Dr. Gachet (Man with a Pipe)

Van Gogh, Vincent

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Etching and drypoint

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Jul-27-2006


Dr. Gachet's head and upper body face the viewer and fill the picture. The background of an outdoor yard and fence, visible above and to the left of the doctor, is sketchily rendered so as not to interfere with the foreground image of Dr. Gachet. Van Gogh does not center Gachet but instead cuts him off on his left-hand side. This positioning contrasts with typical portraits of the era, where aristocrats are often centered and beautified, and in this way suggests the humility of Dr. Gachet.

Van Gogh does not depict his doctor as a force larger than life; to the contrary, the doctor is rendered as a line sketch and colorless. His hands are knobby and without definition, his body and appendages are squiggly lines that seem to blend into his clothing and pipe. His hair is receding and his brow is creased with lines of concern.

Van Gogh focuses on the doctor's humanity rather than on his medical skill. Gachet does not appear in medicinal environs or with any of the tools of his trade. Instead, Gachet clutches only a pipe and looks deeply towards the viewer with eyes of raw concern. The attention to detail given to the eyes suggests that Van Gogh views his doctor's humanism and empathy as his defining qualities; tellingly, Dr. Gachet has only his title to indicate his training.


Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet attended to Van Gogh during the last few months of the artist's life. Gachet lived in Auvers, where van Gogh went in 1890; the doctor was a collector of impressionist art and became a close friend of Van Gogh's. Van Gogh felt that Dr. Gachet suffered, as he did, from melancholy, and sought to depict this in his portrait(s) of the doctor. The artist also completed two oil paintings of Dr. Gachet (see annotation, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, similar in composition to this etching. See also The Art of JAMA: One Hundred Covers and Essays from the Journal of the American Medical Association, M. Therese Southgate, editor. St. Louis: Mosby, 1997, p. 110).

Upon learning that Van Gogh had shot himself with the intention of committing suicide, Dr. Gachet allegedly told Van Gogh "that he still hoped to save his life," to which Van Gogh replied, "Then I'll have to do it over again" [letter from Émile Bernard to Albert Auria, 31 July, 1890, see , copyright by David Brooks].

At Van Gogh's funeral, Émile Bernard continues writing, "Dr. Gachet (who is a great lover and possesses one of the best collections of impressionist painting of the present day) wanted to say a few words of homage about Vincent and his life, but he too was crying so much that he could only stammer a very confused farewell... (the most beautiful way, perhaps)." These two anecdotes reveal the doctor's friendship and love for Van Gogh.

The drawing suggests the value and role of the physician as emotional support, even friend, and indicates that to a patient, empathy may be more valued even than medical prowess.


Painted in 1890

Primary Source

Jan Hulsker. The Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches (New York: H. N. Abrams) 1980