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.

 

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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

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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.

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