Research Paper: Vincent Van Gogh

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Van Gogh

In Search of Illumination: An Analysis of the Life and Work of Vincent Van Gogh

If, as Richard Williamson (2010) says, art is a skill and that skill is the "expression of the soul," Vincent Van Gogh's artistic productivity (leaping into life in the final decade of his own) may tell us much about the soul of the man. With an oeuvre of over 2000 works Van Gogh's artistic passion matched the intensity of his religious fervor. Religion and art were, essentially, the basis of Van Gogh's life. And the history of his life is, in a way, a history of modern Europe; in another way it is a history of the prelude to 20th century modern art; and in another way it is a lesson on the loss that Europe had suffered when it broke with its medieval heritage, renounced its metaphysics, and became a world of skepticism and Hegelian dialectic. This paper will analyze the life and artwork of Van Gogh and show how it was both part old world and part new.

Background

Born into a Dutch Reformist family in 19th century Netherlands, Vincent Van Gogh was, from the age of reason, determined to be a missionary for the Protestant church. Indeed, his biographer Julius Meier-Graefe (1933) tells us that Vincent "inherited" from his father "a burning desire to enter the Church," which greatly shaped the first 25 years of his life (p. 3). The confines of Protestantism, however, were perhaps too brutally constricting: Van Gogh's passion was of an ascetic quality that might have had more in common with the counter-Reformist Ignatius than with the Lutheran sensibilities that had taken root in north Germany. Ignatius, for example, believed in the efficacy of supernatural grace and formed the Jesuit order that would become the leading light of missionary activity for the Catholic Church in the modern world. Luther, on the other hand, denied the efficacy of supernatural grace, and instead initiated (more or less) the "advent of the Ego" (Garrigou-Lagrange, 1938, p. 6). The purity with which Van Gogh's art reflects nature should, if anything, indicate the purity of his religious conviction before he traded his religious zeal for artistic pursuit: the two were, after all, products of the same intensity of soul and imagination that drew Van Gogh to the old world Word of God and to the new world forms of artistic expression like the Impressionism he found in Paris in 1886. Van Gogh, like all artists, was a child of his age and a child of tradition. The tradition was distinctly Christian -- but Protestant (which was the first step away from tradition and toward modernity). Nonetheless, as his 1888 sketch The Sower reveals, the divine narrative never left his consciousness -- and his art appears to be an attempt to find the thread of that narrative in nature, where Protestantism had essentially cut it.

The Romantic Age had, after all, produced an inclination to elevate Natural Man: Rousseau did so in his philosophical writings; Shelley did so in his poetry (and his wife wrote an account of the consequences of such in Frankenstein), and Van Gogh's contemporary Paul Gauguin did so with his own life and work. Gauguin gave up the ease and comfort of 19th century Victorian society to live and paint among the natives of the Third World in Tahiti. W. Somerset Maugham would chronicle a fictional rendering of the enterprise of Gauguin in a later novel titled The Moon and Sixpence, which lauded the artist's determination to cast off the shell of modern civilization for the "hard, gemlike flame" that Walter Pater (1868) was convinced could be found in Nature. Says Maugham (1919) of his fictionalized Gauguin: "The greatness of [the man] was authentic"(p. 1). His greatness, however, also showed the unfortunate consequence of his enterprise -- specifically, that Nature was not enough. The religion of the old world, of course, had filled the gap between Nature and Pater's "gemlike flame" with the concept of sanctifying grace, a proceed of the Triune God and a necessity for all souls that sought to possess the "flame." The new world of Romantic/Enlightenment doctrine and Protestant ethic, however, was self-reliant: its most passionate souls sought the "flame," like Shelley, Pater, Gauguin, and Van Gogh -- but few of them came to good ends. Shelley drowned at sea, leaving behind him a wake of corpses and scandal; Gauguin died in exile with a prison sentence for political malfeasance hanging over his head; and Van Gogh died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. For each, the "flame" proved unattainable -- none had recourse to the grace which the medieval world had made so readily available.

Perhaps the greatest and most perfect painter of all-time, Jan Vermeer -- at least according to Paul Johnson (2007, p. 7) -- was another Dutch Reformist who lived two centuries prior to Van Gogh. Perhaps even more so than Rembrandt, Vermeer possessed a skill for realism and detail that was the pinnacle of Dutch artistry. (The American Norman Rockwell would in the 20th century revive this kind of realism -- but with more American sentimentality and less European subtlety.) Vermeer, however, had also married outside his Protestant religion to a woman of Catholic heritage -- and had himself adapted to the claims of the Catholic religion and its store of grace at a time when all of Europe was rather accustoming itself to the Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 had ended the bitter Thirty Years' War and ushered in the era of religious liberty. The evocative poses and perfect renderings evinced by Vermeer reveal a calmness of soul, which the moderns that followed failed (in a sense) to effect: the steady and unflinching gaze of Vermeer and his perfect hand showed a world that was at once imbibed of both nature and grace -- the two elements permeate his work, as much as they do in Rembrandt's (whose use of chiaroscuro -- the technique of boldly contrasting light and dark -- was, unlike Vermeer's, more in the tradition of Leonardo and Caravaggio). What Van Gogh would prove to have in common with his Dutch ancestor Vermeer, however, was a brilliant flare for color scheme. Vermeer's use, for example, of the ultramarine pigment -- a rare and pricey blue -- is one of the most characteristic elements of his paintings (Janson, 2011); and Van Gogh would come to possess such lively color toward the end of his brief career.

Early Years: Religious Zeal

Of course, before Van Gogh would ever begin to take his artistic talent seriously and pursue it as a career, he first forced himself to undergo years of religious trial in which he dedicated himself to the service of God in missionary pursuits. Van Gogh's early life is marked by a kind of wanderlust whose orientation was religious, but whose path was blocked by the very religion Van Gogh attempted to follow: that which Van Gogh sought -- the "flame" of faith and the supernatural charity of Christ -- was harrowingly absent in the Protestant catechism. His desire to share in the sufferings of the men he evangelized was viewed by his parents and those he sought to convert as "eccentricities" (letter from Reverend Van Gogh to Theo, 12 Feb 1879). Van Gogh would have made a better Franciscan than a Protestant -- but his course did not steer in that direction. Aware of his family's disapproval, Van Gogh sank within himself and distanced himself from their influence:

To the family, I have, willy-nilly, become a more or less objectionable and shady sort of character, at any rate a bad lot. How then could I then be of any use to anyone? And so I am inclined to think the best and most sensible solution all round would be for me to go away and to keep my distance, to cease to be, as it were. What the moulting season is for birds - the time when they lose their feathers - setbacks, misfortune and hard times are for us human beings. You can cling on to the moulting season, you can also emerge from it reborn, but it must not be done in public (Van Gogh, Letter to Theo, July 1880).

What amounted to a genuine desire for conversion was viewed instead as pathology. To draw him back into the world, his brother Theo encouraged him to invest his religious zeal in art. Van Gogh's artistic fervor had never diminished (from when it had first manifested itself in his childhood, along with his religious fervor), and the idea presented an avenue that Protestantism did not: the expression of soul.

Van Gogh himself appeared to understand this in 1882. A succession of failures in his academic pursuits to become a studied clergyman, and his inability to enter into the business world, each pointed toward the one thing Van Gogh could do with mastery: sketch:

My not being fit for business or for professional study does not… [END OF PREVIEW]

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