Pursuing God in Art: In the Words of Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh  Autoritratto 1887

I’ve been reading Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh and finding there much spiritual treasure.

Van Gogh originally set out to follow in his father’s footsteps as a pastor, but for reasons that are only somewhat revealed, it doesn’t work out.  During this period of preparation for ministry, Van Gogh describes a foreboding sense –

These are really happy days I spend here, but still it is a happiness and quiet which I do not quite trust.  Man is not easily content: now he finds things too easy and then again he is not contented enough.

Though not terribly dissatisfied, Van Gogh senses something is missing, something is not quite right.  He wonders if this “dis-ease” could have a spiritual basis.

There may be a time in life when one is tired of everything and feels as if all one does is wrong, and there may be some truth in it — do you think this is a feeling one must try to forget and to banish, or is it ‘the longing for God,’ which one must not fear, but cherish to see if it may bring us some good?  Is it ‘the longing for God’ which leads us to make a choice which we never regret?

One thing I’ve noted early in this collection of letters to his brother Theo is that when Van Gogh describes something about pastoral ministry, his words are distant and generic.  When he describes the visual world or artistic representations of them, however, he comes alive.

As we have in our Brabant the underbrush of oak, and in Holland the willows, so you can see here the blackthorn hedges around the gardens, fields, and meadows.  With the snow the effect just now is of black characters on white paper, like the pages of the Gospel.

After a disruptive experience in his academic pursuit of a pastoral vocation, Van Gogh moves to Brussels where, thanks to a small stipend from his father and monies from Theo, he is able to eek out a living while devoting himself to his art.  He first concentrates on studying and copying the masters where he tries to “understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious matters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God.”

Ultimately, he picks up his pencil and finds great relief.

Though every day difficulties come up and new ones will present themselves, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have to taken up drawing again.  I have been thinking of it for a long time, but I always considered the thing impossible and beyond my reach.  But now, though I feel my weakness and my painful dependency in many things, I have recovered my mental balance, and day by day my energy increases.

I look forward to reading how Van Gogh’s describes his pursuit of God in his art, (and discovering how this pursuit was perverted as his mental illness progresses.

I’m also interested in hearing from you.  What do you see in Van Gogh’s art and what does it “tell you” that leads to God?

(image above “Vincent Van Gogh Autoritratto 1887” from Alessandro Tanner in Vincent Van Gogh)

11 thoughts on “Pursuing God in Art: In the Words of Van Gogh

  1. I find it interesting that you also have recognized Van Gogh in your writing. I recently wrote a post called “Vincent” that briefly covers his disease and a bit of history, but mainly focuses on the meaning behind the words of the song “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” by Don McLean. You should check it out. I had listened to that song dozens of times before I actually “heard” those meaningful words.

    • You know, I have checked out that song. I absolutely love it, but one line troubled me.

      “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

      I don’t know what McLean had in mind, but this leaves me with the suggestion that suicide was somehow the only avenue available for Vincent to complete his destiny.

      Still, it’s a great song.

  2. I love his work. It’s both soothing and a bit frantic, I’m not sure how he managed to do that, but nevertheless, his work always makes me feel wonder.

  3. I think I’ve said it before, but, I can not look at a Van Gogh painting with out getting tears in my eyes. Oh, I’ll be honest, they actually roll down my cheek. We have two museums in the L.A. area that have some of Vincent’s art. Here’s a link to a Youtube video that honors Vincent. I posted it on my blog awhile back. It’s beautiful. http://youtu.be/1hXMuK5NQEA

    • Thanks for the link.

      I’ve never seen Van Gogh originals. I’m not even sure I’ve seen full-size prints. I plan on going to the Indianapolis Museum of Art soon to see some on exhibit. I’m not sure how I’ll react, but I imagine it will be intense.

  4. I love his work, the texture and motion of the bold strokes. I feel like I’m seeing his world as hyper-real and filled with motion (I’m not sure if in his day science had yet begun to talk about molecular or atomic structures being in motion) I think this might speak of the nature of the Universe or perhaps God if you will…

  5. In Van Gogh’s art I see urgency and drama as well as great love for his subjects. I never thought of these things as leading me to God, but on reflection, I think Vincent’s art touches so many people in such a personal way. It inspires great compassion for the artist as well as his subjects. So I suppose all these things lead me to God, the source of all love, compassion, connection and beauty.

    Re: the line in McLean’s song “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you,” I did not think he was suggesting suicide as the only resolution; in fact, quite the opposite. Note the entire context: “when no hope was left inside…you took your life as lovers often do. BUT (emphasis mine) I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant…” To me, the “but I could have told you” implies that his tragic death might have been prevented if Vincent could have come to understand and accept that he would never be fully understood or appreciated by the world. Acceptance of this might have lessened the frustration and sorrow that exacerbated his depression, especially if that understanding came from a sympathetic friend, which McLean wistfully imagines he could have been.

    It’s easy, of course, for us to imagine in hindsight that we would have been the sympathetic friend Vincent lacked. What haunts me is wondering how many Vincents we all pass by every day, without seeing…

  6. I really like how you discovered the contrast in his writing: discussion of pastoral ministry vs. discussion of art. This speaks to how people can get stuck because they’re doing what others tell them to do, versus doing what your heart tells you to do.

    Looking forward to reading about how his mental illness progresses.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response.

      Yes, the letters are a treasure trove of spiritual reflection from a fervent truth seeker. I plan to include more excerpts in future posts.

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