Having reviewed what I’ve learned about Vincent Van Gogh in recent times, it seems to me that aside from his art, his life and character could be summed up in three words: “passion”, “loneliness” and “faith”.
Having lost connection with his faith, his suicide was an expression of two of these: loneliness led him to an ultimate moment of passion, in which, at the age of 37, he pointed a revolver at his chest and pulled the trigger.
Was he really mad? You can conclude that if you wish, but I’m convinced you’ll be missing an important lesson if you do. I’m sure there are art historians, artists, and casual commentators with far more knowledge and intelligence than I who would disagree with me: he was “born mad”, he was “drunk”, he was “eccentric”, he was “damaged by religion”. But he didn’t consider himself to be mad, at least according to his own writings. I give my verdict such as it is because of the affinity I feel with the man.
I’ve dabbled in art myself over the years, and attended an art school in the UK. I’ve enjoyed the great galleries in London many times, and I’ve continued to paint and draw. But for some reason I never felt any interest in Vincent’s work until just a few years ago, when I had the good fortune to find a book about him and his work at a price I couldn’t resist. When I opened it at home, all the misconceptions I had about the man melted away-misconceptions fed to me by a culture which loves to paint him (excuse the pun) as a mad-man, one who never learned how to paint or draw properly, so that he’s often reduced to a comical character in the eyes of the uninformed. He was aware, in his own day, that many people viewed him this way:
“What am I in the eyes of most people-a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person-somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low” (July 21st 1882).
As I read the notes beside each picture, I was shocked to realize that Vincent’s character traits and weaknesses were very similar to my own. Apart from the fact that he was a great artist and I was barely a novice, I saw myself within him-so much so that I feel almost like he was my brother, and in many ways, he was.
Vincent was determined to justify himself through his art, if only to his own satisfaction, and what I saw in my new book was the work of a master-the work of a man who had not only an incredible gift and talent, but also an intense passion for painting, for life, and for nature. I saw that he was intimately connected in his art and his conscience with the soul of man- with the human predicament of toil, suffering and death.
Just by looking at one of the many self-portraits Vincent did, or at the surviving photographs of him, you don’t get the impression that he was a passionate man. But it’s clear from any study of his life, writings and works that he was. It’s clear in the way he described his subjects and scenes that he painted (rarely from memory because he was against that), in the way he painted (for example see “The Starry Night”), in the way he attempted to live out his faith in life, and in the way he literally chased after his women.
It would seem to many that Vincent’s love of women and his professed love for the gospel were in contradiction. I disagree. God made Eve for Adam (Genesis) because, He said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Many of those who look down their noses at a man-a single man-for chasing a woman or for frequenting a brothel are those who are settled, married, in caring company and generally viewed as being “normal” and eligible by the opposite sex, or they are those who have little or no appetite for romantic love. Vincent’s abrasive, independent, no-frills character, his unconventional social charms (or sometimes the lack of them), his failure to secure or keep a “steady” “respectable” job, his “homely” appearance and his serious, melancholy nature precluded any real chance of having a normal married life with anyone, particularly any woman who would have received his family’s acceptance.
Vincent’s failed relationships and failed attempts at winning the affections of the women he fell for were not only a source of great frustration and loneliness for him, but I believe they at least partially explain his move away from the church and into the brothel and the bar, and finally the grave: how often God is blamed for the failings of human nature. And of course, Vincent’s actions received the disapproval of those in his family and in the church who considered themselves to be far more respectable and honorable, and who couldn’t understand his hunger for love, particularly when he moved in with a prostitute.
One of Vincent’s sisters recalled that even as a small boy he was “intensely serious and uncommunicative, he walked around clumsily and in a daze, with his head hung low…”
As an adult, Vincent described his own childhood as being “gloomy, cold and sterile”. So how much this early condition his sister observed was due to his own character, or to an early manifestation of his illness, or to his actual surroundings and upbringing it’s hard to tell. Putting myself into his shoes (where I have been many times) I know that I was always “different” and didn’t quite fit in, even among my own family. I was the “baby”, the odd one out, the object of teasing and derision, all of which contributed to further alienation.
Vincent never quite satisfied the expectations of the dominant members of his family, some of whom were successful in their own right, and who were tut-tutting as they saw Vincent floundering in his attempts to find his own niche in life. He was a very lonely man, despite the loyalty of his brother Theo, and the companionship he occasionally enjoyed with other artists. For some men nothing can be substituted for the genuine love and affection of a good woman, or should I say, for their unrealistic concept of what that good woman would be like.
Vincent wrote to Theo, who was married,
“I need a woman…I cannot, I may not live without love…”
In 1873 one of his failed attempts at winning a woman, a landlady’s daughter, caused him in his own words to Theo, “many years of humiliation”. Later, when he fell for his recently widowed cousin and chased her to her family home, he was firmly rejected by her and chased away by her family. A woman he actually managed to move in with for a time, whom he nick-named Sien, was a prostitute who suffered from serious mental and physical health problems, and who passed on to him a hospital-stay strength gonorrheal infection.
Vincent became increasingly depressed, and wrote to Theo that he felt “more and more a kind of void”.
It’s interesting to me that Vincent was writing his feelings to his brother-always a long way away. Most of us, like Vincent, want to have that “significant other” to share our thoughts and feelings with. He, being a passionate man and a lover, a melancholy who needed an intimate and caring relationship, had no such person to share himself with. Michael Howard writes that Vincent’s work titled “Two Lovers”:
“…showed the companionship Van Gogh desired his whole life, but never actually attained” (pg20-ish).
By 1888, at a time when he was making regular use of the nearby brothel, he wrote:
“The only thing to do to bring ease and distraction…is to stun oneself with a lot of heavy drinking or smoking”.
Vincent’s own lack of immediate family had always saddened him. In June 1890 he wrote to Theo of his enduring sense of isolation even in the company of friends and relatives. I’ve experienced that feeling: it’s very real and painful.
It’s difficult even for those most familiar with his life to know exactly how much his depression was due to some innate illness and how much was due to just plain loneliness and frustration. Doubtless the two compounded each other. In addition he suffered with fits which seem to have been due to epilepsy, and which depressed him further.
Of his “Wheat fields with Crows” picture, widely recognized as a view into his lonely, tormented mind, Vincent wrote to his brother,
“About such paintings, I consciously tried to express sadness and extreme loneliness in them”.
Some secular art historians will either avoid speaking of Vincent’s faith and love for the gospel of Jesus Christ, or they will take pleasure in the belief that he rejected that faith later in his life. His faith has even been blamed for some of his madness and depression. I would say it was not his faith which caused depression later in life but his lack of it. The books would smile more favorably on his faith had he been a Buddhist or a Muslim, or anything but a Christian.
Vincent was raised in a parsonage, being the son of a Dutch Reformed Church pastor. Vincent’s own faith continued into his adult life. One writer commented that after living in Paris for a time Vincent “suffered an onset of religious obsession”. He called Van Gogh’s advise to Theo to dispose of some writings of philosophers in his possession as “bullying”. And so secularists make plain their distain for serious Christianity.
Vincent applied, unsuccessfully, for a position as an evangelist among the coal mining communities of northern England, and considered working as a missionary in South America, but, comments Michael Howard with great relief, “…fortunately he was offered a teaching position in Ramsgate”.
Vincent remained actively involved in various churches, never feeling a commitment for a single denomination. This may be called “church hopping” these days, and it’s one more thing that Vincent and I have in common.
At Turnham Green in London he preached a sermon. The scripture he read was from Psalm 119:
“I am a stranger on the earth, hide not thy commandments from me”.
His sermon included the following lines:
“our life is a pilgrim’s progress…we are strangers on the earth”.
A few months ago I wrote a blog post called “I am an alien”, which is based on the same theme as Vincent’s sermon. It’s my personal belief that his depression was at least partly caused by his disillusionment with the world of men…with human nature. This is a trait of the melancholy character. We can be preoccupied with the evils of human nature to the point that we can’t see past it and can’t find the joy of life that we should be experiencing. Many Bible characters had the same problem, such as Elijah and Noah.
Vincent’s family was reluctant to help him study for the ministry, but eventually they sent him to Amsterdam to study theology. It soon became apparent that Vincent was not the academic kind. Vincent left for a course in evangelism in Brussels, and attempted to work among the poor coal miners of Belgium. Van Gogh admired Christ’s humility as a common laborer and “man of sorrows” whose life he tried to imitate: “Jesus Christ is the Master who can comfort and strengthen a man,” he wrote.
However, he was rejected, and the church committee blamed him of having an “almost scandalous excess of zeal”. And so the passion he had for his faith-the very passion which Jesus desires from his followers (Revelation 3:14-19), was rejected by men who claimed to be His ministers.
The wife of a pastor in Amsterdam there recalled him saying:
“…nobody has understood me. They think I’m a madman because I wanted to be a true Christian. They turned me out like a dog, saying that I was causing a scandal, because I tried to relieve the misery of the wretched”.
Did Van Gogh lose his faith? Howard believes that the Church’s rejection of Vincent “destroyed any surviving faith he may have had in the established church”. This is likely true. However, while a secular observer sees only organization, Vincent’s faith was not in human organization or human nature: it was actually placed in God, separate from and above the earthly Church. He wrote,” I think it a splendid saying of Victor Hugo’s, ‘Religions pass away, but God remains’.
So did Vincent give up on God and replace Him entirely with his love for art?
There’s no doubt that He placed art in the forefront of his mind, as a replacement of his wish to evangelize and to work among the poor, since the church, as his “ticket” to such ministries, had rejected his zeal and his character. Therefore, I’m of the opinion that Vincent was in what we present-day evangelicals call a “backslidden” state. That is, he had not consciously rejected his faith in and love for God, but had put Him on the back-burner, and attempted to fulfill his passions in other ways. This can be the worst thing to happen to a Christian. The hope, joy, peace and direction is gone, and having once experienced this, nothing else will satisfy, no matter how hard we try. Vincent tried to find satisfaction not only in his art but in the brothel and in the bar.
It was in the same year that he gave up on the church that he decided he could be an artist and still be serving God. He wrote:
“To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture.” https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/index.jsp?page=12261&lang=en
Yes, Vincent soon fell into “sinful” ways which any practicing evangelical would reject: he drank plenty of alcohol and frequented bars; he dated prostitutes and frequented brothels, he associated with people who had no interest in the Biblical God. But he also painted, in 1885, “Still life with Bible”. He painted “Christ with the angel at Gethsemane” in October 1888. He wrote to Theo in November 1882 that he could see a “ray from heaven” in an infant’s eyes.
David Paul Kirkpatrick, in an article titled, “Vincent Van Gogh-Rejected by the Church he does not reject God”, noted and quoted:
Vincent described Jesus as “the supreme artist, more of an artist than all others, disdaining marble and clay and color, working in the living flesh.” Because of his illness, Vincent was never accepted by society. Yet Vincent, in his remarkable letters, never stepped away from his connection with the Lord. “One cannot do better than hold onto the thought of God through everything” he wrote, “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.”
“In a world where we are disheartened by our religious institutions , we shouldn’t give up on the holiness and love found in God”.
(Vincent’s comments are taken from Van Gogh’s Collected Letters, republished in 2008).
Kathleen Powers Erickson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, in an article titled, “From Preaching to Painting: Van Gogh’s Religious Zeal” wrote about Vincent’s post-Church years:
For van Gogh, to believe in God now meant not that one should believe all the sermons of the clergymen or “the arguments and Jesuitism of the bigoted, genteel prudes”, but rather that there was a God, “not dead or stuffed, but alive, urging us to love, with irresistible force.” Van Gogh pursued his art with his former religious zeal and mission, claiming, “Our purpose is self-reform by means of a handicraft and of intercourse with Nature — our aim is walking with God.”
Kathleen Powers Erickson has done a masterful job of showing that Van Gogh did not reject his faith in the God of the Bible. Find the link to her article below*.
THE SAMSON PRINCIPLE
It seems to me that it was Vincent’s frustration and loneliness, mingled with the potent force of his passion, which extracted from him his amazing and unique works of art. Many of them may never have come into existence had he found that loving, devoted woman he so craved for-had he somehow found the satisfaction he longed for, and dare I even say, had he succeeded in becoming that missionary to South America.
As I thought about Vincent’s art I couldn’t help thinking about the Biblical character Samson (see the Old Testament book of Judges, chapters 13 to 16). Samson was also a passionate man who loved women, and who, empowered by that passion and at the same time living against the will of God, vented his frustration in ways which paradoxically brought glory to God, and which were also an expression of God’s own feelings and frustrations. God’s hatred for the worship of the false god Dagon was expressed in Samson’s destruction of the temple to Dagon (chapter 16). It’s as if God intentionally drove Samson to that point to fulfill His own purposes, though more likely, God knitted all circumstances and eventualities into his own will, despite Samson’s weaknesses and failings.
I suggest that in the same way Vincent’s weaknesses, sins, failures and illnesses were all channeled (not created) to produce unique, vibrant and electrified works of art as an expression of God’s own creativity and passion. Christians too often reduce God in art and music to the predictable, the tame, the mundane, when God is anything but those things. “Our God is a consuming fire”, the Bible tells us. “The heaven of heavens cannot contain him”. Those who caught a glimpse of Him were astounded and overwhelmed.
I’m convinced that God is not in the business of just producing the “Sheep May Safely Graze” kind of art (although I love that too), but the kind which compliments the stark beauty and the uncontrollable power of His nature and His creation. Vincent loved nature, and I think the pictures he painted towards the end of his short life-when he was at his most distressed and lonely extent – are his most remarkable and expressive.
To close, I would like to share part of an excellent song by Don McLean-dedicated to my brother-one which I never realized was about Vincent until I started to learn about his life:
For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night
You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could’ve told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you
(from “Starry Starry Night”)
Another great article on the subject: