Van Gogh’s portrait of a doctor

23 March 2016

Paul-Ferdinand Gachet was a maverick physician who had a consulting room in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. He was an art lover/collector, amateur artist and a friend of many artists, including Vincent van Gogh. Sarah Jaffray tells us about their brief but significant relationship, resulting in the only etching Van Gogh ever created.

In 1927 Henry Wellcome came to acquire a portrait of a famous doctor by his even more famous patient. The doctor, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, was a pioneer of medicine, famous for his treatment of melancholia and for being a proponent of vitalism, homeopathy and electro-therapy. The artist, Vincent van Gogh, was a pioneer of artistic style and famous for his early, tragic death. It was Captain Peter Johnston-Saint, Secretary of Wellcome’s museum and his main collector in Europe, who acquired the print for Wellcome alongside a sundry of Gachet’s medical objects.

 M0004582 Sir Henry Wellcome and Peter Johnston-Saint.
[object Object]

Sir Henry Wellcome and Peter Johnston-Saint.

As the consummate collector, Wellcome had eyed one specific work in Gachet’s massive art and medical collection and sent Johnston-Saint to get it: a painting by Amand Gautier D’Agoty of the 1840 Paris cholera epidemic. Gachet’s son and executor of his estate, Paul-Louis was not willing to part with the painting because he claimed to be writing a book about the artist. However, he was able to appease Wellcome and Johnston-Saint by selling them a bundle of medical items, including areometers, surgical instruments and a brass door plaque from Gachet’s practice. Of course, the deal had a condition: the purchase of a portrait of his father by Vincent van Gogh. Paul-Louis was carefully managing the legacy of his father and wanted him to be associated the Van Gogh’s significant and growing fame.

 L0057231 Paul F Gachet's door plate, France, 1870-1909
[object Object]

Paul F Gachet’s door plate.

The portrait, unlike the Van Gogh paintings the family owned (including a painted portrait of Gachet), was something he could reproduce for others to own. With the original plate and his printing press Paul-Louis ‘pulled’ a print for Johnston-Saint on the very same day he purchased the lot of objects. Considering a print made from this same plate recently sold for £55,250, Johnston-Saint got a bargain price: £5 16s 8d (in today’s currency approximately £100).

More important than its contemporary monetary value is the reason that this print fits so perfectly into Wellcome Collection today.

[object Object]

A print of the etching on display in our Medicine Man gallery.

Van Gogh was an immensely innovative, yet hopelessly misunderstood artist. In a letter to his brother Theo, written in September 1888, Van Gogh explained: “Ah well, if we made the colour very correct or the drawing very correct, we wouldn’t create those emotions.”[1] Simply put: he painted how he felt, not how he saw, which was far too intense for most people to handle at the time. His biography, most notably his illness, overshadows how we see his art today. Although he has been endlessly diagnosed both during his lifetime and posthumously, the general consensus today is that the artist suffered from severe bipolar disorder. His intense, personal, emotional states are apparent in his works yet the works themselves are universal, conveying the complexity of our human experience.

Van Gogh came to Gachet’s practice after spending a year in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, in the south of France. He had placed himself there after the very famous ‘ear incident’. Gachet lived closer to Paris, which was closer to Van Gogh’s brother Theo and many of his friends. Gachet was also the doctor to star artists (reportedly saving Renoir from pneumonia) as well as an amateur artist himself. Van Gogh wrote to his sister Wilhelmina “I’ve found in Dr Gachet a ready-made friend and something like a new brother would be – so much do we resemble each other physically, and morally too. He’s very nervous and very bizarre himself.”[2] Gachet understood Van Gogh’s art and encouraged his creative energy.

One of the possible reasons Van Gogh experimented with the art form of etching was that Gachet advocated occupational therapy as a means treatment.[3] One Sunday afternoon in June, after lunch in his garden, Gachet asked Van Gogh to try his hand at drawing on a metal plate with a needle; this became Van Gogh’s only etching.

 V0002158 Paul Ferdinand Gachet. Etching by V. van Gogh, 1890.
[object Object]

Paul Ferdinand Gachet. Etching by Vincent van Gogh, 1890.

It is possible to see the close emotional connection Gachet and Van Gogh had in the print. Etched quickly with the rough and agitated lines typical of the artist’s style, the space is enclosed and flattened. Gachet’s furrowed brow is deeply carved, framing eyes that look in our direction, but clearly focus on something beyond. Van Gogh described the work to his friend Paul Gauguin as “a portrait of Dr Gachet with the deeply sad expression of our time.”[4] Gachet and Van Gogh printed the plate together that afternoon. For years afterward Gachet only ever printed from the plate for people close to him – he never made reproductions to sell like his son did for the sceptical Henry Wellcome in 1927.

Just a few weeks after the etching was created, on 27 July 1890, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest, attempting suicide, claiming that no one could save him from his sadness. He did not die immediately, but was rushed to bed and treated by Gachet. He died two days later of the injury; Gachet was at his bedside and this time the doctor drew a portrait of the artist. At Van Gogh’s funeral Gachet attempted to give a eulogy, but could barely speak through the tears, stating that Van Gogh was “an honest man and a great artist” with only two aims: humanity and art.[5]

The portrait of Dr Gachet was an accidental acquisition, a small slip of paper that Henry Wellcome most certainly saw as unimportant in comparison to the vast medical archive he was amassing. Yet, it fits perfectly. The etched portrait of Dr Gachet tells the story of a doctor and his patient, sickness and treatment: the human connections we make through medical care.

Sarah is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.


[1] Van Gogh Museum: Letter to Theo van Gogh. Arles, Saturday, 8 September 1888.

[2] Van Gogh Museum: Letter to Willemien van Gogh. Auvers-sur-Oise, Thursday, 5 June 1890.

[3] Gertrude M. Prescott. Gachet and Johnston-Saint: The Provenance of Van Gogh’s L’homme à la pipe.

[4] Van Gogh Museum: Vincent van Gogh to Paul Gauguin. Tuesday, 17 June 1890.