Literature in the Life of Vincent Van Gogh

Van-Gogh-Self-Portrait

In discussing the art and theology of Vincent Van Gogh, a few assumptions must be made – one, that the reader of this essay will be mildly familiar with the work of Van Gogh, and two, that they will come to this discussion assuming that art in the broadest sense, regardless of medium, can possess spiritual qualities. Instead of discussing whether or not Vincent remained religious throughout his life (affirmative) or which of his works had a religious undertone (arguably, all of them), I want to concern myself with the type of religion he saw himself practicing and capturing in his paintings. Long appreciated by the art world, Van Gogh is hardly ever discussed as a theologian for one simple reason – his medium was image, not logos or words. But is this true? Hardly. His letters belie a wealth of knowledge about scripture, religion, spiritual practice, natural theology (that is, God found in nature), and an unending desire to make sense of the world and reconcile himself to God. To say that his works, be they written or visual in nature, are not spiritual is to miss the fabric, the very warp and woof, of his life. Indeed, our second assumption demands we admit that image has as much potential as the written and spoken word to be spiritually meaningful. The author of this essay does not assume familiarity with the entire corpus of Van Gogh’s work, the particulars of his biography, nor the literature cited here. One does not need to get mired in the minutae of an artist’s life to appreciate their work, or to recognize that Van Gogh was hinting at and pioneering a new type of theology – narrative theology without words.

The period that Vincent lived and painted and wrote in (1853-90) goes by a myriad of names, depending on the purpose one has looking to the past. “The Age of Disbelief”, “the Generation of Materialism”, “the rise of Modern Biblical Criticism”, or simply “the mid-to-late 19th Century” was a time of tremendous change, specifically for Europe. Science, especially the ideas of Darwin, were taking hold as technology was machinatiously evolving, making the migration of rural peoples into mechanized city-dwelling more convenient. Van Gogh was born into this era. He was born in the Netherlands, died in France, lived in the clouded dirt of coalmines, the pastures of the countryside, and even the glory of Paris with fellow artists. Yet, for all of this, attention is given most to his paintings and supposed “madness” than the way that his chosen reading material influenced him and in some sense stabilized him among the rapid changes taking place.

It is clear that, at some point, Vincent began to see literature as a complement to, and at times embodiment of beauty and art. Those of a religious persuasion will be inclined to note the Catholic/Protestant divide over imagio dei and sola scriptura that preceded his time since the Reformation. As an avowed Lutheran, Van Gogh would have inherited the iconoclasm or at least suspicion of images from his forbearers – among whom Van Gogh, his father, and his grandfather were each ordained clergy in the Protestant tradition. Yet for Van Gogh, there was a holy reassembling of the disparate parts. Distinguishing between the two, form and substance, was not a concern. If pressed, it may have elicited a comfortably ambivalent response. From an early age, he expressed interest in visual arts – indeed, biographers are quick to note that young Vincent scribbled in the garden of his childhood home, testing our colors and lines from an early age. But, as he grew older and weight of the Protestant work ethic bore upon him, a large part of Vincent’s development was due to Biblical criticism. Though Vincent would come to see his father’s use of criticism from the pulpit as “Pharisaical,” roundly condemning it for years, he was initially quite enamored with theology as a schoolboy. Even much later in life, his letters hint at a desire to return to it as a scholar and rural pastor, much like his father. But in 1875, when he was in his early twenties, it appears that he began to read two books that would change how he saw the world. These two books would forever after separate him from his father and inspire the “madness” that so marked his life: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Thomas Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ (1418-27). The two works stirred in Vincent an idealistic secessionism . In short turn, he began to reject any serious, thorough, and diligent study of scripture that did not find solidarity with the destitute. That is, in his twenties, Vincent’s early piety would shift. He rejected the scholasticism of his father for soteriologically-centric Evangelicalism.[1] So ardently did he hold to this that when he became a pastor to the mining community of Borinage in 1879, he would use his stipend to feed the impoverished miners and their children, convinced that he was in fact feeding Christ himself. Later, in 1881, he would repeat this behavior in caring for Clasina Maria “Sien” Hoomick, a prostitute, and her illegitimate child. In both instances, he claimed to see the image of Christ, and was devoted to serving them even where – perhaps especially where – this endangered his own interests. In many ways, I would put forward that the fanaticism he adopted at this time framed his supposed “madness.” In rejecting his family, he sought one which did not make so many claims to right behavior and doctrine. In rejecting the popular Biblical criticism of his time, Vincent devoted himself towards literature, applying the scholarly religious mind to seeing God in the printed word. Such a dramatic shift in personality led his family to believe he was unstable, and it is entirely believable that those who knew him best saw signs that caused concern. Yet, where his asceticism and service to others made him “mad” is dubious. Many of the saints were considered “mad” in their time – indeed, the Biblical criticism of Van Gogh’s time would inspire Freud and Jung to make many such claims, rereading the prophets (even Jesus) as having a twinge of madness. But what we have is a bit of the chicken-and-egg. While Bunyan and Kempis certainly gave Van Gogh a precedent for casting himself as a sacrificial martyr[2] in line with Isaiah 53, and perhaps contributed to his already-odd behavior, we must appreciate that they gave Vincent – as well as many other readers at that time and since – comfort and inspired his theology to become communal instead of individualistic. Until his dismissal from Borinage, Van Gogh’s reading material was exclusively Evangelical – Bunyan and Kempis, and of course scripture itself. But after his dismissal in 1880, he tried desperately to find God elsewhere in the printed form he knew so well. It was during this period, more than any other – even more than his fanatic Evangelical period, that his attention to literature fleshed and colored how he saw scripture. Disappointed and frustrated at religious administration, his letters to friends and family indicate first a disillusionment with scripture and ministry, then an intense restructuring of same. After all, if he could be terminated so easily from his pastoral position in Borinage by the religious leaders he looked up to, only to be rejected and mocked by his father and uncle for “imitating Christ” in solidarity with the miners and their children, whose interpretation was really off? Between 1879 and 1881, Vincent’s critical mind began to deconstruct everything he had been taught or assumed previously. This was hardly an act of madness. Given the same circumstances, any theologian would have done the same, having staked their professional and familial obligations on what now felt like an incorrect interpretation of the Gospels. He began to tremulously read scripture again, first sketching, then reading, then painting to occupy his thoughts, in an attempt to make sense of who, if anyone, had misread scripture. Indeed, that a critical view was taken of the Bible was not that unusual. It was the spirit of the times. But that an artist would study the Bible for himself, would think seriously about its claims to truth in modern literature and art? This was unusual. Whatever deep introspection took place during this time, in 1881, he has decided to turn from a life of religion to one of art, writing of his intent “to try and understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture.”[3] Far from rejecting the God he felt he had lost, Van Gogh so clearly has begun to find God again in works of literature, to depict God in his paintings, and to continue to see God in the faces of those he cared for. Of this critical period, had he rejected scripture, he would have fit in with his society for there was no absence of atheistic, hedonistic, and humanistic artists among the company he kept. But, looking over the shoulder, had he stayed the course after his dismissal by the Groningen (Evangelical) party of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1879[4] and changed his ministry to the desires of the institution instead of holding to his belief in ministry to the needs to the congregants, he would have potentially gone on to become a saintly figure who inspired others. Instead, and this is the most important point, he turned to literature for inspiration and meaning-making and found God ever more present.

To understand the development of Vincent’s thought, it would be helpful to frame the development of literary criticism in his own time. The modern (i.e. Western) sense of “literature” as imaginative writing can be traced to the German Romantic theorists of the late eighteenth century – specifically the French Baroness Madame Germaine de Stael’s On Literature Considered in its Relations with Social Institutions (1800). The epilogue of Tolstoy’s War and Peace credits de Stael as helping the world come to understand what it means to be human and her influence upon the assembly of a canon of literature cannot be overestimated. For her, many pieces of modern literature, especially those from non-European cultures, would not count as “literature” because they did not convey the cultural zeitgeist. Visual works, though not in printed form, were still considered “literature” because it could capture an image, an expression, an idea of the times. The modern sense of what constitutes literature as exclusively printed word is a rather new idea, only two centuries old. Prior to the 19th Century, “literature” meant writings or book knowledge in the same way that one could say of another, “she is very literate” to mean “she has read extensively on this subject.” This understanding is one that van Gogh would have rejected, not out of antagonism but as a member of his time; “literature” was much broader according to de Stael, and Vincent would have agreed. He would have seen his paintings as a form of literature, especially in light of Immanuel Kant’s expression of aesthetics. For instance, “a sentence fragment such as ‘A sugar plum on a pillow in the morning’ seems to have a better chance of becoming literature because its failure to be anything except an image invites a certain kind of attention, calls for reflection.”[5] Even the rather dry opening of W.O. Quine’s From a Logical Point of View:

A curious thing

about the ontological problem is its

simplicity.

might be a poem if it was rearranged in printed form, as it is here. Set down in this way on a page, surrounded by margins of silence, there is a significance of meaning punctuating thought development. How the words are “framed” and “displayed” make them meaningful in the same way a painting is meaningful though it lacks words, even transcendent. Simply put, literature could be art and art literature – a painting could speak to someone in the same way a novel could, calling out to our highest aspirations and gently touching at the transcendent, even divine. A good book could be sacred in its own way.

For Kant, art was something we sensed. Whatever avenue our senses are aroused, we feel something and this is worth noting and labeling. His oft-quoted statement of the aesthetic as “purposiveness without a purpose” inclines us to appreciate whatever arouses or “prompts [our] mental faculties.” It is experienced when a sensuous object – like art and literature – “stimulates our emotions, intellect, and imagination.”[6] Though a devoted Christian, Kant “did not think God played an explanatory role in theories of art and beauty.” This was left to humans.[7] As meaning-makers, humans are in some sense co-creators involved in validating that which has already been made and, where possible, going further to explore the borderlands of creativity and creation.

Kant’s ideas continue to have bearing on quality, morality, beauty, and form, even as they did during van Gogh’s time. That is, Kant’s perception of anything makes it something – to notice the feelings that an object evokes makes it meaningful or “real” in that way and so to feel that a piece of literature is beautiful and worthy of attention makes it art. To feel that a painting should be discussed, even written about and critiqued, makes it an object of literature – even literature itself. And so, in light of de Stael and Kant, this hybridization of binaries – image and text – only seems peculiar when we agree with the later definition of “literature”, one which erects a distinction between these two visual means of communication that make them mutually exclusive. And were this sufficient, we could stop here with a tidy statement about how Van Gogh’s works represented the time he lived in, and thus were an act of “literature” and not art. But it is not. We must return to a point made earlier, namely Van Gogh’s reading material.

Van Gogh looked to two books more than others for inspiration – the aforementioned The Imitation of Christ and Pilgrim’s Progress. Imitation theory would posit that all art – including literature – is an imitation or reflection of the human experience, whether emotional, political, sexual, religious, whatall. This discussion goes back as far as Plato and Aristotle, who were already in dialogue with their contemporaries in 4th Century B.C.E.

For Vincent, this understanding validated the things he was feeling as he read Bunyan and Kempis – that he was a stranger in this weary land (like many others, including Bunyan and Kempis), intent upon reflecting the image and presence of Christ in his own time. Were these the last primary texts that influenced him, his life would have been recorded, if at all, much differently as the minister’s son whose idealistic asceticism set him at odds with society. Yet, having been rejected by his family and his faith, van Gogh found solidarity with and gained spiritual nourishment from the characters of literature as much as the ways he was expressing his ideas, sermonizing, through his paintings.

Writing and being literate was, for Vincent, a sacred act, as evidenced by voluminious correspondence with his brother Theo. Vincent’s theological waverings are chronicled in his letters to Theo for all but a brief period when he lived (with Theo) in Paris. There, in the letters, Vincent goes to great detail in expressing his alternating love of the poets Jules Breton, Christina Rossetti, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Shelley Keats, Walt Whitman, the dramas of Shakespeare, and novels of Emile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Pierre Loti, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Michelet, Francois Rabelais, Jean Richepin, Henri Rochefort, Voltaire, and above all, Victor Hugo. Vincent was, if nothing else, incredibly literate and to ignore this is to ignore a large part of who he was as a human and as an artist. Admittedly, it was not always so. He briefly worked as a bookseller’s clerk in Dordrecht in 1877 before his pastorate in Borinage. As a bookseller’s clerk, surrounded by masterpieces, it was reported “… whenever anyone looked at what he was doing, it was found that instead of working, [Vincent] was translating the Bible into French, German, and English, in four columns, with the Dutch text in addition.”[8] Vincent’s hyper-religiosity was fueled by Bunyan, Kempis, and the private reading of scripture. This period was very much in line with John Calvin’s rule of modesty;[9] Vincent would write his brother that he was “drawn to the Bible; I read it daily, but I should like to know it by heart… I have such a longing to possess the treasure of the Bible, to study thoroughly and loving all those old stories.” Subsequently, he tells of his intention to enter the ministry, recording that for generations “in our family, which is a Christian family in every sense, there has always been, from generation to generation, one who preached the Gospel.”[10] Determined to inherit this mantle, Vincent set about translating his beloved scripture to prepare himself for wherever God might lead him. It was during this time, the Dordrecht period, that he would write Theo, encouraging him destroy his library – all books, save the Bible and certain devotionals. But again, by 1880, shortly after his termination from ministry, there are indications that his religious fervor was waning. In a letter to Theo, he compares the religion of their father to “the God of Shakespeare’s drunken Falstaff”[11] which could be understood as him criticizing ministers (like their father) who wore their prejudices and conventions like armor, safe from the people Jesus commanded them to help. Now relived of his religious obligations and without a congregation to care for, Vincent began to occupy his time with his “passion for books,” reading the Bible together with Micheler, Shakespeare, Hugo, and Harriet Beecher Stowe where “everything which is really good and beautiful – of inner moral, spiritual, and sublime beauty in men and their works – comes from God.”[12]

One cannot underestimate the toll that his dismissal from Borinage took on Vincent. He was deeply wounded that his effort to sacrificially help others would be grounds for termination, more that his father would join those who rejected Vincent. In this final rejection was the culmination of years of familial pain, embodied in a realm that meant so much to Vincent – his faith. Inspired by Bunyan and Kempis, Vincent saw himself as a man of sorrow whose redemption was to be found in helping others. Many historians gloss over the events at Borinage, pointing to Vincent’s bitter letters to Theo as evidence that he forsook religion entirely by 1881. Nothing could be less true.

As he begins to appreciate other authors, Vincent’s letters begin to change dramatically. No longer is he the amateur translator ignoring his daily tasks, but a passionate and informed seeker. Rather, Vincent’s devotion changed. Told that he was wrong for finding Christ in the face of the suffering, he sought the divine in literature as an art form. It is out of this transformative period that his works take on a very different hue and he begins to tell stories with his paintings. The Potato Eaters (1885) is arguably the best representation of this. There, Vincent tells the story of those he worked with – the miners of Borinage; he depicts the sobriety of the workers he labored with, writing that he

wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor… they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours – civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone to just admire it or approve of it without knowing why.[13]

Two years later (1887), in a letter to his sister Willemina, Vincent expresses that The Potato Eaters was “the best thing I did.” Why would he write this of a painting that lacks the color and detail of other works? Many critics who entertain the influence of religion in Vincent’s works note the usage of yellow in his works to indicate a divine presence, and of course The Potato Eaters depicts the most common of class under the watchful glow of God. But how could he have held the painting in such high esteem?

Vincent’s transformation from a religious fanatic to a man of many books allowed him a more critical stance towards the Bible. Unlike his father, Vincent went beyond the shallow reading of scripture to affirm that “significant novels express the truths of the Bible for a contemporary audience.”[14] Far from just being an avid reader, van Gogh was participating in the construction in a type of narrative theology. Indeed, the sacredness of literature took on deep meaning for Vincent. He sought to name the beauty he had found in Bunyan and Kempis all around him, in nature, in people. He sought to tell a story of comparable worth, but for a failed-theologian-cum-painter, how could that ever happen? Rather than reject the faith of his earlier life, Vincent began to emulate Hugo and the other authors. He continued devouring their works, but also began telling his own stories in his paintings. In this way, perhaps Vincent assumed too much of his audience. His letters indicate such a thorough grasp of scripture and literature, and it is clear that he assumes his audience will be as literate. In many ways, his paintings are either indecipherable or too heady – one of the criticisms his superiors had of his sermons shortly before they terminated him from Borinage. Still Life with Bible (1885, aka “Still Life with Open Bible and Zola Novel – 1885”), for instance, can be seen as a rejection of religion and one would entirely miss the point of the work unless one were as fluent in literature and scripture as Vincent. The text of the Bible in the painting, presumably Isaiah 53 of the “Suffering Servant” is muddled and smeared. The book beside it, Emile Zola’s Joie de Vivre is closer to the viewer, haloed, and the text clearer. A casual observer and many an art critic have determined that Vincent was relegating the looming scripture to shadow, perhaps indicative of how he felt about his father. The candle beside the bible is snuffed out, another indicator that the “light” of scripture, the illumination it once brought, having ceased from Vincent’s life. Yet taken another way, and still holding this “reading” of the painting in our minds, Still Life with Bible (1885) could be seen not as a demotion of scripture but an elevation of literature. That the two could be placed side-by-side at all is because they communicate the same message. Indeed, Emile Zola’s Joie de Vivre is about a maid, Pauline, who takes great pains to serve the family she is under. The first line of chapter two reads:

From the first week Pauline’s presence in the house proved a source of joy and pleasure to the family.[15]

The ending makes clear that, despite the ills she suffers at the hands of the family, they could not put out that light:

She would remain unmarried in order to be able to work for the universal deliverance. And she was, indeed, the incarnation of renunciation, of love for others and kindly charity for erring humanity… She had stripped herself of everything, but happiness rand out in her clear laugh.[16]

In contrast, the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53 is described as unappealing in appearance, “despised and rejected by others,” continually “suffering and acquainted with infirmity,” and “accounted stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted” but who is, in the end, declared righteous and “allotted a portion with the great” – very much like the maid Pauline in Zola’s novel. Appearances, then, can be deceiving and van Gogh is making a strong essay in the painting for seeing the redemptive qualities of literature – even as he does with The Potato Eaters (1885). What would appear to be a painting of the common people – a noteworthy accomplishment in a field (art) that historically depicted only the ruling class – is Vincent’s narrative of his time in Borinage. It tells a story, and yes, has hints of divine oversight even if darkness prevails. The story told there is not his own, or rather does not end with himself. It is a story of hope, a theological treatise that God is with the forgotten and marginalized, the working class, the marginalized, the destitute. It elevates the people of Borinage, indeed all working class people, to equal status with the historally “elite” and “important” subjects of art. Indeed, The Potato Eaters can hardly ever be divorced from the Borinage chapter of Vincent’s life, for that was his entire mission there – to tell the people that God’s love oversaw everything, even them, and that they had not been forgotten. With Open Bible, he launches another “sermon”, putting forward the idea to his audience that for all of the advanced Biblical criticism of the time, the Gospel could be found in contemporary literature as much as sacred literature. God was still telling a story – and it wasn’t just between leather covers in a church.

Again, Vincent presumes his audience is literate, even literate enough to keep up with his theology, but what Vincent does through his paintings is express the love he holds for nature, God, and storytelling. In a sense, he captures the parable-like storytelling qualities of his favorite authors without ever leaving behind his ability to preach. As with any minister, some “sermons” are more successful than others. Some aim too high, some are too simple. Even his self-portraits are a reflection are not explicitly “theological” as we might expect. But they do tell a story arc about the evolution of self. In each, van Gogh gazes back at the viewer with a question – is he “good enough” yet? Is he worth saving yet? In his collected works, he continues to tell stories, to build from the to immortalize those who were too often overlooked, to humanize and elevate the human experience.

Grounded in this movement towards narrative-image is his enduring lay theology. Unlike his father, Vincent’s theology is one of active humanity rather than theological expertise – though of course, he possesses that quality as well. It is a theology balanced out by extensive reading, an appreciation for literature, and the belief that God can be found in texts outside of scripture. Indeed, God can be found in poetry, in art, and the beauty that surrounds us if we are to believe Kant’s version of aesthetics. For Vincent, there is always the sense that God is present – be it in nature, or work, or family; ironically, God is most absent from the structures of the Church, a point made very clear in Starry Night (1889). There, every house is lighted except the church. His theology is one firmly grounded in the every day and a love of the terrestrial, not the high theology that many aspire to which seeks redemption from the present circumstance for a pristine future. In this, van Gogh the painter is every bit as much of a theologian as he is a storyteller. Every piece seeks to redeem the mortal and temporal to make it immortal and sacred – very much like an author.

 


[1] Vincent’s use of this term, and that of subsequent biographers, has nothing at all to do with the contemporary concept of “Evangelicalism” as the spiritual heir to the Moral Majority of Western Christianity. By calling himself an Evangelical, Van Gogh indicates a suspicion of any doctrine or teaching that was not grounded in the salvific love of Calvary.

[2] An idea foreign to the theology of a triumphant liberator in Vincent’s father, Theodorus.

[3] Marc Edo Tralbaut. Van Gogh (Viking Press: 1981) 67-71.

[4] Vincent attributes his termination from employment by the Groningen party to the “narrowness of the old academic group of evangelists and church authorities” (letters 132, 133) in July, 1879. He served in Borinage for only six months before his dismissal, and it is likely that his dismissal was due to using pension to help feed and educate children in the community. Ever after, Vincent will see the institution of the Church in a negative light.

[5] Jonathan Culler. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 23-4.

[6] Cynthia Freeland. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), 8, 10.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] “Vincent Van Gogh as Bookseller’s Clerk,” Complete Letters, 1:108.

[9] “On the whole subject of religion one rule of modesty and soberness is to be observed; and it is this – in obscure matters not to speak or think, or even long to know, more than the Word of God has delivered.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, Ch. 14, sect. 4)

[10] The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh (New York: Little, Brown & Co.), Letters 88, 89.

[11] L133, July 1880, Letters 1:198.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Letter 497.

[14] Cliff Edwards. Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest (Chicago: Loyola Univ. Press, 1989), 49

[15] Les Rougon-Macquart: Historie Naturalle et Social d’une Familie Sous le Second Empire, 5 vols., ed. Henri Mitterand (Dijon: Biblioteque de la Pleiade, 1965), 3:833.

[16] Ibid., 1129-1130.

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