Great Art from Horrible Life

I just finished the 900-page Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. It was something of an ordeal, but I’m glad to know the fascinating story behind those fabulous paintings.

As I wrote before, Vincent Van Gogh lived a thoroughly miserable life, quarreling with everyone, and especially those (like family) who tried to help him. He died without a single friend except his long-suffering brother Theo, who unquestionably loved him dearly.

Van Gogh didn’t take up art until his late twenties. Before then, he was a devout Christian, seeking to become a pastor or a missionary. He worked at that as fanatically as he later worked at painting. But he repelled the people he wanted to help. After a series of breakdowns he gave up on religion and traded it for art. Indeed, Naifeh and Smith interpret his ferocious drive at both religion and art as expressions of deep longing for family.

He wasn’t naturally good at art. In conventional terms, he couldn’t draw. He struggled mightily to learn perspective, and the human form utterly defeated him. Characteristically, he struggled at them all the harder. His fervent attempts, over years of trying, showed no signs of success. He strongly resisted his brother’s pleas to concentrate on landscape and to use color. An art dealer, Theo thought some possibility of commercial success might lie there. Instead, Van Gogh worked incessantly at dark ink drawings of human figures.

So how did this miserable man produce–in just a few short years before he died–such wonderful works, filled with light and color? It’s hard to say, really. Genius is difficult to explain. But here are a few related facts.

1. He worked hard. He was manic at whatever he did–fighting with his landlord, drinking absinthe, arguing theories of art, pursuing models–and he painted manically. Perhaps this is a case of needing 10,000 hours of practice. He never mastered the human figure, or perspective, but he never stopped working hard. He found his way to something more valuable.

2. He discovered the Impressionists. They had been the toast of Europe for years, but he was oblivious until he moved to Paris to live with his brother. In two short years he met many of the young neo-Impressionists (Gauguin, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec) and saw the paintings of Monet, Cezanne and Degas, among others. Their quick, impressionistic work freed him from a struggle that he was doomed to lose. He adopted a variety of brush techniques, and rushed into a wild and unconstrained approach.

3. He discovered a gift for color, unconstrained by reality. What he had long resisted turned out to be one of his greatest strengths.

4. After cutting off his ear, he entered a series of mental crises followed by recoveries, living continuously in asylums or under medical supervision. As a mental patient, he seems to have felt freer from responsibilities to earn a living or represent an artistic career. Nobody expected anything of him, and he didn’t expect much of himself. He was free to simply paint.

One cannot help feeling pity for him, so passionately self-destructive, so utterly at odds with himself.  There is no romanticizing his dismal character, which cut him off from every happiness and most probably kept him from producing great art sooner and, surely, much longer. He suffered, and not because of others. He suffered because of himself. He could not help himself.

It is not a package deal. Suffering does not produce great art, any more than does happiness. Van Gogh’s struggles are a mystery–a medical, psychological, characterological mystery. At least, thanks to Theo, he did not die friendless, in an alley. At least he died leaving something precious behind. If he was cursed, he was also supremely gifted.


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5 Responses to “Great Art from Horrible Life”

  1. Kent Philpott Says:

    Thanks Tim, have read your stuff often over the years but never, I do not think, ever commented. To read this is striking because I have a person in our congregation that reminds me of Van Gogh and I am highly perplexed by him but now, after reading your story, I have another point of view.

    I am in Marin, live in San Rafael, pastor of Miller Avenue Baptist Church in Mill Valley, now my 30th year. Would enjoy a conversation with you sometime. Kent Philpott

  2. Gary M Says:

    Tim, thanks for this brief but insightful overview of a very complex person who remains a mystery to so many. Fascinating!!

  3. Vincent Van Gogh | Says:

    […] Great Art from Horrible Life […]

  4. Lesley Van Dordrecht Says:

    Just noticed after spending a long time in reverie on “Irises” at the Getty Center in July that he did almost all his paintings in the last year of his life in the asylum…when, as you said, he finally felt free to do nothing but paint. I wonder who else our world and culture are “imprisoning” without meaning to? We all need much wisdom and gentleness when dealing with misfits and difficult people!

  5. David Graham Says:

    A nice article about a tormented man. It reminded me of the chapter about him in David Hempton’s fine book “Evangelical Disenchantment: 9 portraits of faith and doubt.”

    I do believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the praise Van Gogh has gotten over the years far exceeds the impression his art has made on me, although I will admit that he made great use of color.

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