Today (July 29) is the day in 1890 when Vincent van Gogh died from a gunshot wound he had inflicted on himself two days earlier, leaving behind many questions.
That van Gogh was mentally tormented throughout his life is widely known. It is an unavoidable subject for biographers, but also an irresistible subject for anybody who has ever stood in front of a van Gogh painting and had one of those embarassingly strong physiological responses his art can induce: the lump in the throat, the tear in the eye, the bottom dropping out of the stomach, the head reeling, the giddiness, the speeding pulse. Or there is the most common of the strong responses to his work: a feeling of overwhelming joy and delirious well-being. The question is inevitable: How could a man capable of seeing so penetratingly into the joy of being, of capturing it on canvas, of stimulating a like response in others, have been so comfortless in life and so despairing in death?
These questions lurk in the back of the mind of anybody who has encountered van Gogh’s paintings. But even if you didn’t know the scraps of his biography that are common knowledge (he was a failed missionary, he cut off his own ear, he was committed to an asylum, he took his own life), and didn’t wonder about the contradiction between life and art, the art itself would pose intractable enough questions: How did van Gogh make paintings that can hit people in the gut so hard? Is it the way that, even in the smallest paintings, he constructed a phenomenological space, a space that is more like the way space feels than the way it looks? Is it the uncanny color choices, about which he theorized at such length in his letters? Is it the wildness of the brush-work, which lets us see exactly how the image was crafted in the studio?
A last set of questions: How did van Gogh’s Christian faith inform his work and shape his later life? The standard biographies of van Gogh are written by people who care passionately about art, but are not especially sensitive to the realities of religious belief. As a result, they tend to draw a sharp line between the part of van Gogh’s life when he was obsessed with Jesus Christ, and the part where he was obsessed with making art. They treat his immersion in Bible study, his sermons, his letters of spiritual counsel, his Francis-like impetuosity in making himself radically available as a missionary to the miners, as a phase of his life before he had found his voice. For an art historian, of course, these things do constitute the life of the man before he became the artist. Van Gogh didn’t make any paintings worth preserving until after he had abandoned his vocation to be a pastor. In that sense, everything before that was “van Gogh before he was van Gogh.”
But, art-historical artifacts aside, van Gogh was always van Gogh, mute or otherwise. The amazing thing about him is that he ever found a way to communicate what he felt, in any medium. He threw himself at missions work with the same foolish abandon he threw himself at canvases with. He loved God the Father and Jesus Christ his only Son with the same consuming passion he loved the european sunlight falling on sunflowers with. We don’t need an intensely psychological religious biography of van Gogh to understand his paintings, but shouldn’t there be a life of van Gogh that takes him seriously in his religious writings? Too many art historians treat them as writings from “before his conversion,” but they mean his conversion from the religion of his pietistic Dutch parsonage family, to the cosmopolitan religion of fine art.
But the art historians are right that he didn’t succeed in finding his voice until he took up paint. It’s not as if van Gogh turned from a successful run in the pulpit to a successful run in the museum. The biographies I have seen dismiss van Gogh’s preaching as “bad sermons.” The few that he wrote down do seem to bear out that judgment: They are disjointed and a bit rambling, and the reader tumbles down a steep hill of scriptural allusion. One can only imagine that he delivered them with great passion, communicating with any means available to him just how deeply he felt every word, every sentiment. Van Gogh never was able to succeed with Greek or Hebrew classes, and if there were preaching classes available to him, he probably would not have been any more successful in applying himself to the craft of sermon writing. When he turned to painting, he applied himself with fervor and perseverance, for the first time, to a craft.
Van Gogh testified that his art was motivated by a spiritual, even ministerial, impulse: he wanted his art to give comfort to the afflicted. In his theorizing about the effects of color, he associated the color yellow with that strong, otherworldly consolation. There’s no denying the series of virtuoso performances with the color yellow that he left us: studies in yellow on yellow on yellow, citron on saffron on gold, every sunflower seed and every shock of wheat a different shade against a different shade of that omnipotent color. Pure color theory would dictate that if you want a contrast color for yellow, you should use some shade of purple as its proper complement. Van Gogh did this several times. But he preferred to set his yellows off against a range of blues, which held their own personal symbolism for him, closely related to the universal symbolism of blue for sadness, affliction, despair.
Van Gogh always wanted to paint a picture of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, comforted by an angel. He wasn’t sure how he could make it believable, what with the angels and the conventional religious associations of an illustrated Bible scene. Though he never managed to find a way to put that image on canvas in a way that would be safe from mawkish sentimentality, he knew one thing about how it should be done: It should be Christ against a night sky: yellow points of light streaming out yellow beams into the swirling blue-black void. I always thought van Gogh managed to capture some of that idea in his Starry Night, even though he apparently didn’t think he had accomplished much in that painting. With its impossibly swirling yellows and blues, though, Van Gogh wanted to communicate some comfort to his audience. His life showed more of the blues than the yellows, but his art is a testimony to yellow almighty.