Are you tired yet of hearing that Van Gogh was a madman? Have you ever noticed that talk of such madness comes from museums promoting shows of his work? Isn't it time to consider the possibility that they sensationalize his life to juice up gate receipts?

Gloomy Gus

Here's a recent example of museum manipulation: a self-portrait dated August 1889, held in Norway’s national gallery, has just been authenticated as a genuine Van Gogh. The Guardian, describing the painting as "gloomy," reports that it's "the only known work painted while he had psychosis." That diagnosis about his mental state came from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which last year mounted a Van Gogh show titled "On the Verge of Insanity."

Second opinion

This museum is the same one that chose to ignore research in 2011 by the painter's biographers - Steven Naileh and Greg White Smith - demonstrating that the painter didn't take his own life, but was shot by a couple of heckling teenage boys.

But, rather than acknowledge the finding, the museum continues perpetuating the painter's state of mind as unstable, telling the Guardian that the expression in the Norway self-portrait "is often found in patients suffering from depression and psychosis.”

False impression

The van Gogh Museum exhibit note for a display of the painter's self-portraits opening Feb. 21 keeps the madness ball in the air by highlighting his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear on its website. Such an image is a handy reminder to the public that this artist was deranged and therefore driven to chop off is own ear - provided that all this were true.

Story shot-through

German historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, aided by police reports, witness accounts, and correspondence, came to the conclusion that the severed ear was the result of an argument with roommate Gauguin. Van Gogh, wanting to keep his friend from prosecution, penned a note to him, saying, “I will keep quiet about this, and so will you.” The Australian, a daily newspaper, reiterated this in 2009: it was Paul Gauguin who did the dastardly deed.

Then there's Gauguin's own assessment of Van Gogh's temperament having lived with him, noted by Lucie-Smith: “I don’t admire the painting, but I admire the man. He’s so confident, so calm. I’m so uncertain, so uneasy.”

Sick leave

None of this is meant to say that Van Gogh was a happy-go-lucky guy. It's fair to say that all of his self-portraits look "gloomy," not just the one done while he felt ill.

It's a matter of art history that he spent a few months in a small asylum, although it's worth mentioning that he entered on his own accord.

Van Gogh's clarity of mind shows in a letter he wrote to his brother Theo at the time about the painting he made of himself, calling it an "attempt from when I was ill.” It's also notable that he was never ill enough to stop painting - having completed more than 900 works in a single decade. Not bad for a madman.

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