Discovering the Real Vincent
We’re familiar with his infamous act but what do we know about his life?
Hear the essay:
A Tragic Picture
The severed ear. It's a shocking image, and one that's often synonymous with Vincent van Gogh. To this day, the story of the 19th-century Dutchman continues to captivate art historians, the public, and myself. It’s tragic that one of Vincent’s lowest points is often the extent of what most people know about him. Aside from creating his now famous paintings. Films such as At Eternity's Gate and Loving Vincent, to name a recent few, attempt to tell the enigmatic Dutch painter’s story. Unfortunately, these films fall short. Perpetuating an image of Vincent we’re already familiar with. A tragic, unstable, and solitary genius. But is that it or is there more to the man behind Starry Night and Sunflowers that we’re missing?
Who was Vincent, the real Vincent van Gogh, and what drove a promising young man to walk away from a career as an art dealer? Did he truly want to serve as a minister like his Father or was he merely searching for a higher calling? Serving God and the community would have been a reasonable career for a pastor’s eldest son. What could have possessed him to break from family tradition and devote his life to the study and practice of art? To find out, we will have to read something that wasn’t meant for us.
More than 600 letters addressed to Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother, survive. Inside of them we witness an exchange that reveals something extraordinary. The slow and painful birth of an artist. We see the beautiful as well as the ugly parts of growth. We read the finest philosophy to the roughest sides of loneliness. What did Vincent see in painting that he would readily trade comfort for the suffering it took him to master it?
I feel a power in me which I must develop, a fire that I may not quench, but must keep ablaze, though I do not know to what end it will lead me, and shouldn't be surprised if it were a gloomy one.1
In Vincent’s letters, he shares with Theo thoughts on life, art, and nature, among other personal matters. We learn about his struggles with rejection, betrayal, hunger, and even melancholia. And the further you read, the more you see beyond the curtain of mystery to find something rare. An ordinary man with an extraordinary amount of love and dedication. A man at once sensitive yet resilient. Gentle but also fierce. Though Vincent was poor in money he was rich in something else.
On July 1878, age 25, Vincent writes Theo that the artist must apply themselves with heart, mind, and soul and produce words and deeds full of spirit and life.2 How did the young man count on such a sound artistic philosophy before even starting to paint? Vincent had left school at age 16, and upon hearing that, his beloved uncle, and art dealer, offered him a job at Goupil. While working there, there is no doubt that Vincent discovered and refined his artistic philosophy after being exposed to the work of Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet, painters who depicted rural life, peasant labor, and the everyday.
Vincent writes in 1883, “you know that I consider you to have saved my life. I shall never forget that.” Adding further still “I am not only your brother, your friend, but at the same time I have infinite obligations of gratitude to you.” Theo was Vincent’s only believer. His monthly contributions of 150 francs sustained Vincent for the rest of his life. Following in his brothers footsteps, Theo flourished in his career as an art dealer but was by no means wealthy. Yet, he supported Vincent as he toiled in the pursuit of becoming a painter.
1. an artist who excels in drawing
Legend has it that Euclid, speaking to a king, famously quipped: "Sir, there is no royal road to geometry." One could likewise apply the idea to drawing, the “backbone of painting”, as Vincent puts it. Before even starting to paint, Vincent had to learn to draw. His letters detail the struggles that face the student training to draw well. In Vincent, we see an uncompromising dedication to the craft. Rising early in the morning. Enduring bad weather. Forgoing meals to pay for models. Vincent worked to the bone and yet struggled to make work that Theo could sell. Neither Vincent nor the art world were ready.
More than revealing something human, Vincent’s words have another profound effect. He transforms, inevitably, from a stranger into a teacher and friend. And whether you study art or not, there is something beautiful in the company of someone who loved so deeply. A human isn’t complete without faults and Vincent was well aware of his. He made choices that were questionable. Unrequited love sent him into a downward spiral. And later he tried to rescue a sex worker and her family when he could barely afford to live. But it’s difficult not to stick by his side even wishing to reach through the page and offer a helping hand.
When one feels so much attracted by the work, one must stick to it till one drops, so to speak.3
Vincent’s letters are beautiful. And nothing truly beautiful can be summarized so I offer you no summary of the letters. Anything short of letting Vincent speak for himself would be to simply repeat what the films before have tried but failed to do. The best I can do is spark your curiosity and point towards where you may seek him but there is something you should know. In the artist’s journey: there are no shortcuts. Getting there will take time. You will have to endure and learn to persevere alongside him. The only way to meet the real Vincent is to read what he had to say.
Van Gogh, Vincent. “Book II.” Dear Theo, 1995th ed., Penguin Group, New York City, NY, 1995, pp. 170.
Van Gogh, Vincent. “Book I.” Dear Theo, 1995th ed., Penguin Group, New York City, NY, 1995, pp. 36.
Van Gogh, Vincent. “Book II.” Dear Theo, 1995th ed., Penguin Group, New York City, NY, 1995, pp. 209.