What Can Vincent Van Gogh Reveal About Atul Gawande?


Vincent Van Gogh didn’t grow old (he died from a bullet wound, probably self-inflicted). But he painted these cottages in the hamlet where he spent the last months of his short life.

This painting hangs in Portland Art Museum, where I’m currently teaching a course on how literature and art shapes our understanding of aging, of illness, and of the end of life. For the first week’s session, we read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and shared some of our own experiences of illness and aging, and of caring for people we loved through the end of their lives. And then we turned to Van Gogh, and thought about the image of aging and community he offers here.

While books like Gawande’s make us aware of the emotional as well as the financial cost of extending life with extreme interventions, when we critique contemporary practices we run the risk of romanticizing what old age was like in past eras.

I don’t think Van Gogh gives us a clear answer either way, about whether aging in a small village (without ADA-compliant accessible dwellings!) was always better than what many people face in our medical-intervention oriented culture today. But I loved using this beautiful painting to probe the questions that Gawande also raises.

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