On a gorgeous Sunday, January 12th of 2020, my wife & I, a friend, and three Daughters of St. Paul, visited the Columbia Museum of Art’s exhibition: Van Gogh and His Inspirations. It was the last day for the display, and so there were plenty of people queuing about, making for a trying time for me and my introverted sensibilities. It wasn’t all about me but, put me in a crowd for any length of time, and it’s not long before I’m looking for an exit. But this was different.
Like most people, I grew up knowing about Vincent Van Gogh; at least some tidbits about him: He was Dutch, painted for about 10 year’s time, was woefully depressed (artists!), and, oh yeah, he painted that Starry Starry Night portrait that is outrageously ubiquitous. Of course, he also cut off his ear, or part of it. Yet, amid the many paintings of those who were his seminal influences along with 12 of Van Gogh’s own works, I became entranced. I wanted to know more about this man who became, after his death in 1890, and in the ensuing decades, into the present day, one of the most celebrated painters of all time. I chose 4 of his works on display that day, as a platform from which to ponder our own place in God’s universe.
The sketch, entitled, “Sorrow“, was accomplished by Van Gogh as he housed the woman in the portrait along with her children. The picture, whose pallor is funereal in aspect, bland in its tonality, depicts a person bereft of all hope, clinging vestigially to life. In real life, this woman, who smoked cigars and drank to excess, became an intolerable weight upon Van Gogh. His descent into self-abasement actually began around this time in his life, and it never left him.
Sirach 37:2 tells us: “Is it not a sorrow unto death when your other self becomes your enemy?” There are many things we can learn from those times in our lives when we are down. Happiness can be often a monolithic experience; it tends to temper our basest impulses, and we express it pretty much as others do. But sorrow often finds a myriad of ways to be manifested. There have been many theories about what afflicted this great master of post-impressionism. Everything from simple depression to bipolar disease has been attributed to his malaise. Whatever may have been his precise torment, Van Gogh bore it visibly, and he produced Sorrow as a bleak look into the deep abyss of the human condition.
Sources vary, but the number of self-portraits Vincent Van Gogh painted range, roughly, from 37 to 43, and created between 1886 and 1889. Why so many? Perhaps it was because it was costly to hire someone to sit for a portrait, and Van Gogh was chronically penurious. But was he also trying to see something in those various “selfies”, something that was hidden deep beneath his tortured psyche? We’ll never know for sure. Perhaps, like ourselves, Van Gogh was always trying to see himself in his best light. Or, maybe he was honing his craft – painstakingly rendering his own visage in subtly different ways each time, employing various techniques to achieve a different effect.
The Book of James tells of a hypothetical man who only hears the Word of God and fails to do it, and likens that man to someone who, “…goes off, and promptly forgets what he looked like” (1:24). For Van Gogh, a man who possessed a deep religious inclination all his life – he was once a Protestant missionary in Belgium – he must have frequently pondered his own place, his own way in God’s world. The numerous self-portraits may also have been a way for him to go deep and hopefully, extract some sort of meaning from out of his tortured, somber visage.
The painting above, based, as it was, on a Eugene Delacroix, resulted from the lithograph of the original – which was in black and white – falling into some oil and paint. That was enough to give the Dutch Master the idea to render his own conception of Delacroix’s work. That, and the intense religious dreams he was suffering form at the time, were likely enough of a motivation for Van Gogh to deliver the work we enjoy today.
Far from being a pale, wan figure, Christ appears in this work as if He were emitting light, even in death. The brushstrokes – bold and impulsive – give the whole scene an air of unease, a vivaciousness that almost appears out of place in such a somber scene. And Mary: Rarely has the grief of a mother’s plight been so abjectly depicted; her hands helplessly reaching for the corpse of her Son. For all of its color, we are surely meant to share in the Blessed Mother’s sorrow, to know the separation she must have felt as the lifeless body of her Son is seen to almost be falling away from her flailing hands. Her face is torn in the same relentless grief. It’s not hard at all to imagine even a fraction of what she must have felt that day. In this case, Van Gogh’s own darkness and depression helped him to convey a tragic beauty to a most iconic scene. If this is a dream, it is more like a nightmare, and we are stupefied to behold it.
As constant depression, sickness, and poverty dogged his steps, Vincent Van Gogh delivered his 1st garden painting, pictured above – Bulb Fields, 1883. The cellphone picture does nothing to convey the rich, colorful tableaux. To the cursory observer, it looks as though it is just another boring landscape. But a more focused survey will yield a bountiful reward. The brush strokes are painstakingly detailed, and give a sense of joyous, even riotous existence, even amid the desolate and darkening sky. The lone walker could be you or me. We are invited to stop and rest a while.
I chose Bulb Fields to end my brief look at Van Gogh because I believe it is where we will all wind up. Oh, not literally planted, as in ‘buried’, beneath a pretty field of flowers, but as bright, joyous “flowers” in the heavenly fields of God. St. Augustine wisely addressed God as, “You who teach us by sorrow, and wound us, in order to heal us, and kill us so that we may not die apart from You.” And it is that same sorrow we all bear, to one extent or another. It was that same sorrow Vincent Van Gogh bore all his short life, and which may have, in part been a catalyst to him, although the argument could be made that had he not been so debilitated, perhaps he would have gone on to produce many more wonderful works of art. Regardless, he too, lived, breathed, worked and died under the same sun that we do. Why flowers? They are beautiful and fragile, destined to be thrown away, much like you and I. And yet, there is a place for you and me, a place where there is neither sorrow, sighing, nor death nor tears. That is where God has destined us all to be:
" Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will look upon his face... Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever" (Rev. 22:3-5).
Epilogue: All art should direct us to God who is all truth, goodness, and beauty. But before it does that, it often has the salutary effect of granting us greater self-awareness, as in: Who am I? In that spirit, I want to offer a favorite prayer of St. Augustine that will help us toward that end. God love you all!
Noscum te, noscum me. "May I know thee, may I know myself."