Vincent van Gogh Visits a Modern Museum & Gets to See His Artistic Legacy: A Touching Scene from Doctor Who

“By the time of his death”—almost two years before, in fact—“Van Gogh’s work had begun to attract critical attention,” writes the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who point out that Van Gogh’s works shown “at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris between 1888 and 1890 and with Les XX in Brussels in 1890… were regarded by many artists as ‘the most remarkable’” in both exhibits. Critics wrote glowing appreciations, and Van Gogh seemed poised to achieve the recognition everyone knows he deserved in his lifetime. Still, Van Gogh himself was not present at these exhibitions. He was first in Arles, where he settled in near-seclusion (save for Gaugin), after cutting off part of his ear. Then, in 1889, he arrived at the asylum near Saint-Rémy, where he furiously painted 150 canvases, then shot himself in the chest, thinking his life’s work a failure, despite the public recognition and praise his brother Theo poignantly tried to communicate to him in his final letters.

Now imagine that Van Gogh had actually been able to experience the acclaim bestowed on him near the end—or the acclaim bestowed on him hundreds of times over in the more than 100 years since his death. Such is the premise of the clip above from Doctor Who, Series 5, Episode 10, in which Van Gogh—who struggled to sell any of his work through most of his lifetime—finds himself at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2010, courtesy of the TARDIS. Granted, the scene milks the inherent pathos with some maudlin musical cues, but watching actor Tony Curran react as Van Gogh, seeing the gallery’s collections of his work and the wall-to-wall admirers, is “unexpectedly touching,” as Kottke writes. To drive the emotional point even further home, the Doctor calls over a docent played by Bill Nighy, who explains why “Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all.” Laying it on thick? Fair enough. But try not getting a little choked up at the end, I dare you.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Robert Monroe, Jr. says:

    This is one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes. I tear up every time I watch this scene.

  • John Conolley says:

    I didn’t listen to the words, but if were Van Gogh, I’d be thinking, “Where were they when I was hungry?”

  • Sue Hutchings says:

    Well, dang, now I can barely see to type. Allergies, I guess. Sniff! I’ve always loved Van Gogh. The first painting of his I saw was the Wheatfield With Cypresses and I loved it. Then I saw his Starry Night paintings and my heart beat faster. I would like to think that he somehow knows how much we love his artwork. Rest in peace, Vincent.

  • Daniel says:

    In the same episode there is also a beautiful scene with van Gogh, the Doctor and Amy looking at the sky and van Gogh describing what he sees. They lock hands and the whole natural night sky turns into one giant Starry Night sky, showing Amy and the Doctor (and the audience) what he sees. Beautifully done.

    (As for seeing the recognition — I am more skeptical. If you really think you are worthless, even this kind of success could be put down in moments of hopelessness and despair. Like it was all a short time fluke, some fad that only happened for a mere hundred or so years. Self-doubt and hopelessness is … crushing and not easily defeated, and rarely once and for all.)

  • Christy Bankston says:

    I feel the same. It is one of my favorite episodes.

  • William says:

    Gets me every time. {{{water works}}} There should be a NSFW warning. Lol.

  • Julie Biddle says:

    In Grade 7 or 8 I misbehaved in Art class, badly enough to be assigned a punishment. Our teacher kept a list of artists and his punishment was that you had to research and write an essay about one of the artists on his list. I drew Van Gogh and I am truly grateful for that punishment! Learning about his life and his art touched me in a profound way.

  • coelacanth1938 says:

    One of the best episodes of anything, ever. But one thing I’d like to address here is the growing doubt that Vincent shot himself in the chest. Apparently he was regularly threatened by local rowdies and one of them got a gun one day and murdered Vincent. There’s more to it than that, but Vincent did not commit suicide and he died while painting.

    The bullies are long gone and Vincent is immortal.

  • Jonah Kyle says:

    One of the continuity problems posed is that such a trip would have greatly affected Vincent in a positive manner to the point of possibly overcoming the afflictions of depression he felt that ultimately cost his life. However, he did keep on having visions, and in the new continuity of Vincent’s life, in the Pandorica Opens episode, he was maddened when he had visions of the Tardis exploding in the painting he drew, which in this continuity led to his suicide.

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