Greetings friends, July 29th
On this date in 1890, a great man died.
Most of us know Vincent Van Gogh as the crazy Dutch painter who sliced off his ear in a fit of rage, couldn’t sell a painting, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the gut. Anyone who did such things had to be loony, right?
But a reading of his numerous letters, presented in chronolical order with his drawings and paintings in Vincent Van Gogh, A Self Portrait In Art and Letters, tells an altogether different story, that of a man fluent in three languages, familiar with the greatest literary achievements, who presents his ideas in lucid fashion, ideas about art and life that are filled with the same powerful insight and depth of feeling revealed in his numerous pictures.
What is also not so well known is that, though he liked to draw as a child, he’d never picked up a paintbrush until he was twenty-nine, and in a mere seven years, he transformed himself into an artist whose work would transform Western art. This is about as likely as a man taking up tennis at 29, and seven years later winning Wimbledon
And how did he do this? By nothing more than sheer force of will and endless hours of practice, drawing for ten to twelve hours a day, painting in frigid studios and in cold mistral winds, never caring how hard it was to learn, only interested in expressing his wonder at the visual glory of the world around him.
Most of us don’t inhabit a living world, but a world of dry conceptualization. To Van Gogh, the material world thrummed and vibrated, seething a pulsating energy that he could feel in his bones. It was that energy he tried to capture in his work
His health suffered, of course. He spent most of the money his brother Theo sent him on paint, living for years on bread, coffee, and tobacco, till his teeth loosened and his lungs ached from smoking. But none of these things slowed him down. It was the endless battle with epilepsy and depression that wore away at him, sapping his strength as the years passed.
A close reading of his letters, and an understanding of Vincent’s life, can’t help but arouse a feeling of sympathy. He was jilted by every girl he loved, failed at his early callings, his works were scorned till after his death, and he lived in constant shame at having to lean on his brother Theo for money. But though we may feel sympathy for him, he was definitely not the sort of chap you’d like to sit and have a beer with: Vincent was simply too intense.
This is not so hard to understand. Guys who do what he did are seldom socially adept. To transform the way people see the world is to move mankind forward, and as the British historian and poet Jacob Bronowski said, “The ascent of man is not made by loveable people.”
In Van Gogh’s time, the art world was fueled by Impressionism. He moved to Paris and mastered the style, but he distained its daintiness. From this experience, he learned a lot about the use of color, but the lasting result was the crystallization of his own philosophy of art. In a letter to Theo in December of 1885, he says,
Ah, a painting has to be painted, and why not simply? I see people in the street, fine, but I find the servant girls often much more interesting and more beautiful than their mistresses, the working men more interesting than the gentlemen. And in ordinary young men and girls I find a vigor and life that should be painted with a firm brushstroke with a simple technique to express their individual character
Many of the stories about Van Gogh are open to dispute, and some are definitely distorted. He didn’t cut off his ear, only a slice of the lobe, and there’s a theory that he didn’t actually do it himself, that the painter Paul Gauguin, said to be an excellent swordsman, nicked off the bit of ear to fend off Van Gogh, who was haranguing him endlessly about the differences in their views on painting.
The most persistent element of his life story is that he committed suicide, but in a biography published in 2011, Van Gogh, The life, the authors suggest that he was murdered by a local teenager who had been harassing him. According to this account, the angle of the bullet’s entry suggested it had been fired from afar. And why was no gun ever found? And the strangest question of all is, why would even a distraught man kill himself by shooting himself in the gut?
On his deathbed, Vincent said, “Do not accuse anyone. It was I who wanted to kill myself.” The authors speculate that he said this to cover up the truth.
But the experts don’t buy this story. And they may never do so, even if proof positive is found.
Why? Actor and art critic John Perreault, who portrayed Van Gogh in “The Story Of Vincent” writes in his essay “Van Gogh Murdered! Why Are The Authorities In Denial?” that this denial will live on because, “We need the myth of the crazy, tormented, self destructive artist to convince us that painters, poets, and musicians are all nuts… and also, paradoxically, make us feel relieved that we are not artists.”
He goes on to say, “Myths are not allowed to be changed. It would be too destabilizing. We can no more change the Van Gogh ending than we can change Little Red Riding Hood.”
The real truth may never be known, and this speculation is of no importance. Vincent is dust, but his paintings remain. They tell the only truth about him that matters.
Here’s wishing you ultramarine starry nights, and chrome-yellow sunny days, my friends,
PS. Over in Holland, Vincent’s last name is pronounced Van-GAKH.
Vincent Van Gogh, A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters, H. Anne Suh, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2006
Atropia, an artsjournal blog, John Perreault, Oct. 26, 2011
Van Gogh; The Life, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Random House, 2011
jonathanjonesonart blog, Oct 18, 2011
The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski, Boston, Little Brown, 1974