The Afterlife of Doctor Gachet

Posted on April 12, 2018 by Martin Oaks under Uncategorized
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“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”

So said Roman writer, politician, orator and philosopher Cicero well over 2,000 years ago.

Our work with Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory in Lewisville, Texas has convinced us of the precision of Cicero’s words.

Time and again we have talked with those whose loved ones continue to burn brightly in their memories — equally present in those memories are the friends, business partners and other associates who have also passed away.

It is our experience that people tend to recall events from their own perspectives and those perspectives may not mesh with the recollection of others.

One such person who has been both lionized and condemned after his death is Dr. Paul Gachet. His association with his patient and friend, Vincent Van Gogh, has left him in a unique historical position — many of those who know the work of the artist, as well as the nature of his death, well remember Dr. Gachet.

Born to a moderately well-to-do family in 1828, Gachet studied medicine — interestingly enough, given his later affiliation with Van Gogh, the young physician developed an affinity for treating the mentally ill.

He also had a strong attachment to art — because of this, Gachet cultivated a friendship with several young painters which led to his meeting one of the most “advanced” art collectors of the time, Alfred Bruyas. Gachet himself also created art, but only as a hobbyist.

As his medical practice developed, Gachet bought art and traded his professional services for art; by the time he was in his early thirties, he had a modest collection.

Gachet’s practice of medicine, like his taste in art, was considered avant-garde — he embraced traditional medical methods, but he also dabbled in what might today be termed homeopathic medicine, such as the use of electricity for treatment.

In 1870, his fortunes changed.  He and his wife of two years were beneficiaries of an inheritance from his parents business (Gachet’s father had invented a way of spinning flax mechanically); this financial windfall allowed him to purchase property in Auvers-sur-Oise, an artists colony north of Paris.

It was there that he became even more involved in the art scene, treating painters such as Pissarro, Cezanne, Guillaumin and Renoir.

Gachet continued to offer his medical services to these artists — and others, including Manet — in a bartering arrangement for their work.

By the 1880’s Gachet was a very familiar figure in Impressionist circles. He also counted writers like Victor Hugo among his friends.

Van Gogh and Gachet crossed paths in the spring of 1890 when the artist moved to Auvers; the two assumed a personal and professional relationship.

Gachet’s portrait, featured above, is one of Van Gogh’s signature pieces. And it was Gachet who treated Van Gogh’s suicide gunshot wound which proved fatal. At Van Gogh’s funeral, Gachet said that the deceased was an “honest man, and a great artist who only had two aims, art and humanity.”

Gachet’s collection was kept intact after his own death in 1909 and, through meandering circumstances, eventually found its way into public collections.

After his death, Gachet’s reputation underwent a number of ups and downs — some felt he did a poor job of treating Van Gogh, others said that he took advantage of the disabled artist.

We leave the judgment of Gachet to those who are better informed: we can, however, say that on the basis of “Cezanne to Van Gogh,” a display of Gachet’s collection that was exhibited in 1999 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he had impeccable taste. His qualities as a physician and a man will only really be known to those who are also long since departed.

Paul Gachet, RIP

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