On the contrary, if I had been able to be a clergyman or an art dealer, then perhaps I should not have been fit for drawing and painting, and I should neither have resigned nor accepted my dismissal as such. I cannot stop drawing because I really have a draughtsman's fist, and I ask you, have I ever doubted or hesitated or wavered since the day I began to draw? (Van Gogh, Letter to Theo, April 1882).
That he was a talented artist was undeniable. Yet, art was no substitute for religion, and, further still, art was no direct avenue to sanctifying grace. Van Gogh's increasing sense of alienation and feeling of despair would continue unabated -- evidenced by he and his brother Theo's inability to live together for long; the inability of his dream of an artists' collective (the artistic equivalent of a kind of monastic community) to come to fruition; the failure to secure a marriage for himself; the severing of his ear. Nonetheless, he continued to cling to his sense of the divine. While in Arles, he did a number of portraits that satisfied his soul's thirst for purity: by his own account, the portraits were indeed "the only thing in painting that excites me to the depths of my soul, and which made me feel the infinite more than anything else" (La Mousme, National Gallery of Art, 2011).
What Van Gogh discovered, however, as he resumed his wanderings, now with an artistic orientation, was a new direction in artistic expression. Van Gogh has been called the "father of expressionism" (Vincent Van Gogh's Critical Reception) -- but this title would never have been his had he not discovered Impressionism in Paris in the 1880s.
Later Years: Artistic Zeal
Yet, as Paul Johnson (2003) notes, Van Gogh -- like Cezanne -- was often dissatisfied with his own work, a factor that Johnson argues contributed to his increasingly debilitated mental state: "It is possible that both his emotional need, to share in the sufferings of the poor, and his artistic drive, would have found more fulfillment if he had ignored Impressionism and worked with the other great force operating in painting at this time, naturalism" (p. 607). Van Gogh's The Old Church Tower at Nuenen (1884) may serve as an example of the kind of painter he might have become had he been drawn to naturalism -- but it is difficult to imagine Van Gogh as an artist who could effect the kind of calm, subdued vision of the natural world, which was not evident in his own soul. What Van Gogh longed for and sought to express in his art was unity (or disunity where he found it -- for example, in The Night Cafe) with the divine. He had failed to achieve it in religion -- he sought, therefore, to embrace the explosive, dynamic, colorful, and overwhelming manifestation of the divine and the human in the natural world. Color was, for him, an expression of "inner feelings" -- an expression that had to be captured instantaneously. Thus, Impressionism became his mode.
The record of Van Gogh's thoughts is preserved in the epistolary correspondence which transpired between him and his brother Theo. Of all the members of his family, Theo was the closest to Vincent -- but even their relationship was strained at times. The letters often give an account Van Gogh's struggles to find his way in life -- as nearly everyone considered him wayward: but as his artwork and his earlier religious zeal testify, the way was always present before him. The 20th century would testify to that much more than his own time. The lack of recognition may have dissatisfied him -- but it is doubtful that he was ever interested in fame. Two years before he finally determined to pursue painting in earnest, his heart was still set on becoming a preacher -- and what his 1778 letter to Theo shows is the spirituality that occupied him above and beyond all else. Van Gogh's life was in pursuit of grace -- whether through religion or art:
Anyone who lives an upright life and experiences real difficulty and disappointment and yet is not crushed by them is worth more than one for whom everything has always been plain sailing and who has known nothing but relative prosperity. For who are the most obviously superior to us? Those who merit the words: "Labourers, your life is sad, labourers, your life is full of suffering, labourers, you are blessed." It is they who bear the marks of "a whole life of struggle and labour borne unflinchingly." It is right to try to become like that. So we go on our way, "by the grace of God unwearied." As for me, I must become a good preacher, who has something to say that is right and is of use in the world, and perhaps it is as well that I should spend a relatively long time on preparation and be securely confirmed in an unwavering faith before I am called to speak to others about it (Van Gogh, Letter to Theo, April 1878).
Faithfulness was ever his predilection. Since he could not find the words -- or the Institution -- to express this in preaching, he would take up the struggle to express it in pictures instead.
The Old Church Tower at Nuenen and the Church at Auvers-sur-Oise
After primarily limiting himself to sketchings and drawings for a year, Van Gogh finally began to paint in real earnest in 1881 -- he was 28. His early attempts at painting bear little resemblance to his later paintings -- at least in color scheme. The subject matter is consistent, but the representation in the years before he was influenced by Impressionism in 1886 was highly literal and realistic. His 1884 Old Church Tower at Nuenen, for example, is a far cry from the colorful and lively Church at Auvers, painted the year of his death in 1890. The former is made of cold, muted colors. It is as though Van Gogh were attempting to follow in a style that were not his own -- one in which he was compelled to divorce himself from his subject and paint it at an objective remove. Dull browns, grays, blues, and blacks serve as the color spectrum. The brushwork is less flowing. And the woman is adorned in a black, melancholy dress.
The 1890 painting, however, is different in every regard: the brushwork is flowing dramatically: the colors are sharp and intense with vivid blues, bright reds, yellows and greens. The woman in the foreground is happily adorned in white and green, and the church itself appears to be alive. In a letter to his sister he describes his painting thus:
I have a larger picture of the village church - an effect in which the building appears to be violet-hued against a sky of simple deep blue colour, pure cobalt; the stained-glass windows appear as ultramarine blotches, the roof is violet and partly orange. In the foreground some green plants in bloom, and sand with the pink flow of sunshine in it. And once again it is nearly the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower and the cemetery, only it is probably that now the colour is more expressive, more sumptuous (Van Gogh, Letter to Wilhelmina, June 1890).
The composition is entirely original and dynamic and reveals the soul of the man who painted it: one who was capable of discerning the beauty of both nature and grace -- even if he could find no place for himself in the one and failed to fully possess the other.
In a sense, Van Gogh shows a remarkable kinship to another impressionistic master -- the Spanish-contracted El Greco. El Greco's paintings invoke a color dynamic and religiously-themed subject that, if not directly proportionate to Van Gogh, at least serve as some sort of precedent: whereas El Greco was unique in his depiction of elongated saints and Spanish towns, Van Gogh was unique in his depiction of commonplace settings and men and women of common class.
The Yellow House
Van Gogh's sojourn in Arles in a rented yellow house, which he would depict on canvas in his typically thickly-applied, brightly colored 1888 painting, would end in a kind of portentous delirium. Gauguin's visit, and Van Gogh's increasing reliance upon the Frenchman, proved a misstep. Gauguin's insufferable pride and Van Gogh's instability and need of friendship and acceptance were dangerous combinations, and the latter paid the price.
As his brother Theo reported from the hospital to which Van Gogh was taken after severing his ear reported, Vincent might not have come to such a pass had he found a real confidante -- or, better yet, a spiritual confessor: "Had he once found someone to whom he could pour his heart out, it might never have come to…