Stranger and pilgrim
The real Van Gogh: the artist and his letters at the Royal Academy
The Royal Academy is currently showing the biggest exhibition of Van Gogh’s paintings, drawings and letters to held in London for over 40 years.
2010 is the centenary of the first Post Impressionist exhibition to be held in England, which included 22 Van Goghs. Prior to 1910, no major paintings by Van Gogh had been seen in this country. Post Impressionism came as a shock to art lovers who had grown up with Victorian narrative painting, and the London press’s reaction to Van Gogh’s work was particularly hostile.
The publication of the letters was crucial in changing attitudes to his painting. (The earliest English edition appeared in 1912.) Van Gogh had written regularly to his brother Theo, and also artist friends such as Emile Bernard, who he had met in Paris. After the deaths of Vincent and Theo, most of the letters were preserved, translated and published by Theo’s widow, Johanna van Bonger, who made this her life’s work. Vincent was able to write very expressively, and his correspondence gives a more intimate picture of his life and thought than that of any other artist of that period. The current exhibition places some of the original letters, often illustrated with small ink sketches, in relation to the paintings, shedding light on the development of his ideas.
One of the most important factors in Van Gogh’s work is his Christian background, which has to be seen in relation to the Dutch Reformed Church in the 19th century. It is well known that Vincent’s father, Theodorus Van Gogh, was a pastor in the Dutch church, ministering all his life to small rural congregations. Many of Vincent’s early drawings are of the local farm workers, and his famous painting of ‘The Potato Eaters’ shows a family too poor to afford meat for their evening meal. Like his father, Van Gogh longed to communicate with the hardships of the working man, and envisaged his art as a form of ‘consolation’— an art for the people.
However, Theodorus was greatly influenced by the liberal theology of the ‘Groninger Richting’ — a group that had developed under the leadership of Petrus Hoofstede de Groot, at the University of Groningen. These theologians rejected the biblical Calvinism of the Dutch church and sought instead a ‘religion of the heart’, emphasising humility and service — going back beyond the Reformation to texts such as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis (Van Gogh wrote to Theo in 1877 that he had copied out a French translation of the entire work).
Vincent’s early career was one of failures and disappointments. He was first employed by the art dealers Goupil & Cie, who, in 1873, assigned him to their London branch. Here he was impressed by the humanity and compassion which he saw in the work of English Victorian artists and illustrators, and also discovered books such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which he came to know well.
When depression over unrequited love led to his dismissal, a natural choice was to seek employment in the church. Van Gogh became a teacher in a Methodist school, first in Ramsgate and later in Isleworth, where he worked with a nearby Methodist congregation. His text for a sermon on Psalm 119.9 — ‘I am a stranger on the earth’ — preached in October 1876, is revealing. Although he draws on imagery from Pilgrim’s Progress, he sees no divine rescue for the solitary traveller. Vincent’s burden is never ‘rolled away’, and the tragedy of the letters is the intensity of his struggle in continuing to carry it.
By the early 1880s, after a disastrous spell as an evangelist among poor miners in the Borinage district of Belgium, Vincent had openly rejected his parents’ faith. A letter to Theo shows his inner conflict: ‘That God of the clergymen, he is to me as dead as a doornail — …but am I an atheist for all that? The clergymen consider me as such… but I love, and how could I love if I did not live?’
A memorial still life, painted after the death of Theodorus in 1885, shows his father’s Bible, open at Isaiah 53, but with a copy of Zola’s La Joie de Vivre placed in the foreground as an autobiographical comment. Vincent now saw the modern realist novel as more relevant to contemporary life than his father’s beliefs.
In 1886 his artistic career began in earnest when he arrived to stay with Theo in Paris. Leaving his old life behind, along with his sombre palette, he declared that ‘the painter of the future is a colourist’. The exhibition includes many famous works which show the excitement of his encounter with French Impressionism, and the design of Japanese prints, leading to his expressionistic landscapes of Arles and St. Remy. Over the next four years, until his tragic death in 1890, he painted with extraordinary intensity, producing a huge output of work within such a short time.
In his letters, one of Vincent’s recurring Bible quotations is 2 Corinthians 6.10: ‘as sorrowful yet always rejoicing’. During the last years of his life, the colour and vibrancy of his vision, in the face of extreme personal struggles, almost becomes illustration of the continuation of Paul’s text — ‘as poor yet making many rich’.