Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Vincent's wife, Part One

As successful as he eventually became as a painter, Van Gogh demonstrated scarce success in other facets of his life. Certainly his love life was disastrous. The only two women in his life whom he became urgently and passionately (let's say obsessively) drawn to--an Englishwoman named Ursula Loyer and his cousin Kee Stricker--wanted nothing to do with him. The latter seemed terrified by him. These were intense, white-hot infatuations that ended with Vincent hopelessly proposing and then falling into black depression when the inevitable answers came. Meanwhile, the only woman who ever claimed to be in love with him--Margot Begemann, the daugther of his father's neighbor--was something of a psychological basket case, a woman for whom Van Gogh felt pity rather than love, and who eventually was hospitalized after trying to poison herself. Their "affair" ended the friendship between the Van Goghs and the Begemann's.

Ironically, the most successful relationship Vincent had with a woman was in The Hague, where he met a pregnant prostitute who was very ill and offered to let her live in his apartment so she could get out of the "business" and recover her health. Vincent called her "Sien"--no one is really sure why--although her actual name was Classina. In the English-language edition of Vincent's Collected Letters, however, she is referred to, as Christine. (I decided to use that name for my book.) His relationship with Sien, who modeled for some of his drawings (like his famous "Sorrow," pictured above) was an utter scandal within the family. It strained his relationship with his father nearly to the breaking point, lost him the respect of the painter Anton Mauve (married to Vincent's cousin) and his former Goupil's boss Tersteeg, and even threatened to undercut his all-important relationship with Theo. All these men pronounced him crazy, not just for taking the woman in but also declaring (as he quickly did) that he would marry her. Clearly, it satisifed Vincent on a deep and instinctual level to be the provider for a "wife" and family. (Sien already had a daughter, to go along with the new baby boy.) Even if those provisions basically came in the form of handouts from Theo, it gratified him to be a man with a family at home. He always conceived of this as the most natural situation for a painter. And he grew close to the baby boy.

Ironically, Sien's family, instead of feeling grateful for Vincent having saved her from the streets, quickly turned on him. Her mother pressed Sien to leave Vincent. Why they changed their attitude toward him is not clear, but it's possible that they were disapponted to learn that Sien's "savior" was perfectly indigent. It's possible that they suspected he was merely trying to keep her around for free sex. Whatever the reason, they became an issue between Vincent and Sien, and the relationship over the period of a year and a half steadily deteriorated. In his letters to Theo, Vincent's proud sermons on love eventually became little more than gripes about Sien, about her courseness, and especially about her family's meddling. More or less by mutual agreement, they went their separate ways in September, 1882. Believe it or not, this was Vincent's longest and truest romantic relationship. Perhaps the only relationship in his life that deserves the name, even if in the final analysis there was very little romance involved at all.

(In Part 2: Why this relationship mattered so much to my book.)


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