The name Vincent Van Gogh conjures the quintessential image of Romantic artist, sacrificing self in the pursuit of artistic transcendence. One look at any of Van Gogh’s dozens of self-portraits reveals the man to be serious, intense; maybe daring you to hold his gaze. What does he see in himself that you are also meant to see? Do you see an injured man; an angry, sad or lonely man? Some might even see a man injured beyond words or meaning; the vibrancy and color around the eyes to emphasize the total isolation within.
Van Gogh was injured in many ways familiar to us all; unrequited love (at least twice), little respect for his life’s work, and an inability to maintain meaningful relationships (aside from his brother Theo). But it seems after reading Van Gogh’s diary that his injury, his artist’s burden, goes way beyond the line of duty that most would regard as appropriate. In July of 1882, Van Gogh writes, “What am I most people’s eyes? A nonentity, or an eccentric and disagreeable man--- somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low. Very well, even if this were true, then I should want my work to show what is in the heart of such an eccentric, of such a nobody. This is my ambition, which is, in spite of everything, founded less on anger than on love, more on serenity than on passion. It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is a calm pure harmony and music inside me.”
Much of Van Gogh’s writings reveal a man moving through various extremes of feeling, striving to express the things which are intangible in nature and life. Drawing and painting are revealed to be the one constant which keeps him moving steadily forward. Writing in September of 1882, Van Gogh describes his process of creation, “I see that nature has told me something, has spoken to me, and that I have put it down in shorthand. In my shorthand there may be words that cannot be deciphered, there may be mistakes or gaps: but there is something of what wood or beach or figure has told me in it, and it is not the tame or conventional language derived from a studied manner or system rather than from nature itself. It strikes me that Van Gogh believes most profoundly in the “mistakes or gaps” of his work. As he says in July of 1882, “I see drawings and pictures…in the dirtiest corner. And my mind is drawn toward these things by an irresistible force.“
In November of the same year, Van Gogh speaks directly of the isolation of being an artist, “This also is something unbearable for many a painter…One is afraid of making friends, one is afraid of moving; like one of the old lepers, one would like to call from afar to the people: Don’t come too near me, for intercourse with me brings you sorrow and loss. With all that huge burden of care on one’s heart, one must set to work with a calm everyday face, without moving a muscle, live one’s ordinary life, get along with the models, with the man who comes for the rent---in fact, with everybody…And then storms arise, things one has not foreseen; one doesn’t know what to do, and one has a feeling that one may strike a rock at any moment.”
Reading the words of Van Gogh clearly add to and compliment the great works of this genius artist. And yet, despite all of this explanation and outpouring, the full and abundant meaning of Van Gogh’s work seems to remain a beautiful mystery. Our increasing knowledge of the heavens does not decrease our wonderment, and so our marvel at Van Gogh’s Starry Night should continue for generations to come.
Van Gogh’s “Diary”: The Artist’s Life in his own Words and Art. Edited by Jan Hulsker
Found in the Friendswood Public Library at 759.949 G613gv