“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.
All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.
That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love, in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.”
Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum.” (Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, 21 July 1882).
The more I read about Van Gogh, the more I find in him a kindred soul. Today, I also find in him a challenge to keep seeking, keep searching; despite many rejections throughout his life, Van Gogh did not reject himself, but sought constantly after beauty in the world and in his own soul.
As a young man, Van Gogh was fervent about Christianity. Despite failing his theology exam, he became a missionary in an impoverished coal mining district, where he spent time drawing and ministering to the mining families, giving up his own comfortable dwellings to the homeless and sleeping on straw.
They called him “Christ of the Coal Mines.”
The church authorities dismissed him. They seemed to think him undignified, perhaps theatrical in his martyrdom. His father inquired about having him committed to a lunatic asylum.
Still, he wrote to his brother Theo,
“I think that everything that is really good and beautiful, the inner, moral spiritual and sublime beauty in men and their works, comes from God, and everything that is bad and evil in the works of men and in men is not from God, and God does not approve of it.
But I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself. But you must love with a sublime, genuine, profound sympathy, with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time to understand Him more, better and yet more. That will lead to God, that will lead to an unshakeable faith.” (Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, July 1880)
Later, he became increasingly disillusioned with the religious tradition he knew and its hypocrisy. He distanced himself from the church, though he still said, “there is a certain something I cannot define systematically, although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me that something is God or as good as God.”
Much of Van Gogh’s life was marked by anguish. He was rejected in love, turned to painting; his art didn’t sell. He was malnourished, drank too much absinthe, and was frequently ill. And yes, he famously cut off his ear after a feud with a fellow painter, leaving it with a prostitute as a kind of token. It was a manic episode he didn’t remember after the fact.
In spite of much pain in life, Van Gogh saw things few of us can see, the dance of light and color. He turned dark into the swirling radiance of Starry Night, which he described beforehand in a letter to his sister:
“At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.” (Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh, 9 and 16 September)
One might hope that such a view of this good earth would turn away thoughts of suicide, that such an eye for beauty could find a foothold in life. In fact, his suicide is contested; it’s possible he was shot on accident by village boys.
Either way, his mental illness grew worse in his last years. According to Theo, his last words were, “The sadness will last forever.” Heartbreaking words from the man who once wrote,
“I do know that there is a release, the belated release. A justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, disastrous circumstances, misfortune, they all turn you into a prisoner. You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive bars, railings, walls. Is all this illusion, imagination? I don’t think so. And then one asks: my God, will it be for long, will it be for ever, will it be for eternity?
Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead.” (Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, July 1880).
So today, on his birthday, let us remember him for the beauty of his art and his words. Let us press on to see the world that he saw, the invisible swirls of brilliance, and may our love be genuine, to free each other from our prisons.