Resplendent Vincent

In taking out the garbage this afternoon, I snapped a picture of a tree in bloom set against the blue sky, and the beauty of nature reminded me of an entry from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Tree in bloom. Not the greatest picture, but it does capture the glory of spring.

I started reading this 500-page-plus book about a year ago, and I still have about 100 pages left to go before I finish it. I skim a few passages at a time, and for me the book is similar to the Bible—in that I can close my eyes, open it up at random, point my finger to a page and start reading. There’s no plot you need to follow, and you don’t have to read Vincent’s letters in sequential order. In the Bible, I discover Christ at random in the action scenes of the New Testament. Vincent’s collection reveals the artist’s creative progress and his struggle to connect with other people.

In this entry to his brother Theo, dated September 17, 1888, Vincent is working in Arles in southern France, where he has set up his Yellow House. He describes being inspired by the scenery.

The Yellow House (The Street), Vincent van Gogh, September 1888 Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

“You see, I have never had such luck before, nature here is extraordinarily beautiful. Everything and everywhere. The dome of the sky is a wonderful blue, the sun has rays of a pale sulphur, and it is as soft and delightful as the combination of heavenly blues and yellows in Vermeer of Delft. I cannot paint as beautifully, but it absorbs me so much that I let myself go without giving thought to a single rule.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

Passage from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Standard

Inspired by Vincent

I am continuing to work my way through the book The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I am reading it from beginning to end, but I haven’t been consistent with reading it on a daily basis.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics.

Yesterday I came across a passage worth sharing. To set it up: the time is July 1885, a few months after Vincent painted his master work depicting peasant life—The Potato Eaters (April 1885).

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885).

However, Vincent is still having trouble selling his work and his financial situation appears bleak. He writes to his brother Theo:

“I find myself faced with the necessity of being that most disagreeable of people, in other words of having to ask for money. And since I don’t think that sales will pick up in the next few days, the situation seems rather dire. But I put it to you, isn’t it better for both of us, après tout (after all), to work hard, no matter what problems that may entail, than to sit around philosophizing at a time like this?

I can’t foretell the future, Theo—but I do know the eternal law that all things change. Think back 10 years, and things were different, the circumstances, the mood of the people, in short everything. And 10 years hence much is bound to have changed again. But what one does remains—and one does not easily regret having done it. The more active one is, the better, and I would sooner have a failure than sit idle and do nothing.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

What inspires me about this passage is Vincent’s willingness to press on with his art, undeterred by his lack of success. The fire in him to create burns too intensely for him to abandon his avocation.

Standard

Expressions by Vincent

In remembrance of Vincent van Gogh, who passed away at age 37 on July 29, 1890, I wanted to share some profound words from the great Dutch painter, written in letter form to his brother Theo. Through these words, we feel the heart and spirit of an artist who would not be denied his destiny to create master works of oil on canvas.

Self-Portrait, 1887. Art Institute of Chicago.

This letter is dated July 21, 1882, and it appears in the collection The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent writes:

“What I want to express, in both figure and landscape, isn’t anything sentimental or melancholy, but deep anguish. In short, I want to get to the point where people say of my work: that man feels deeply, that man feels keenly.

“… What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short the lowest of the low.

“All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.

“… Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.

“… Art demands dogged work, work in spite of everything and continuous observation.

“… I am not without hope, brother, that in a few years’ time, or perhaps even now, little by little you will be seeing things I have done that will give you some satisfaction after all your sacrifices.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

 

Standard

Wisdom from Vincent

This summer I am reading The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I had discovered the book when I was in graduate film school at American University in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. A woman from the Deep South who was pursuing her MFA in painting suggested I read it. It consists of letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, a Dutch art dealer.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics.

And although the book was written in the 19th century, Vincent’s words never seem dated. In fact, I could pull inspirational quotes from the book on a nightly basis, and if Vincent were alive today, he might be the host of a motivational podcast.

Through his words, we see that despite his financial, romantic, mental and emotional struggles, Vincent persevered, sacrificing everything to express his creativity and to paint works of art that will endure as long as humans walk the earth.

This passage is dated September 24, 1880. Vincent has made the decision to become a full-time artist and he addresses Theo with this opening line: “Your letter has done me good and I thank you for having written to me in the way you have.”

He describes some art studies he is working on based on prints and etchings that Theo had sent him.

He writes, “These studies are demanding & sometimes the books are extremely tedious, but I think all the same that it’s doing me good to study them.”

The following passage then caught my attention and stirred my heart:

“So you see that I am working away hard, though for the moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course & that these apparently fruitless struggles are nothing but labour pains. First the pain, then the joy.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

The words inspired me because as someone who works full-time and writes in my off hours, I rarely see progress; I often get discouraged because I spend hours working on projects that are rejected in the end. But still I press on.

And Vincent’s words are universal—they could be applied to people attempting to achieve a dream, as well as to anyone trying to survive the challenges of every day. I think about artists, actors, singers, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, couples and parents.

And fortunately—for both Vincent and for art lovers around the world—Vincent’s white blossoms did bloom in later years.

Almond Blossom by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Standard

Vincent in the Waiting Room

While waiting for an MRI on my left wrist at Upstate University Hospital, as a follow up for my rheumatoid arthritis, I spotted a cheap Van Gogh print hanging on a wall directly opposite from me. The image displayed was Vincent’s Irises (1889), and the text read:

Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 25, 1986-March 22, 1987

Inside the small waiting room, on a wall-mounted TV set, local broadcasters recited the morning headlines and a meteorologist gave the weekend forecast. I paid little attention, instead choosing to focus my eyes on the Van Gogh painting. From far across the room, and taking my weak eyesight into consideration, the slanted vertical green leaves looked like snakes writhing in the dirt; even so, the longer I stared at the image, the calmer I felt. The one word that came to my mind was placid.

Van Gogh print hanging on a waiting room wall.

I don’t meditate, but I have discovered that good art, like classical music, has a way of centering my thoughts and ushering a sense of peace in difficult and stressful situations. And even a minor MRI can start the brain working on all of the “what if,” worst-case scenarios. So I was thankful that Vincent spent a little time with me in the hospital waiting room before my procedure.

Here’s a better image of the painting.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

And after I left the hospital, inspired by Vincent, I captured my own “still life” image.

Flowers/Flora outside of Upstate.

Standard