l tell you again that I shall always consider you to be something more than a simple dealer in Corots, that through my mediation you have your part in the actual production of some canvases, which will retain their calm even in the catastrophe.” From Vincent van Gogh’s last letter to his brother Theo.
A Christmas card I got this year shows the last self-portrait Vincent van Gogh would paint. Prone to sudden violent outbreaks, Van Gogh at the time he painted this last green-tinged portrait — September 1889 — was sequestered in the Asylum St. Paul near St.-Remy-en-Provence. He was thirty-six. He had tried for the second time in several months to kill himself by squeezing out tubes of paint and forcing himself to swallow the poisonous oily globs of color. But his self-destructive urges were muffled and he was feeling more confident. He intended the painting as a gift for his mother’s 70th birthday. Wanting to reassure her about his health, he sought to show features erased of 20 years of suffering. But reality outstripped intention and the eyes that look out from the canvas are steeped with sadness and loss.
The year previous had been unusually difficult for Van Gogh (and this for a man for whom no year was easy). October 1888, Paul Gauguin joined Van Gogh in Arles. They planned to live together, share expenses, and paint. Quickly, however, the two began to quarrel. Absinthe made their disputes stormier. On December 23, 1888, after attacking Gauguin with a straight razor, Van Gogh sliced off his own left ear. Bleeding profusely (he had cut through an auricular artery) and with his head wrapped in rags, Van Gogh bundled the bloody gobbet of skin and cartilage in newspaper and carried this packet down dark Arles streets to a brothel — the Maison de Tolerance, Number 1 — where he and Gauguin several nights earlier had visited. “Guard this object carefully,” Van Gogh said, and handed the ear over to Rachel, a prostitute. Van Gogh’s drinking buddy, the postman Joseph Roulin (whose portrait Van Gogh had painted), was at the brothel when Van Gogh arrived. Roulin dragged Van Gogh back to the house Van Gogh and Gauguin shared and laid the painter down in the single bed whose rich ocher, oddly skewed footboard seems almost to fatten its half of the canvas in Van Gogh’s Yellow Bed. Weakened by blood loss, Van Gogh was taken by carriage to the hospital. For the rest of his life, until he died a suicide on July 29, 1890, Van Gogh would be institutionalized or under a doctor’s care, first in Arles and then in St.-Remy, and last, in Auvers-sur-Oise.
On the afternoon Van Gogh shot himself (in the chest with a small revolver he had stolen or been loaned to scare away crows that harassed him while he worked) he had been drawing and painting for only 11 years, and his most famous works were painted in the last 4 of those years. Van Gogh remains one of the world’s most popular painters, his Yellow Chair (one of the series of “yellow” pictures that includes the several rapturously yellow sunflower canvases, The Yellow House, The Yellow Bed painted by Van Gogh to decorate the house for Gauguin’s arrival in Arles) among the most reproduced works of recent art. During Van Gogh’s lifetime his work was ignored by all but a few people, one of whom was his younger brother Theo, an art dealer who supported Vincent during his painting years, and only one of his paintings was sold outside his family. Van Gogh regularly wrote long, passionate letters. Some 700 letters survive, most written to Theo. All the letters, from boyhood notes to his parents to the last letter to Theo, can be read in three volumes in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh. W.H. Auden selected 652 letters for Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait, Letters Revealing His Life as a Painter.
David Sweetman’s Van Gogh: His Life and His Art, the first biography of the artist in 25 years, uses the letters to “understand Vincent in the context of his own world as he would have seen it himself.”
Van Gogh’s father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Vincent, born in a Dutch village near the Belgian border, was the oldest of six children (two of his five siblings became psychotic as adults and another may have committed suicide). From an early age Van Gogh read prodigiously and shared his mother’s interest in nature study and sketching. He did well academically but left school at 15 and never returned (Sweet- man suggests Van Gogh’s abrupt removal from school may have been precipitated by the first of the manic-depressive episodes that later regularly beset him).
One of Van Gogh’s paternal uncles was connected with the prestigious Goupil gal- leries in Paris, which had branches in Brus- sels, Berlin, London, the Hague, and New York. At 16 Van Gogh was taken into the firm as an assistant. While at Goupil’s London gallery in 1873, he fell into love with — or, more likely a monomaniacal obsession for — his landlady’s daughter. She rejected Van Gogh’s suit. His descent into depression was instant.
On the outgoing tide of Van Gogh’s failure at romance three future passions revealed themselves: religion, painting, relieving the anguish of the poor. He tramped London’s streets. He saw, writes Sweetman (echoing letters to Theo): “women in rags whose filthy children held out scrawny hands for coins.” And he “turned to the Bible for comfort, sitting up late reading and rereading it.” And “[H]e began to draw. Only a little, but it helped to pass the time and the activity seemed to keep at bay the endless cycle of unanswerable questions that plagued him.”
Van Gogh quickly lost interest in his work at Goupil. “Why,” Sweetman writes, “waste one’s life peddling art to the well-off, when there was so much to be done for the poor...?” By 1876, even Van Gogh’s family connections to Goupil could not protect him from dismissal. After brief employment as a teacher in an English boarding school and then at a bookstore in Holland, Van Gogh (who all this time had been studying the Bible) felt called by God to become an ordained Dutch Reformed pastor, like his father. He wanted, he said, “to teach the Gospel to the poor and oppressed.” To do this he would need to pass university examinations in Latin and Greek and then enter the Dutch Reformed seminary.
In 1877 Van Gogh moved to Amsterdam, lived with an uncle, and for over a year desperately tried to apply himself to classical language studies. Then, he abandoned his studies. To Theo, he wrote: “[C]ertainly it is very doubtful I shall ever succeed, I mean, shall ever pass all the examinations.”
A second plan rapidly replaced the first. He would not become an ordained minister; he would become a lowly missionary lay minister. A month after quitting his Greek and Latin, Van Gogh entered the Training School for Evangelists in Brussels. At the three-month course’s end, with only a probationary appointment as a lay preacher, Van Gogh headed as a missionary to the Belgian mining district of Borinage.
What Van Gogh found in Borinage horrified him more than London’s slums. Sweetman: “There were sights to pierce the heart: stables 2000 feet underground where ponies broken with toil spent their wretched lives; worse still, children, girls as well as boys, some only eight years old, filthy and in rags, pulled sledges of coal through tunnels too small for the animals. And hanging over all this was the constant fear of accidents.”
Van Gogh responded by giving away his clothing, food, bed, and finally, he moved out of his comfortable room to live with the miners to whom he ministered. When Esther, Van Gogh’s former land-lady, asked him why he behaved as he did, literally handing out the shirts off his back to be torn into bandages, Van Gogh replied: “Esther, one should do like the good God; from time to time one should go and live His own.” His superiors disapproved Van Gogh’s charities; they chastised him for overzealousness and after six months as a missionary, then-26- year-old Van Gogh was fired.
What a terrible moment! The occasion of his firing feels heartbreaking to the reader. How must it have felt to Van Gogh, who had set such hopes on being permitted to bring the remedy of God’s love to the miners? Sweetman guesses: “He was utterly cast down...he had done everything for God and God had surely rejected him.”
I came to Sweetman’s report of Van Gogh’s rejection at a time when I was sitting through several nights with a sick friend. I had curled up under a lamp at the end of the bed, listening to the rasping rise and fall of my friend’s breathing. I felt alone, tired, and dispirited. I felt afraid for my friend. I had next to me Auden’s collection of Van Gogh’s letters and two small books I’d bought one year in Paris, books filled with reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings. (“Even reproduced thousands of times,” Sweetman writes, “Van Gogh’s art retains a capacity to surprise and move us.”) Sweetman’s Van Gogh biography lay open in my lap.
Someone once told me, “One must write as if one’s readers were men and women who knew they had only six months to live.” Smiling, he went on to say he didn’t mean to suggest one necessarily should write pieces that read quickly or were short, but that what one wrote should acknowledge the questions about life’s meaning that when crushed by despair we all ask and should offer hope or consolation. The last half of Sweetman’s biography and the evidence of Van Gogh’s letters convinced me that Van Gogh painted with a mission like that in mind.
I had read, then, to page 112 of Sweetman’s biography, a few pages past the point at which Van Gogh is fired by the church. Sweetman notes Van Gogh’s purchase, then, of his first sketchbook. (“Thus far,” writes Sweetman, “he had made his drawings on whatever scraps of paper he could lay his hands on; such an expensive outlay marked another, albeit tiny, step in the new direction his life was taking.”)
During the months before he was fired, Van Gogh had been sketching miners and their families. (“I should be happy if some day I could draw then,” he wrote, “so that these unknown types would be brought before the eyes of the people.”) After his dismissal Van Gogh stayed on in the Borinage. He acquired a primer that taught drawing — “clear black-and-white studies of faces,” writes Sweetman, “with anatomical outlines that the learner was encouraged to copy as faithfully as possible” — and gradually, laboriously, Van Gogh taught himself to draw and paint.
The Van Gogh legend has it that he went unappreciated in his lifetime because he was consciously
avant-garde. Sweetman argues against this, asserting a Van Gogh who believed himself to be painting well within 19th-century proprieties. Sweetman notes that during the time Van Gogh worked at Goupil, the galleries handled little that was “new,” that Van Gogh’s way of painting developed in almost total exile from art movements current in Paris. Not until 1886 when he moved to Paris, living with Theo until 1888, did Van Gogh make contact with Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings and artists of the French vanguard.
What Van Gogh did know and admire were the sentimental academic paintings that Impressionists reacted against. Pastor Van Gogh’s study contained a four-by-eight-inch engraving of a funeral procession crossing a cornfield. Signed by a Dutch artist in vogue at the time among the middle classes, this engraving, Sweetman writes, may have been the first professional work of art Van Gogh knew (as an adult, Van Gogh would acquire a copy of the engraving for himself ). When the 16-year-old Van Gogh went to Goupil he discovered the firm’s black-and-white engravings of paintings by Jean-Francois Millet, whose
The Gleaners had been the marvel of the 1857 Paris Salon. Even the rough copies of Goupil, notes Sweetman, moved Van Gogh, not so much for the surface beauty of the work but for what he could interpret from it. And what he interpreted, Sweetman continues, was that the engraving’s three women bending to pick up scraps of corn were no ordinary peasants, but outcasts, poor scavengers allowed on fields to pick scraps left after harvesting. Looking at his engravings, writes Sweetman, Millet’s gleaners “have all the force of a political cartoon, of an act of propaganda” and to Van Gogh seemed “to make a radical, political statement.” (Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his sister Wil: “Oh Millet! Millet! how he painted humanity and that Something on High which is familiar and yet solemn.”)
The Gleaners and other similar, almost sentimental pictures gradually added themselves to the engraving hung on Van Gogh’s father’s wall as the type of pictures Van Gogh hoped to make. Sweet- man concludes, about Van Gogh: “It was his identification with the miners’ condition that pulled him most strongly towards art.” And Auden argued that not only did Van Gogh believe, deeply, that the only proper subject for art in his day was the life of the poor but that of all painters and writers who painted or wrote about the poor, only Van Gogh preferred the life and company of the poor, “not in theory but in fact.”
Van Gogh wrote to Theo, on 16 November, 1889, shortly after he had finished what would be his last self-portrait: “And instead of grandiose exhibitions, it would have been better to address oneself to the people and work so that each one could have in his home some pictures or reproductions which would be lessons, like the work of Millet.”
Sitting all night in that little bedroom, waiting for dawn, shaken by my friend’s stertorous breathing, alternately read pages of Sweetman and then pages from Auden’s collection of the letters. “We must cast ourselves into the depths,” Van Gogh wrote to Theo, “if we want to catch something.” And “I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.” And, “It always strikes me, and it is very peculiar, that whenever we see the image of indescribable and unutterable desolation — of loneliness, poverty and misery, the end and extreme of all things, the thought of God comes into one’s mind.”
I turned often while I read to the small glowing reproductions of the Sunflowers and The Drawbridge at Arles, as familiar as sights near my house, to the Postman Roulin and L’Arlesienne, as familiar as relatives’ faces. The tiny reproduction of Van Gogh’s sturdy bed, the thickly impastoed rich ocher comforted me.
Kept from ministering to the miners, Van Gogh turned to painting. But his mission did not change. Van Gogh speaks, I decided that night, to our inner poverty, that he gives us in his paintings, as he did the miners, the shirt off his back to be torn into bandages.
On his last self-portrait, the principal background color is green; Van Gogh’s coat is green, even the shadows that fall under his eyes and even the eyes are green. The background is painted in the torturous heavily impastoed swirls by which Van Gogh is recognized. On this Christmas card I received the card’s manufacturer (InnoVisions — “Greetings for the Truly Deranged”) had printed atop Van Gogh’s head a red Santa hat tipped with a furry white ball. Above Van Gogh’s head is “Merry Christmas.” I opened the card and read the message InnoVisions printed — “All my love, Vincent” — and found stapled to the card stock a plastic bag of the type in which rock cocaine is sold. A pink plastic ear lay in the bag.