His early pictures, e.g. The Potato Eaters, are sombre in tone and subject, a change coming in 1886, when in Paris he came to know the work of Millet and the Impressionists. But, though he painted some 200 pictures at this time, the Impressionist techniques did not satisfy him and he did not reach his full maturity until he went (1888) to Arles in Provence. Here in the blaze of southern sunshine, he expressed the hidden turbulence of his nature in pictures vibrant with power and cascading with colour. Primary colours, reds, yellows, blues, were squeezed straight from tube to canvas and spread with broad curving brushstrokes.
Landscapes, interiors, sunflowers, cafe scenes, self-portraits – the subjects were repeated over and over again during this last period of astonishing productivity. But, though this is seldom discernible in his pictures, his mind was already giving way. In December 1888, as an act of desperation (aggravated by tinnitus), he cut off part of his left ear with the razor he used to threaten *Gauguin. (The celebrated Self-portrait with bandaged ear is a mirror image.) In 1889 he went to a local asylum and in May 1890 put himself under the care of Dr Paul Gachet at Ouvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, and at his house he shot himself, dying two days later.
Only four or five of Van Gogh’s paintings were sold in his lifetime, and only the understanding help of his brother Theo, to whom he wrote most movingly of his sufferings, saved him from complete destitution and enabled him to struggle on in poverty, and unceasing despair overtook him. His sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, organised exhibitions and promoted his work, and fakes were circulating by 1900. Of 879 paintings in the 1970 catalogue, perhaps 100 are in doubt. His Irises (1890) was knocked down at auction in New York to the Australian Alan Bond for $US53.9 million in November 1987 and later sold at a lower price to the Getty Museum.
The centenary of van Gogh’s death created international interest and in May 1990 his Portrait of Dr Gachet was sold for $US82.5 million to a Japanese collector, Ryoei Saito, who announced that he wanted the painting to be cremated with him on his death. A pen drawing, Garden of Flowers, was sold for $US8.36 million in 1990.