“The most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed,” Vincent van Gogh wrote from the Yellow House in Arles.
Since Van Gogh’s death, aspects of his life have been explored endlessly. But smoking, for Vincent, was vital, since he regarded it as a source of consolation when tackling the endless challenges he faced.
Van Gogh was by then addicted to smoking. Although failing to sell his work, on one occasion in 1884 he apparently gave a painting to the Eindhoven tobacconist Jansje van den Broek to settle a bill. This picture, Watermill at Gennep, was bought by Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza at Sotheby’s in 1996—for £552,000.
After Vincent’s father Theodorus died of a stroke in 1885 he painted a memorial still life which included the deceased’s pipe and tobacco pouch. Van Gogh later reused the canvas, to save money, but a watercolour sketch survives.
A few months later, in Antwerp, Van Gogh painted Head of a Skeleton with burning Cigarette (1886). For Van Gogh, it was just the opposite: for him a lighted cigarette would have represented life, not death.
Tobacco always represented a drain on Van Gogh’s precarious finances. When Paul Gauguin joined Van Gogh in the Yellow House he was shocked to see how money was being frittered away.
Just before Christmas in 1888 came the mutilation of the ear, the incident which led to Gauguin fleeing back to Paris. Fortunately Van Gogh’s wound quickly healed. In the spring he wrote, slightly lightheartedly, to his sister Wil: “Every day I take the remedy that the incomparable Dickens prescribes against suicide. It consists of a glass of wine, a piece of bread and cheese and a pipe of tobacco.”
A month after mutilating his ear Van Gogh portrayed both objects in a very personal still life, alongside a medical manual by François Raspail and a letter from Theo.
At the end of his life, Van Gogh felt his piping had a calming effect, however, it did not save him.
Just over a year earlier Van Gogh had painted what can now be seen as his own memorial, a picture of his empty chair, now at the National Gallery in London. On the straw seat, recalling an absent sitter, lies his trusty pipe and packet of tobacco. This vignette represents a highly personal still life in a painting which is itself a symbolic self-portrait.