Van Gogh was a late starter, mostly self-taught, uneven, smitten with mental illness, dead at 37. His trajectory as an artist – from sodden Dutch landscapes under heavy skies, toiling peasants and weavers, to the flaring, sometimes hallucinogenic landscapes of Provence, all of which ended after he shot himself one afternoon in a southern French cornfield in 1890, an unfinished letter still in his pocket – is a luminous and shocking arc.
“Still-life with a plate of onions” was painted shortly after van Gogh left the hospital in Arles which he had entered after his first major attack of psychomotor epilepsy on 25 December 1888. The objects depicted have both an allegorical and a more personal significance. The lighted candle, used in the painting of Gauguin’s chair, derives from the emblematic tradition of still-life and signifies light and life; its opposite, the snuffed-out candle, was used in memento mori still-life and van Gogh had included it in a still-life with books which he painted after his father’s death in 1885 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh). The optimistic note sounded by the candle flame is underlined by the presence of the sprouting onions, taken from his Yellow Chair (a ‘self-portrait’). On the other hand, van Gogh has added his pipe and tobacco and an empty bottle, possibly once containing absinthe, all of which endangered his health.
Modern research has intriguingly shown that absinthe itself can cause epileptic fits. Van Gogh had consumed this poisonous beverage in some quantity during the months in Arles, and many of his subsequent fits coincide with occasions on which he had access to it. The drawing board on which most of these objects are placed indicates van Gogh’s resumption of work. He informed his brother that he was painting still-lifes to ease himself back into painting after his hospitalization. However, the colours used in this painting are more tempered and less intense, more controlled and less arbitrary than those he had been using both in the summer of 1888 and under the aegis of Gauguin in the autumn preceding his attack.