is well-known, what has ensured him a place in the history of art was his close association with Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), the mad and inspired artist, who continually suffered from bouts of depression, insanity and withdrawal. Vincent spent the last 70 days of his life under the care of Doctor Gachet in the quiet village of Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris.  
Van Gogh found Gachet to be ‘one of the liveliest and sympathetically original of men’ and paid for his medical services with paintings. “I have found a true friend in Dr Gachet,” he wrote in one of his letters. “Something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally. He is a very nervous man himself and very queer in his behaviour.”

Dr Gachet not only encouraged van Gogh to paint, but also told him that ‘work is the best thing to keep your balance.’ During his stay at Auvers, van Gogh became highly inspired and in a little over two months painted as many as 76 pictures.
Dr Gachet believed that he had cured him but van Gogh was a difficult patient who could, for instance, never give up on smoking or alcohol. On July 27, 1890, the long suffering artist shot himself in the chest, but managed to get back to his lodgings, light a pipe and lie in bed silently smoking. Although Dr Gachet was optimistic of his patient’s chances of survival, van Gogh died two days later at the age of 37. Gachet is said to have made a small sketch of van Gogh on his deathbed; he was also one of the few mourners who accompanied van Gogh’s coffin to the grave.

The portrait
During his stay at Auvers, van Gogh painted the ‘Portrait of Dr Gachet’ (June 1890). In the painting, the doctor is shown leaning on his elbow, his head resting on his right fist, while the left hand rests heavily but casually on the red table. The cheerless painting bearing van Gogh’s typical colours and swirling lines has the doctor sporting a melancholic gaze and heartbroken expression. There is an air of resignation on the face of the man who wears a light coloured cap and has a drooping mustache. On the table are seen two medical books and a glass with foxglove flowers. 

There are two versions of the painting. While the second version hangs at Musee d’Orsay, Paris, it is the original painting which has had a most intriguing journey. Over the century since it was painted, the ‘Portrait of Dr Gachet’ changed hands often and was acquired by more than a dozen collectors. The painting which did not attract any buyers for seven years was first sold in 1897 by van Gogh’s sister-in-law for 300 francs (then $58). Subsequently it passed through several private owners and galleries till the mid-1930s.

The painting had its share of drama when confiscated as a piece of ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazis during World War II. It came into the possession of the notorious Hermann Goring (later convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials); he quickly made a killing by selling it for more than $50,000 to a dealer in Amsterdam. Thereafter, the painting was on loan off and on for many years to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The ‘Portrait of Dr Gachet’ acquired a cult status on May 15, 1990, when it came up for auction at Christie’s in New York. The bidding which began with $20 million rose steadily and quickly; within three minutes it was taken for a world record-breaking $ 82.5 million ($ 75 million plus 10% buyer’s commission).

Cult status
The buyer was 75-year-old Japanese paper magnate Ryoei Saito (who, two days later, also bid successfully for Renoir’s ‘Bal au moulin de la Galette’ 1876, for $78.1million).  He put the ‘Portrait of Dr Gachet’ away from public glare by storing it in a climate-controlled vault.
In a few years, Saito’s financial and physical health plunged; he even received a three-year suspended sentence for bribing. He is said to have once scandalised the art world by saying that he wanted van Gogh’s and Renoir’s masterpieces cremated and buried with him upon his death; he later admitted that he was only joking.
Saito died of a stroke in 1996 and since then nobody is clear about the whereabouts of the van Gogh’s masterpiece. There are many rumours and conjectures but its present status remains shrouded in mystery.
While the artworld hopes that the painting would resurface sooner than later, van Gogh (the patient), Gachet (the doctor) and Saito (the collector) may all be turning in their graves!

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