Celebrated as one of the world’s most influential artists, often neglected is the thread of Christianity that wove itself throughout the Dutch post-impressionist’s brief and at times turbulent life. BY SUSAN MANSFIELD
I remember, once, listening to the curator of a major Van Gogh exhibition give an account of the artist’s life. Looking faintly embarrassed, she moved swiftly over the period in which Vincent Van Gogh was a pastor and missionary, as many art historians do. In the determinedly secular world of the Arts, it’s best to dismiss this as an interlude of “religious mania” and hurry on to the part where Vincent picks up a paintbrush.
But I have long thought that there might be another way to look at this, that a strand of faith might run through all of Van Gogh’s life. The man I see expressing himself in his paintings and his lively, articulate correspondence is a man concerned with the spiritual. Were it not so unfashionable, I wonder what light this perspective might shed on his work.
This year, exhibitions and events across Europe are marking the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death. The history of psychology is littered with attempts to analyse his life and posthumously diagnose his various illnesses. Though recent scholarship suggests it is incorrect, the image many people retain of Van Gogh is of Kirk Douglas, in the 1956 film Lust for Life, painting in a frenzy while crows circle overhead, the madman who died as a martyr to his art.
There is little room in this for Van Gogh, the Christian, but such he was. A third-generation son of the manse, he left school unsure what he wanted to do, and was helped by an uncle into a job with art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. He later transferred to London where, in 1876, he parted company with the dealership. After a short period as a teacher, he sought – and obtained – a job as an assistant to a Methodist minister in Isleworth. He was 22.
He preached his first sermon there at the end of October, and sent the text to his brother, Theo. In it, he draws on the importance of the faith in which he had been raised: “I still feel the rapture, the thrill of joy I felt when for the first time I cast a deep look into the lives of my parents, when I felt by instinct how much they were Christians. And I still feel that feeling of eternal youth and enthusiasm wherewith I went to God saying: ‘I will be a Christian too’.” Some biographers have concluded that his shift towards religion was a reaction to being spurned in love (by the daughter of his London landlady), but his letters suggest something more. He wanted, he wrote, “to realise great things for humanity”.
Some biographers have concluded that his shift towards religion was a reaction to being spurned in love but his letters suggest something more. He wanted, he wrote, ‘to realise great things for humanity’.
Van Gogh seems to have been a good, and diligent, pastor. Back in the Netherlands the following year, he studied to apply for theological college, but failed to pass the entrance exam. Instead he took a probationary post as a missionary among the mining villages of the Borinage, Belgium’s black country. Living among the people, he gave Bible lessons and visited the sick, distinguishing himself by working tirelessly to help the injured after a series of firedamp explosions in the mines. He lived a life of radical poverty, giving away his clothes and shoes and exchanging his modest bed for a palette of straw. At the end of three months, the mission announced it would not engage him further.
Van Gogh’s asceticism made people uncomfortable, as has been the case before and since with those who attempt in a literal way to live out the radical lifestyle taught by Jesus. Organised religion, it seemed, had shut its doors on him and gradually, in the months that followed, he turned towards art. But still, he continued to push the boundaries of radical compassion. Surely this was behind his decision to take in Sien, a former prostitute who was working as an artist’s model, and her sick child – a move which alienated another set of middle-class sponsors.
His first artistic subjects were the peasants of Nuenen, whom he painted with a dignity and worth normally reserved for those who could pay for it, manifesting in paint principles which had been central to his life as a missionary. In due course, he moved to Paris, then Arles, and his paintings filled with light and colour, even as his personal struggles with illness intensified. Still, the language of Christianity remained with him: again and again he painted images of sowing and reaping. He painted Christ in the garden, he said, but scraped the canvas back. He wrote to Theo that even in times of mental extremity, he was engaged in “the consideration of eternity”.
His letters show a questing intelligence, a lively mind trying to make sense of the world and of mankind. To see his late paintings: the inky blue skies full of stars, the golden cornfields, the trees resplendent with blossom, is to see paintings of ordinary scenes which transcend the ordinary world. They continue to strike a chord, and have become some of the most popular paintings in the history of art. Vincent never knew this: the odds in the struggle were stacked against him. But he “realised great things for humanity” after all.