So who was this man, this genius whose powers of observation and description were as vivid and alive in his writing, as was his paint on canvas? When his letters were released in 1914, they were considered to be some of the finest literature of the century. It was these letters that revealed a very different man to the one depicted by so many as a mad man.
He was a ‘boots and all’ man … a man who gave himself unreservedly to whatever he set his mind to do. He was brutally honest and real and by his own admission socially inept. He had strong values and beliefs and he spoke his mind just as fiercely as he gave his heart in generosity and compassion.
His compassion for the oppressed didn’t wane; in fact he was more determined than ever to fight for them and he saw art as a way to do that and also to continue to share his faith. He admired Charles Dickens; the way his writing shed light on the terrible cruelty and degrading conditions under which so many people lived and worked, especially children. Vincent saw Dickens as an artist who painted black and white images with words. Vincent wanted to leave ‘epistles’ written with brush on canvas.
Unlike so many artists of his time, his paintings were raw and honest. He wanted people to smell the coffee, taste the bread and boiled potatoes and even the dung in the field beyond. He believed the soul of an artist should be evident in his work, as indeed his was.
But underlying his passionate art was a heart longing to be loved … for a home. Since his happy childhood days, he had known rejection after rejection and times of intense loneliness. His letters mention a heartbreaking memory of standing at a boarding school gate watching his parents carriage drive away, leaving him feeling desperately alone … he mentions dreadful things that happened at that school. But the loneliness didn’t end there.
Twice he was rejected in love, twice dismissed from a job and finally fired as a missionary from the Borinage. Yet he continued to pour his love into the lives of others.
One winter Vincent took in a destitute and desperately ill pregnant woman whose own mother had forced her into prostitution. She had two illegitimate children but Vincent firmly believed that he could help her heal and become a dependable wife and mother. “It seems to me that every man worth a straw would have done the same”, he wrote to his brother, Theo. “I have always believed that ‘love they neighbor as thyself’ is no exaggeration, but a normal condition. So be it.”
With great love and care Vincent made a home for Sien, often going without himself, to share with this little family who had nothing. In a corner of his studio he nestled a small green iron cradle, overhung with beautiful works of art. “And now, thank God, this little nest is ready for her after all her pain”. Sien gave birth to a son and they appear to have lived with Vincent for about 18 months before she abandoned him and returned to her old lifestyle. He wrote to her and sent her money but the letters were returned unopened and he later learnt she had jumped in the river and drowned.
His relationship with his father had deteriorated following his dismissal from the Borinage. They had terrible arguments over many years and despite his father’s efforts to help him, the relationship was never restored. Following his father’s early death, Vincent went to Paris. Filled with guilt and grief he embarked on a three-year drinking binge. Like so many artists of that era he drank quantities of absinthe, a derivative of Wormwood which was said to give extraordinary clarity of mind and creativity. But it had a degenerative effect on the central nervous system often leading to mental disorders.
When he realised that he was damaging his own health, he left Paris, and returned to the countryside where he found peace and inspiration. During his days in Paris he had forsaken God, but now he returned to his faith and most of his biblical works were painted during this time …The Sower, The Raising of Lazarus among others.
During the last months of his life he was deeply preoccupied with the person of Jesus. He said,” What I love about Jesus is that he was the greatest artist that ever lived but instead of paint, canvas and brushes he took men and women and made them immortal”. Vincent continued to have an unswerving faith in the Resurrection.
Unfortunately the damage had been done to his brain and he began to have epileptic seizures, Grand Mal episodes that would last up to 2 weeks and times of insanity. He admitted himself to an asylum and it was while he was convalescing there that he painted Starry, Starry Night – one of his most famous and moving paintings.
Perhaps it was the realisation that his ability to paint had been diminished by his failing health and a desire to no longer burden his brother, Theo, and sister-in-law Johanna, that turned his thoughts to death. His brother had supported him financially over the ten years of his career as an artist and now they had a baby to care for – a baby they had named after him, Vincent Willem van Gogh.
On 17 July 1890 Vincent van Gogh walked into a field in Auvers-sur Oise and shot himself. He didn’t die until two days later. He was 37. A life lived for others amidst rejection and loneliness. He said, “At the end of my career, I want people to say about my work, this man felt deeply, this man felt keenly. I want them to know that there was someone like them who suffered, who lived, who walked on this planet and died, someone who wanted to show others a love he wished he had received more of himself.”
Quotes: Van Gogh’s Untold Story, William Havlicek
Havlicek spent 15 years of his life researching and reading Vincent’s letters for the writing of this book
Image: Public Domain – Public Art Images
Vincent, self-portrait and Starry, Starry Night