I first drafted the outlines of Vincent Van Gogh out in my warehouse in Athens, GA, only to ship it out to Leslie out in the D.C. Metro area later on. At this point I didn’t really know much about Vincent, other than the surface of his work. I flew out to Los Angeles for an MFA interview at USC, and took a side trip to San Francisco before ultimately reuniting with the portrait out in D.C. It was a 10 day journey, in where I’d spend most of the time compiling notes about Van Gogh in the various diners and coffee houses in California.
In reading about him, I became struck down with the sadness of his story. I was waiting for that Hollywood happy ending about his life but it never came to me. Out in Berkeley, CA I called Leslie…
“Oh God Leslie, His life was so terrible and sad, I don’t know how I can actually make a positive spin on an outsider story about Van Gogh”
I went over the entire story with her, which of course Leslie knew.
“Yes! His life was terrible, but there can be the focus of his work and things beyond that”
“I don’t know, I am just so terribly sad about his life. The more I read, the more I just feel so heartbroken about him… It really does transform the way I see his work… It is just all too awful”.
I finished my notes on a 6 hour flight from San Francisco to D.C., and sat there watching the clouds pass by somewhere around the Midwest until darkness fell over the plane. I felt lower than low, looking over the notes that I had transcribed about his life.
How could one, with such a tragic life, create such beauty in his work?
This was going to be hard.
Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born on March 30th, 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands in an upper middle class family. His father Theodorus Van Gogh, was a minister of the dutch reformed church, and his career would be a major focal point to Vincent and his early aspirations. Van Gogh in his early years did try to pursue a degree in theology, but would ultimately fail his exam and move on as a missionary instead.
He took a job as a missionary at Petit Wasmes, which was in the coal mining district in the Borinage. Despite the finances from the church, Van Gogh lived in squalor (somewhat on purpose) to the point where his face was consistently blackened with coal dust and his hygiene was neglected. This did not bode well with his religious authorities, who eventually fired him for ‘undermining the dignity of the priesthood’. It would be here however, where Vincent would draw of the harsh life of the Borinage, and his artistry would flourish personally.
Love, for Vincent, was a consistently fleeting object, mainly due to the fact that his family consistently rejected the women he loved. From “Sien” Hoornik the prostitute, to his cousin Kee Vos-Stricker (to which her family reportedly said “Your persistence is disgusting”), Vincent tried his best to secure a relationship, but often found himself alone and frequenting brothels around the cities he lived in. There is also a mention of his homosexual nature, which of course has been refuted by art historians. It is here I would learn about the erasing of homosexual nature in artist’s history from the deeply homophobic historians of our previous time. It is said that Paul Gaugin and Vincent Van Gogh had a deeply intimate and troubled relationship, in where Vincent.. threatened by Paul leaving him, attempted to stab him with a knife. This same knife would be the instrument that Van Gogh used to cut off his ear.. and would later deliver it to a prostitute. While historians have told that this was a gift to his favorite prostitute, others mention that it actually was given to her to give to Gaugin to show what he had done, since this brothel was Paul’s favorite place to go.
While Van Gogh was quite troubled from the beginning of his life (and thought to be mentally unfit at a young age), it would be his affection for alcohol, absinthe, and his lack of eating that not only caused his poor physical health, but his mental health as well. Vincent was consistently in and out of sanitariums for his troubled mind, often having fits of ‘ecstasy’ and simultaneously being inconsolable on the tragedy of life that surrounded him. He was violent, aggressive, depressed, and severely chaotic, … causing the townspeople to nick name him “Le Fou Roux” (The Redheaded Madman).
In the end, he achieved minor success as a painter, even with his brother and best friend Theo at his side as his art dealer. He later would shoot himself in the chest, only to fail at killing himself. He missed every major organ, and walked back to his home Auberge Ravoux in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise.. to where he was attended by doctors. He would die the next day due to infection… and that was it.
He achieved mediocre success as a painter in his life, and its incredible to know that Van Gogh’s career was ONLY FOR 7 YEARS. Posthumously Vincent Van Gogh became a legend, and its tragic to know not only of his terrible life, but that he would never know that millions of people around the world would forever consider him as one of the greatest artists of all time.
I worked night and day in D.C. compiling his story in his portrait, often pulling back to see his sad and defeated eyes staring back at me. At the end of the notes, I broke down crying at my desk, knowing what I had completed, and what I now understood of Vincent Van Gogh. To be able to live such a terrible life, to have seen such tragedy of his surroundings, to have been rejected by lovers, family, and fellow artists. and to have that ability to take all of those things, and create such beautiful glorious work… is beyond genius.. it is godly.