Vincent Van Gogh
What do you think of when I mention Vincent Van Gogh? Until recently, what I knew about Van Gogh was limited to four things: only one of his paintings had sold during his lifetime; he cut off his ear; Don McLean recorded a tribute to him, ‘Vincent’, in the 1970s, which began, ‘Starry, starry night’; and a museum (the Getty) had purchased his painting ‘Irises’ for millions of pounds. I wondered how such an ordinary painting could sell for such an outrageous price.
The words of Don McLean’s song continued:
Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen
They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now!
What did the songwriter understand that I didn’t?
Vincent Van Gogh was a preacher’s son who tried his hand as an art dealer after leaving school, working in both England and France. He returned to Holland to study theology and worked as a missionary in a coal mining community where the conditions in which the miners worked were abysmal. ‘Most of the miners,’ Vincent wrote, ‘are thin and pale from fever; they look tired and weather-beaten and aged before their time.’
Vincent lived among the miners, sharing their poverty: he went down in the mines to be with them, breathing into his lungs the black dust they breathed into theirs; and he visited the sick, bandaging their wounds and praying with them. He wanted to spread the words of the Bible to poor and working-class people and in preparation for this he would sit at his desk night after night and copy page after page of the Bible, translating them into English, German and French. ‘I read it daily,’ he wrote, ‘but I should like to know it by heart and to view life in the light of its words.’
He also wrote about these poor people that he ‘should be very happy if someday I could draw them, so that those unknown would be brought before the eyes of the people’. And he preached on Sundays, trying the best he could to infuse a little hope and a little encouragement into their coal-dark lives, and attempting also to tell the story of Jesus by drawing.
However, because Vincent was unwilling to follow the guidelines set before him, the governing body overseeing his ministry terminated his position. Angered and embittered, Vincent left and in 1880, at 27 years of age, he embarked on what was to become his journey as an artist.
But no one seemed to understand what this impassioned artist was trying to say. Through years of rejection, loneliness and depression, Vincent’s mental state deteriorated. On 8 May 1889 he was admitted to an asylum in France. He was shown to his room by a nun, who asked, ‘Would you like me to open the windows?’ Vincent nodded. When she opened them, he looked out on the countryside with its sun-washed fields and he painted what he saw. He signed it in the lower right hand corner, ‘Vincent’, and titled it ‘Irises’.
Vincent was able, ultimately, to ‘preach’ through his art. God is the source of all human talents and the value placed upon ‘Irises’ is a measure of the esteem in which Van Gogh is now held as an artist.
Creativity has been built into every one of us: it is part of our design. Each of us lives less of the life God intended for us when we choose not to live out the creative gifts God gave us.