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The unlikely optimism of Vincent van Gogh

Posted on 01 Jul 2020

The tortured artist trope typifies Vincent van Gogh’s place in art history. But a closer look at his art and writing reveals a man of bountiful enthusiasm, wonder and love.

In 1914, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger published an edition of letters from her brother-in-law, Vincent. Introducing the correspondence, Johanna described a “robust, broad-shouldered man with a healthy complexion, a cheerful expression, and something very determined in his appearance”. Far from the tortured artist trope that typifies Vincent van Gogh’s place in art history, Johanna recalled a resilient, optimistic figure, exuding wellbeing and vitality.

Art history has frequently obscured this more positive Vincent van Gogh. The painter’s mental illness, self-mutilation, and suicide lend themselves to a unilateral story of anxiety and despair. But, as Johanna reminds us, Van Gogh’s was anything but a one-sided story. Throughout his life, bouts of profound melancholia and malaise were matched with periods of rapturous wonder, infectious enthusiasm, and a profound belief, as he put it, “in life and in something real”.

Field with Irises near Arles, May 1888. Oil on canvas, 54 cm x 65 cm Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Truest among the artist’s pleasures was the beauty of the natural world. Over his ten-year career, Van Gogh settled in eleven different locations, in some places for over a year, in others for only a few months – but always with an elated eye on local landscape. His writing, like his painting, revels in the motion and textures of his natural surroundings ­– the effects of weather and season; the patterns of light and shadow; and, above all, the panoply of natural colours.

“The ride into the village was really so beautiful”, he wrote to his brother Theo of an early morning trip to Zweeloo, in the Netherlands, in autumn 1883. “Tones of golden green in the moss, of reddish or bluish or yellowish dark lilac greys in the soil, tones of inexpressible purity in the green of the little wheatfields. The sky unbroken, clear, illuminating, not white but a lilac that cannot be deciphered.”

Immersed in the countryside, Van Gogh found himself feeling calm, connected, and open to beauty. The more he reflected on urban life, the more he regarded it as a wrench from the natural, urging his brother Theo to embrace country living. “I’ve had a time of nervous, barren stress,” he wrote in another letter, “days when I couldn’t find the most beautiful countryside beautiful, precisely because I didn’t feel myself part of it. That’s what pavements and the office — and care — and nerves — do.”

Undergrowth, 1887. Oil on canvas, 46 × 38 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Feeling part of the countryside was, for Van Gogh, as much about proximity to rural and farming communities, as it was to the cycles of the day, seasons, and life. Writing to Theo in 1888, he described witnessing the birth of a calf in terms of spiritual wonder: “It was pure, holy, wonderfully beautiful like a Correggio, like a Millet, like an Israëls”.

The natural scheme of things seemed to furnish him, at times, with immense serenity and a sense of good-humoured acceptance.  “I don’t want to be one of the melancholics or those who become sour and bitter and morbid,” he wrote to his sister Willemien. “To understand all is to forgive all, and I believe that if we knew everything we’d arrive at a certain serenity. Now having this serenity as much as possible, even when one knows — little — nothing — for certain, is perhaps a better remedy against all ills than what’s sold in the chemist’s.”

The only thing the artist really missed about the city was print culture. “I wouldn’t mind not seeing locomotives, but never seeing a printing press again would be harder to take.” His love of reading sustained him throughout his life. In his favourite authors – Charles Dickens, Émile Zola, Victor Hugo, and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) – he found inspiration, companionship, and a moral compass. His most cherished books shared his commitment to realism; his concerns about social injustice and poverty; his celebration of simplicity, humility and hard work; and his love of the land.

Sprig of Almond Blossom in a Glass with a Book, Arles, 1888. Oil on canvas 24 × 19 cm. Private Collection.

Reading books was far more important than owning them. Itinerant as he was, Van Gogh placed little importance on keeping the publication as object, frequently leaving books in his last place of residence, sharing them with friends, or giving them away. But he built up an extraordinary library in his head, reading and re-reading books in English, Dutch, and French until he knew long passages by heart. He often cited authors that had moved him in his letters. Books and readers were also frequent subjects in his painting.

Madame Ginoux, L’Arlésienne, 1890. Oil on canvas, 65.3 × 49 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

It was painting, after all, that was Van Gogh’s chief inspiration and self-described “remedy”. Steeped in the Christian faith of his upbringing, he regarded his work as an “obligation and a duty” of his life. He approached art with immense dedication and technical application, but also with a spirit of gratitude and compassion. His painting, he wrote, was “not done to please some movement or other” but rather to express “honest human feeling.” He believed, above all, in the portrait, the modern portrait, as work “made with love or respect”.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890. Oil on canvas 66 × 57 cm. Private Collection.

In this, Van Gogh channelled his faith – a freer, less socially-conservative form of Christianity than the one he identified with his upbringing, but one nonetheless anchored in “moral, spiritual, and sublime beauty” – and a profound and purposeful love.

“I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing God is to love a great deal,” he wrote to Theo. “Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path…But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.”

This love he extended to strangers and family alike, but in particular to Theo, his most cherished correspondent and sibling, as well as to Johanna, and to their son – his nephew and namesake, Vincent Willem van Gogh.

In his final letters to his brother, the artist’s mental anguish is clear. By late July 1890, he is, he writes, “faltering” and concerned he is a “danger”. He describes his now famous series of landscapes capturing “immense stretches of wheatfields under turbulent skies”. “I made a point,” he continues, “of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness”.

But it is not, in fact, these turbulent skies that conclude his correspondence. It is, rather, thoughts of “the little one”, baby Vincent. It is his sense of what is “healthy and fortifying about the countryside”. And it is a description and sketch of the artist Daubigny’s garden, which he has been painting for the third time.

“Foreground of green and pink grass, on the left a green and lilac bush and a stem of plants with whitish foliage. In the middle a bed of roses. To the right a hurdle, a wall, and above the wall a hazel tree with violet foliage. Then a hedge of lilac, a row of rounded yellow lime trees. The house itself in the background, pink with a roof of bluish tiles. A bench and three chairs, a dark figure with a yellow hat, and in the foreground a black cat. Sky pale green.”


Words by Eliza Apperly

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