Van Gogh, Vincent (Dutch, 1853-1890)

Portrait of Doctor Felix Rey

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After Vincent van Gogh sliced off part of his left ear, he was sent to the hospital in Arles, where he met house surgeon Dr. Felix Rey (1867-1932). While in the hospital he wrote to his brother, who was an art dealer, “If ever you want to make the house surgeon Rey very happy, this is what would please him hugely. He has heard of a picture by Rembrandt, the ‘Anatomy Lesson.’ I told him that we would get him the engraving after it for his study. As soon as I feel somewhat up to it, I hope to do his portrait.” Not long after his discharge from the hospital, van Gogh began this painting in thanks for the doctor’s compassion and care. Dr. Rey also took care of van Gogh during two further hospitalizations, at the end of which townspeople signed a petition stating that the artist should be locked up. Dr. Rey argued against it, and when van Gogh decided to move to the asylum at Saint-Remy, Rey helped him make the transition. Dr. Rey accepted this portrait as a gift, but did not particularly care for modern styles in art. The story goes that his mother used it in her chicken coop to patch a hole until it was sold to an artist in 1901. For someone of Rey’s conservative taste the bold, clashing colors and lack of realism in the forms might have seemed like a manifestation of van Gogh’s illness rather than the result of an activity that most likely would have been therapeutic. Notes by Mariann Smith
Physician-Patient Relations
Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia