All that changed by a sheer act of coincidence. My wife has a much keener interest in the world of art and she herself is very good at drawing and painting, two of my openly admitted and gaping weaknesses. It was out of the desire to give us something interesting to do on a lazy Sunday morning that I registered for a free virtual tour of the Amsterdam Museum showcasing some of the Dutch painter’s artwork. And that triggered various other live-stream events and webinars of interest, most of which I attended by myself; they were organized by Washington DC History & Culture and hosted by Robert Kelleman with a special program on letters of Vincent Van Gogh co-hosted by Ed Calcutt.
I was most intrigued not just by the work and paintings of Van Gogh but also by his life and vision. To say that he was a tormented soul is an understatement. Most likely, he suffered from bipolar depression, but I would not be surprised if he were also obsessive-compulsive and if he had Asperger’s as well. This may explain his difficulty of not only engaging with others but also of living within himself; this may also shed light on his one-sided one-track-minded focus on all things art, or rather his own unique perception of art. Whatever his psychological dispositions and ailments, they were compounded by excessive drinking, malnutrition, and self-isolation.
Van Gogh’s view of work as being sacred and his determination of following one’s vocation by embracing toil was not only due to his upbringing under a strict pastor but was also about filling a void that he was sensing within himself. Vincent tried various professions from working in a bookstore, becoming a teacher, and even his father’s profession for a year, but he simply did not fit the mold, nor did he find satisfaction and personal fulfillment along the way.
He was too passionate and intense but also too honest and authentic to be able to do so. He was also driven and torn by finding his own voice and living out his passion. In many ways, his views and way of thinking were ahead of his time, and it was fueled by idealism and spirituality alongside beliefs that did not have a personal god nor a specific church and denomination. His life’s purpose could be summarized in his own phrase of making art that moves and touches people.
Sadly, at least in his own perception, he was not able to do so. He considered himself the “lowest of the low” and a nonentity, an eccentric and unpleasant person. When he decided to fully devote himself to painting at the age of 26 (which he deemed almost too old), he was financially supported by his brother Theo. As his brother was an art dealer, he tried his best to sell Vincent’s paintings but to little avail. It is said that only one of his paintings was ever sold, and most of his work, he would give away anyways as gifts and signs and tokens of appreciation.
Painting was his life and the expression of his innermost being. Yet the failure to earn a living in the profession that he valued so much was heartbreaking to him. He could have stooped and become more commercial like many other artists who sold their vision and integrity for a piece of bread, but he was too proud and too stubborn for that.
Van Gogh dreamed of establishing an ideal artist community, a substitute for the ideal family, where everyone would work and paint freely by living together, by exchanging ideas, and by simply getting by. He attempted this with Paul Gauguin but that only ended in disaster and may have cost him his ear, which he ended up giving to a prostitute/the cleaner at a brothel to be then passed on to the French painter.
Yet that did not stop Van Gogh to see and seek “something infinite in painting”. We may know him as a colorful painter with a colorful personality, but his early work was darker in tone and in subject, and his later experiments in color are not as bright and cheery as one would think.
Vincent also had a deep intimate connection with the poor and the working class and he may have bonded and sympathized with them because of his personal suffering. In his early career, one of his more known works is The Potato Eaters, which depicts the anguish of daily life in a poor family. We may now think that he was either in a depressive state at that time of his life or that this was his chosen style of painting, but neither answer is satisfying here.
In fact, in his first paintings, he used darker shades and colors because that was the only style that he was familiar with at the time. It was the chosen method of expression and so he copied it. When he got exposed to the vibrant use of color by the impressionists in Paris, he was shocked that it could be done in such a vivid way and manner.
The impressionists at the time were a rebellious faction and were not part of the art establishment yet. I see them as the French filmmakers of the nouvelle vague that went against the standard formality of their previous older generation. For revolutionary filmmakers like Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol, the main incentive was to present art without artificiality. They wanted to represent art that was closer to life and reality; hence, they adopted a documentary-style of filmmaking. To be able to do so effectively, they needed the necessary technology, the lighter-weight camera.
Similarly, for the impressionists as well as Van Gogh, who would be more a post-impressionist, the invention of the lighter and collapsible easel was the necessary game-changer. Before, whether they wanted or not, all paintings had to be done in the studio. Yet with the mobile easel, artists had the option and opportunity of working outdoors and capturing nuances of light and shadow and, more importantly, color. Their perception of glimmering points of color may also have been due to the consumption of absinthe, the green fairy, which was common and commonplace at the time and may have distorted or played tricks on their perception.
But it was all much deeper and more personal for Van Gogh. First off, his technique was rather different from the impressionists as he would spontaneously lay on colors. Part of the reason, he did not use oil paintings in his previous years was also because the material was more costly to begin with.
Moreover, he did not wish to simply replicate the landscapes, but he wanted to imbue them with his personal touch and stamp them with his artistic view and vision. Art was less a true depiction of natural life (photography would later do a much better replication of that aim and ambition) but rather it provided a deeper resemblance than photography as it was an expression of authenticity, a personal viewpoint filled with personal experiences. It was not how things were but how he thought and believed they were or should be.
In fact, what we may initially deem as bright and colorful was not always so. Van Gogh would go through different phases and he kept trying to perfect and fine-tune his art. For instance, he would get obsessed with different shades of yellow as he would bathe and drench his paintings in sunlight. At the same time, he would also paint different flowers, such as his famous sets of sunflowers.
His portraits of others were not merely a copy of their face and body, but it was an artist’s statement on their life and personality. He was more interested in the emotional connection he had with the subject and was not much concerned with realism. Put differently, it was how he perceived that particular person at that time of his own life.
He made about a few dozen self-portraits and they become an interesting document of how he viewed himself at different points and stages of his life. Many might claim that his obsession with himself made him narcissistic, but this is not entirely true nor justified. First off, he preferred painting people over landscapes. But more importantly, Vincent painted himself because a subject was not always easy to come by, so he used his own head as an experiment. Furthermore, when you do self-portraits, you do not need to pay the subject any money, so it also had an economic advantage.
As mentioned previously, Van Gogh used colors to show, express, and give voice to his deep feelings and passionate and deeply sensitive and emotional personality. His work is not merely impressionistic but it was ahead of its time. Due to the symbolism and distortion that he used, he could be seen as an early advocate of abstract art. His work was deeply personal and it expressed his anguish and torment as well as his desires and anxieties.
Most importantly, it was art for art’s sake. Art could not and should not be a commodity. It is also nothing to trifle with nor to do on the side. He embraced and explored it whole-heartedly and with all his soul. It was also a form of therapy as he used it to give shape to his inner demons that were gnawing at him.
Yet sadly, he was misunderstood by others around him. He never found love. His only relationship was with a prostitute; it may have been out of pity or it may have been love, but either way, it did not last. His family, with the notable exception of his brother, shunned and criticized his way of life and his opinions. He ended up a recluse in the south of France with few if any friends.
Finally, he misunderstood himself. He never accepted nor did he love himself. He never felt worthy of love. He was always on the run from his inner demons. He never found peace and was restless and always on the go as he lived in over thirty different places. At the moment of deepest and darkest despair, he committed suicide. It may have been a momentary lapse of reason, but it had a lasting and irreversible effect on the history of the art world and signifies a profound loss for each and every one of us.