Self-Portrait, September 1889, Vincent van Gogh
The writings below are taken form many sources. To take the time to write about Van Gogh in a deserving manner would take a lifetime. And though I have embraced many nights of learning about this unique man with an extraordinary talent the words below are “cut and pasted” from many sources – everything from Wikipedia to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to exit25.com– that have done extensive research in the areas of Van Gogh and his work. The one thing I would like mention is that Van Gogh was a devout Christian, the son of a minister and was himself a minister. Who knew?
Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch post-Impressionist painter whose work, notable for its rough beauty, emotional honesty and bold color, had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art. After years of painful anxiety and frequent bouts of mental illness, he died aged 37 from a gunshot wound, generally accepted to be self-inflicted (although no gun was ever found). His work was then known to only a handful of people and appreciated by fewer still.
Van Gogh began to draw as a child, and he continued to draw throughout the years that led up to his decision to become an artist. He did not begin painting until his late twenties, completing many of his best-known works during the last two years of his life. In just over a decade, he produced more than 2,100 artworks, consisting of 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings, sketches and prints. His work included self portraits, landscapes, still lifes, portraits and paintings of cypresses, wheat fields and sunflowers.
Van Gogh spent his early adulthood working for a firm of art dealers, traveling between The Hague, London and Paris, after which he taught for a time in England. In 1879 he began to sketch people from a local community located in Belgium. In 1885, he painted his first major work The Potato Eaters. His palette at the time consisted mainly of somber earth tones and showed no sign of the vivid coloration that distinguished his later work. In March 1886, he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. Later, he moved to the south of France and was influenced by the strong sunlight he found there. His work grew brighter in color, and he developed the unique and highly recognizable style that became fully realized during his stay in Arles in 1888.
Van Gogh’s 1st Self Portrait – 1886
The extent to which his mental health affected his painting has been a subject of speculation since his death. Despite a widespread tendency to romanticize his ill health, modern critics see an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence brought about by his bouts of illness. According to art critic Robert Hughes, van Gogh’s late works show an artist at the height of his ability, completely in control and “longing for concision and grace”.
When we think about Van Gogh, we often refer to him as a crazy painter who cut off his ear and ended up in an insane asylum. But there is more about Van Gogh that is really interesting.
For example, did you know that Van Gogh was a devout Christian and a missionary to the coal miners in Belgium, having sold all of his possessions to live with them in poverty. His earliest aspiration was to become a pastor. He was a student of Biblical theology and deeply moved by the poverty around him. Then something happened which is still a bit unclear, Although van Gogh was successful in his ministry, the Dutch Reformed Church rejected him and he was no longer supported by the Church. The rejection was not doctrinal (heretical) but what the inspector defined as ‘excess de zele” — too much zeal? whatever that happens to mean, Van Gogh remained in the Borinage after the church withdrew its support, and he began his artistic career by making drawings of the simple life of the Belgian peasants.
To support his effort to become a pastor, his family sent him to Amsterdam to study theology in May 1877, where he stayed with his uncle Jan van Gogh, a naval Vice Admiral. Vincent prepared for the entrance exam with his uncle Johannes Stricker; a respected theologian who published the first “Life of Jesus” in the Netherlands. Van Gogh failed the exam, and left his uncle Jan’s house in July 1878. He then undertook, but failed, a three-month course at the Vlaamsche Opleidingsschool, a Protestant missionary school in Laeken, near Brussels.
In January 1879, he took a temporary post as a missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes[note 5] in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. Taking Christianity to what he saw as its logical conclusion, van Gogh lived like those he preached to, sleeping on straw in a small hut at the back of the baker’s house where he was staying. The baker’s wife reported hearing van Gogh sobbing at night in the hut. His choice of squalid living conditions did not endear him to the appalled church authorities, who dismissed him for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.” He then walked to Brussels, returned briefly to the village of Cuesmes in the Borinage, but gave in to pressure from his parents to return home to Etten. He stayed there until around March the following year,[note 6] a cause of increasing concern and frustration for his parents. There was particular conflict between Vincent and his father; Theodorus made inquiries about having his son committed to the lunatic asylum at Geel.
Van Gogh’s religious zeal grew until he felt he had found his true vocation.
Unfortunately, many art historians seem to categorize what happened next as Van Gogh having rejected religion and finding Art. But rather, it seems that Van Gogh discovered Art as his calling (rather than preaching) to be his form of expression and communication — or in a sense, his act of worship towards God.
“One cannot do better than hold onto the thought of God through everything, under all circumstances, at all places, at all times, and try to acquire more knowledge about Him, which one can do from the Bible as well as from all other things. It is good to continue believing that everything is more miraculous than one can comprehend, for this is truth; it is good to remain sensitive and humble and tender of heart . . . . For what can one learn that is better than what God has given by nature to every human soul—which is living and loving, hoping, and believing, in the depth of every soul, unless it is wantonly destroyed?”
Van Gogh – (Letter 121)
“Self Portrait”, Spring 1887, Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh defined Jesus as “the supreme artist, more of an artist than all others, disdaining marble and clay and color, working in the living flesh.”
Van Gogh went onto say: “I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be — a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting to me.”
And though Van Gogh enjoyed painting people, Van Gogh’s great masterpiece “The Starry Night” which is one of my favorite paintings, is a beautiful representation of the life of creation. When you look at that painting, you see beauty in motion, a capture of an organic nature. As Van Gogh describes…
“Self Portrait”, 1887, Vincent van Gogh
“This [revealing God in nature] is far from theology, simply the fact that the poorest little woodcutter or peasant on the hearth or miner can have moments of emotion and inspiration which give him a feeling of an eternal home and of being close to it. . . . At times there is something indescribable in those aspects—all nature seems to speak. . . . As for me, I cannot understand why everybody does not see it and feel it; nature or God does it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand.” – (Letter 248)
One of the most ironic, and somewhat tragic, aspects of van Gogh’s life is that he was never recognized as a great artist. He only sold one painting in his life. His vocation of being a preacher, and then an artist, was unrecognized, and along with his physical ailment left him in a life of suffering.
Yet, it was after his life that his artwork became recognized as truly masterful, enough so, that he is sometimes referred to as the father of modern painting. I wonder if we had an opportunity to ask Van Gogh today, what he would want to be recognized for, he might say ‘as God’s painter,’ as a divine gift to the world around him. Something the culture has no category for.
“Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat”, 1886-1887, Vincent van Gogh
Finally, van Gogh faced many setbacks and trials during his short life, but it was on 22 February 1890, he suffered a new crisis that was “the starting point for one of the saddest episodes in a life already rife with sad events”. This period lasted until the end of April, during which time he was unable to bring himself to write though he did continue to draw and paint. From May 1889 to May 1890 he, “had fits of despair and hallucination during which he could not work, and in between them, long clear months in which he could and did, punctuated by extreme visionary ecstasy.”
On 27 July 1890, aged 37, van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Where he was when he shot himself is unclear. Ingo Walther writes that “Some think van Gogh shot himself in the wheat field that had engaged his attention as an artist of late; others think he did it at a barn near the inn.” Biographer David Sweetman writes that the bullet was deflected by a rib bone and passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal organs, probably stopped by his spine. He was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux. He was attended by two physicians, neither with the capability to perform surgery to remove the bullet, who left him alone in his room, smoking his pipe. The following morning (Monday), as soon as he was notified, Theo rushed to be with Vincent, to find him in surprisingly good shape; within hours, however, he began to fail, the result of untreated infection in the wound. Vincent died in the evening, 29 hours after he shot himself. Theo reported his brother’s last words as “The sadness will last forever.”
While many of Vincent’s late paintings are somber, they are essentially optimistic and reflect his desire to return to lucid mental health right up to the time of his death. Yet some of his final works reflect his deepening concerns. Referring to his paintings of wheat fields under troubled skies, he commented in a letter to his brother Theo: “I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.” Nevertheless, he adds in the same paragraph: ” … these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside”.
Self-Portrait, 1889,Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 – 1890)