Nothing about Vincent van Gogh was tepid. He was a conflicted and enigmatic man who suffered mental and physical illness, worshiped the Creator yet regarded the Bible coolly, loved without being requited, and reportedly had an unkempt personal appearance that belied his rare ability to convey beauty and emotion. Anyone who views his paintings feels the passion and intensity that radiate from them. Less well known but equally passionate are his letters, in which he opens his deepest thoughts to family members and close friends. He lived with purpose yet, tragically, died two days after he is believed to have shot himself in the chest. July 29, 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of his death.
A lifelong seeker, van Gogh was born a year after his parents had suffered the loss of their first child, who was stillborn. The son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, van Gogh studied theology, sincerely hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was posted as a missionary to a small mining town in Belgium, where he began his assignment by living in solidarity with the impoverished miners, choosing the same conditions and rations as they. Coupled with his supposed lack of speaking ability, this “indignity” soon led church authorities to terminate his service. This disappointment alienated him from the church.
Hoping to “lead to God” by a different medium, van Gogh decided to devote his life to art. His letters to his younger brother, Theo, an agent in an international art dealership, record some of the inner realities he sought to bring to expression in specific paintings. In the foreword to Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest by Cliff Edwards, Henri Nouwen writes of seminars he gave on van Gogh to his Yale Divinity School students:
I simply wanted the students to have a direct experience of the ecstasy and the agony of this painter who shared his desperate search for meaning. After such seminars it seemed that we had all been touched in places that no spiritual writer had been able to reach. A similar effect resulted from the readings of Vincent’s letters. Their haunting, passionate expression of longing for a God who is tangible and alive, who truly comforts and consoles, and who truly cares for the poor and the suffering brought us in touch with the deepest yearnings of our souls.
As his artist’s life began, van Gogh fell in love with a recently widowed cousin, Kee Vos. He proposed to her, but she refused. Soon thereafter, having moved to The Hague, where he studied under Anton Mauve, van Gogh met a homeless and pregnant prostitute, Sien Hoornik, whom he took into his studio along with her young daughter. Mauve, scandalized, broke off his tutelage, calling van Gogh “a vicious character.” Attempting to explain himself to both Mauve and Theo, van Gogh wrote in a letter recorded in the book, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh:
Well, gentlemen, I shall say to you, you people who prize manners and culture, and rightly so, provided it is the genuine article – which is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly: to desert a woman or to concern oneself with one who has been deserted? … To be sure I thought of another woman for whom my heart was beating – but she was far away and did not want to see me, and this one – there she was, walking about sick, pregnant, and hungry – in winter.
In another letter to Theo, van Gogh wrote of his first major work, The Potato Eaters:
I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labor and – a meal honestly earned.
Later in his career, van Gogh suffered severe psychotic attacks and had to be hospitalized several times. Contemporaries remember him as impolite, disagreeable, and socially awkward. Yet though he was no stranger to suffering and failure, behind his life’s miseries he sensed resurrection and redemption. As he wrote to his sister, Willemina, in 1887:
You can see yourself that in nature many flowers are trampled underfoot, frozen or scorched, and for that matter that not every grain of corn returns to the soil after ripening to germinate and grow into a blade of corn – indeed, that by far the greatest number of grains of corn do not develop fully but end up at the mill – isn’t that so? To compare human beings with grains of corn, now – in every human being who is healthy and natural there is a germinating force, just as there is in a grain of corn. And so natural life is germination. What the germinating force is to the grain, love is to us.
To the discerning observer, van Gogh’s paintings, drawings, and letters preach a gospel message as enduring as any legacy he might have left had he met with success as an evangelist. In spite of – or perhaps because of a deep awareness of – his human fragility, he was able to uncover and communicate truths of eternal value. May his life inspire each of us to nurture that same “germinating force” and bring it to fruition.