Van Gogh on Life, Painting and the Eternal Question

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In the way really good books often do, Dear Theo took me by surprise. It had been a sunny snow-filled day in Mt. Shasta and after spending most of it on the mountain I was sitting near the fire in my aunt’s cabin with not much to do. I picked up a thick, curious blue book amongst an assortment scattered across the coffee table and flipped it open to one of its five hundred pages at random. I didn’t anticipate that this small act would have serious consequences —within paragraphs I was committed to reading it in it’s entirety.

Dear Theo is a collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his beloved brother Theo. The two brothers shared a close bond and a mutual love for art that would last their entire lives. The letters, meticulously kept by Theo, were compiled by his wife Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger after her husband died only a short 6 months after Van Gogh’s own passing. 1

The letters portray a man with a fierce fascination for life and an intense determination to know it better. His writing illustrates the precariously ecstatic heights and tangled melancholy of a starving artist who truly lived with his heart on his sleeve.

Like his paintings, Vincent’s writings are raw, passionate and refreshing; littered throughout with the chiseled and ageless wisdom that comes from hard earned experience —more often than not of the pain and suffering variety.

Van Gogh’s growth mindset, which would be key to his artistic success, was noticeable early on when writing to Theo about a habit of his that he shared with so many other greats in human history:

And when I read —and really I do not read so much, only a few authors— I do so because they look at things in a broader, milder, and more lovable way than I do, and because they know life better, so that I can learn from them.

Van Gogh’s deep appreciation of the world around him would also be a primary source of inspiration for him.

I have a terrible lucidity at moments when nature is so beautiful; I am not conscious of myself any more, and the pictures come to me as in a dream.

Love would also influence Van Gogh’s work in a major way. The most notorious of his affairs being a three year relationship with an alcoholic prostitute named Sien (who was the subject in Sorrow, a piece that would later be considered a masterwork of draughtsmanship). His relationship with Sien would serve to further estrange an already distant Van Gogh from his family, friends and —maybe most importantly for his work— the colorist and mentor Anton Mauve. A subsequent romance a year later also ended in tragedy when Margot Begemann, Van Gogh’s lover who was 10 years his senior, attempted to commit suicide after their intention to marry was rejected by both of their families.

There is an ebb and flood, but the sea remains the sea. And in love, either for a woman or for art, there are times of exhaustion and impotence. I consider love as well as friendship not only a feeling but an action, and as such it demands exertion and activity, of which exhaustion and impatience are the consequence.

Deeply religious, Vincent would temporarily serve as a missionary in his early twenties before becoming disillusioned by organized religion shortly after. It was then that art began to take over as his chief avenue for “raising one’s conscience to a state of development so that it becomes the voice of a better and higher self, of which the ordinary self is the servant.”

Living mainly off the meager monthly stipends that his brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris, could afford to send, Van Gogh preferred spending it on paints and models than on food and clothing. At the end of the month he was often penniless, sometimes fasting for days at a time. Much of the time his work was fueled through bread, coffee, tobacco and absinthe — a combination that no doubt contributed to his declining health and possibly his “repeated and unexpected agitations” in later life that would, as he (and his family) feared, change from “a passing and momentary mental disturbance into a chronic disease”.

Van Gogh described painting as a home where “one does not feel homesickness”. Perhaps it was a home more fitting to a troubled artist who found it difficult, if not impossible to embrace (and be embraced by) the “boredom of civilization” and those “people [who] have cauterized certain sensitive nerves within them, especially those which, combined are called conscience” and who “travelled through life without compass”.

His relationship with painting proved to be a conflicted and somewhat paradoxical one that fluctuated with his moods. Painting always was a study of and ode to life for Van Gogh, but he also shared with Theo his hope that painting would become “a way of escaping life”. And while the highs were high —he felt “as rich as Croesus” through finding “a second youth” and “something to which I can devote myself with heart and soul, and which gives inspiration and zest to life” —the lows proved lower.

More than once Vincent anguished that painting “is not the real life” and confessed that he had paid a dear price recognizing that “the pains of producing pictures will have taken my whole life from me, and it will seem to me then that I have not lived”.

In one passage, no doubt swept up by the “full tide of the artist’s life—the homesick longing for that real life that can never come true”, Van Gogh, heartbreakingly so, likened his relationship to painting as that of a cab horse who knows “it’s the same old cab you’ll be hitched up to again; that you’d rather live in a meadow with the sun, and a river, and other horses for company, likewise free”. Finding solace however in the belief that “the cab you drag along must be of some use to people you do not know”.

He found strength in this belief that in art and in life “we are nothing but links in a chain”.

My dear boy, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can do without God, both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life—the power to create. And if, defrauded of the power to create physically, a man tries to create thoughts in place of children, he is still part of humanity.

And he grappled with “the eternal question” asking “is the whole of life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side of death we see one hemisphere only?” His meditations on which, reveal the brightly burning flames of a diehard dreamer which even the relentless torrents of illness and chronic poverty failed to quench.

For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it; but to look at the stars always makes me dream as simply as I dream over the black dots of a map representing towns and villages. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is this: that while we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more than when we are dead we can take the train. So it seems possible that cholera, gravel, phthisis, and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses, and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

In a sad and touching reflection near the end of his life —using imagery that was likely a product of having spent so much time painting the lives of the working class— Van Gogh shares a stoic outlook that by this time had been all too harshly stress tested:

Do you know what I think of pretty often? That if I do not succeed, all the same what I have worked at will be carried on; not directly but one isn’t alone in believing in things that are true. And what does it matter personally then? I feel so strongly that it is with people as it is with corn; if you are not sown in the earth to spring there, what does it matter? You are ground between the millstones to become bread. The difference between happiness and unhappiness! Both are necessary and useful; and death or disappearance, they are so relative—and life the same. Even face to face with an illness that breaks me up and frightens me, that belief is unshaken.

Van Gogh’s letters to his dear brother Theo —who he adamantly believed deserved so much of the credit for what he accomplished— are an intimate, harrowing and incredibly inspiring tale of a man trying to find his own way in life. Vincent ultimately would accomplish his goal in transcending his own life and become a part of something greater — a tribute to his lifelong conviction that “it is the experience and the poor work of every day which alone will ripen in the long run, and allow one to do something completer and truer. We must work as much and with as few pretensions as a peasant, if we want to last.”


Looking for more?

A poetic reflection on Van Gogh’s alleged habit of eating yellow pain.

Seth Godin asks us what if Van Gogh stopped at Ramsgate?

Here’s the absolutely stunning trailer for Loving Vincent, the first ever fully painted feature film in the world.

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  1. Allegedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, however some dispute this.

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.