Review: Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace

Title: Leaving Van Gogh
Author: Carol Wallace
Pages: 268
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: April 19, 2011
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Source: Personal Copy

One of the requirements for my undergrad degree was to take a fine arts elective, which I decided to fulfill during a summer semester. There weren't many options, so I wound up taking Introduction to Art History. It turned out to be a favorite class of mine. One of the best aspects of the class was the broad focus. I learned so much about techniques and was introduced to some of my favorite artists, including Diego Velázquez and his painting Las Meninas. This was the class that truly helped me appreciate painting and the masters like Vincent van Gogh. Ever since finishing that class I've been fascinated by the history behind the great artists, and that is why I picked up Leaving van Gogh.

In the author's note at the end of the book, Wallace reveals that this story came about after researching printmaker Charles Méryon for her master's degree. Once she realized that the Dr. Gachet that treated Méryon for madness was the same one as depicted in the van Gogh portrait of the same name, her writing took a turn to focus on the famous painter. After performing countless hours of research, the author presents her take on van Gogh's final days. Much of the story is constructed using over 900 letters van Gogh and his brother Theo exchanged. Knowing this gives a certain weight and depth to the narrative that might not otherwise be present.
What must it be like, to know yourself untrustworthy, to have something take over your free will? Was it like being possessed? It is difficult enough to live, knowing one's strengths and limitations. But most of us stumbling through life do not bear the burden of knowing that we may turn into monsters.
Leaving Van Gogh is told from Dr. Gachet's point of view and takes place in the small town of Auvers in the French countryside. Gachet's wife has passed from tuberculosis, and he lives with his son, daughter, and housekeeper. Van Gogh's brother Theo comes to the doctor to seek his help in caring for the artist after his release from the St. Rémy asylum. Gachet's background is in mental illness, and he's worked in two hospitals. That experience combined with his own skills and appreciation for painting makes him the perfect candidate to care for the ailing van Gogh. The rest of the story focuses on the trials suffered by both doctor and patient. I don't want to give anything away, but if you know anything about van Gogh's life then you know how the story will unfold.

For me, the descriptions of the paintings are where the novel excelled. Many people considered these parts to be too technical, but I found them most appealing. Wallace was definitely able to convey how great an artist van Gogh truly was, from simple portraits to sweeping landscapes. I often found myself online searching for a particular work described, and that gave the overall reading a nice visual layer.

While this was a fascinating look at van Gogh's illness, I wasn't as completely absorbed in the narrative. I enjoyed the story overall, but I felt a little restless at times and lost focus. The writing was a little on the academic side, which is what I think kept me from feeling more connected to the characters. The author didn't take too many liberties with the historical facts, but I wish there had been a little more action as the plot wasn't very meaty. The more I learned about the doctor, the less I cared for him. He comes across as indifferent and is often harsh and uncaring towards his children. A lot of the story focused on Dr. Gachet's life apart from van Gogh, including his time at the mental hospital and his wife's death, and this is where I felt the narrative began to drag. I wish Wallace had kept the focus a little more on Vincent, but that's more of a personal preference.
Who has not felt a shroud of melancholy, that pull of listlessness that devalues any effort and washes all color to gray? Who has not become attached to a notion and blindly refused to see reason? Who has not chosen to see himself as something entirely other than what he is?
I haven't read any other accounts of Vincent van Gogh's life, so I can't really say if this would be a decent introduction for someone who knows little. While the plot may not have engrossed me, I do think Leaving Van Gogh was a very insightful look at the debilitating effects of extreme anxiety and mental illness. Wallace does create a haunting portrait of an artistic genius with many inner demons and a lost spirit. An overall sense of melancholy consumes the novel, and it definitely is not an uplifting read. If you are a fan of van Gogh's work or interested in psychology/mental illness then I would recommend reading this, but for anyone else I say skip.


  1. I am sorry to hear that although the book was good, it left a little to be desired. It sounds like it has a good focus and chose to depict some very interesting events, but that the execution may have been a little bit off.

  2. Ok. Now that you pointed out that she used letters from Van Gogh and his brother, I am kicking myself for now getting that signed copy in Decatur! This sounds really fascinating! I can't wait to share. Hope you are enjoying your vacation!! :)

  3. Have you ever seen the movie Vincent & Theo? It's a pretty interesting take on the relationship between the two brothers. Interesting if not a little creepy.

  4. This is a really great review Jenna in that it conveys exactly what you found to be the strengths and weaknesses in the book, and that in turn makes it easy to discern whether it's something that I would like.
    I do like historical based narratives, but if I'm reading fiction, i want the story to be engaging, and I get the sense that was not true here...I don't know much about art history; I think I would, like you, enjoy the part illuminating the paintings themselves, but the rest would probably be too dry for me.

  5. The concept of this story is a great one. I would love to get inside Van Gough's head. Too bad it didn't quite work out!

  6. When you said you found yourself looking up the paintings online, I thought of when I read "The Girl with the Pearl Earring." I became so interested in Vermer's life while reading that and even today I can always recognize a Vermeer. I wish you had liked this work more because it seems like it could have been such a great story.


Post a Comment