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by Brian Keepers
Today my family and I are heading to Chicago for a little overnight “get-away” to see the new van Gogh exhibit, featuring his three famous bedroom paintings, at the Chicago Art Institute. My daughters are bouncing off the walls. We’re big fans of van Gogh. To prepare for the trip, we spent the weekend going through all of our pictures from my sabbatical on faith and art in the summer of 2013. We spent substantial time in Paris, Rome and Florence, visiting museums and immersing ourselves in art and beauty. I came across this reflection I had written after spending an afternoon in the van Gogh wing at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and thought I would offer it as my post for The Twelve today.
The gallery is so crowded it spills over with people. Eager viewers, young and old alike, bump into each other as they shuffle along, taking it all in. Rooms filled with paintings by the famous nineteenth century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh.
We’re at the Musee d’Orsay in a Paris, an old train station converted into one of the finest art galleries in the world that features the work of Impressionism and Postimpressionism. There are many van Gogh paintings here I’ve never seen before. The main attraction is “Starry Night”—not the one that most of us are familiar with (that one is at the MoMA in New York) but a version painted earlier, before Vincent made his deepest descent into delusion and madness.
While I love both versions of “Starry Night,” this is not the painting of van Gogh’s that most grips me on this day. I’m drawn to another painting. His “Portrait of an Artist” (early September 1889). Most people pass by this painting, giving it a quick look before they scurry on to the next. But I stop and just stand in front of it for a while.
This is one of over forty self-portraits Vincent painted. Why so many? Partly because he admired the old masters like Rembrandt who took self-portraits so seriously. But even more so, Vincent was too poor to afford models to pose for him, so he bought a mirror and used his own face as the subject of his efforts to master the human portrait. Van Gogh preferred to paint people over landscapes and still life (which is ironic since so many of his “masterpieces” are these things). He was especially intrigued with eyes. “I prefer to paint human eyes rather than cathedrals,” he wrote.
What is it about human eyes that intrigued you so, Vincent? I wonder as I look into his own eyes. How old was he in this portrait? Must have been early thirties. I can see the melancholy in his face, the shadows beneath his eyes, the intensity of his orangish-red beard and furrowed brow. But unlike Vincent’s later self-portraits, in this one his eyes don’t have that bloodshot, crazed look. They are a soft blue, more pronounced because of the swirl of blue-green hues painted in the background.
It has long been believed that the eyes are the window into the soul. I look intently into Vincent’s eyes in this portrait. I want to catch a glimpse into the soul of a man whom I have come to know intimately this summer. I’ve been reading Van Gogh: A Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (considered to be the new definitive biography on van Gogh). I’ve always been drawn to van Gogh’s work—I love the bright vivid colors, the fast and thick brush strokes, the passion and energy of his work. But getting to know Vincent the man has been more complicated. I feel at once both sympathy and disdain for this troubled soul who never felt like he belonged anywhere. This man who so desired intimacy but managed to alienate nearly everyone by his angry outbursts, unrealistic demands, and forays into delusion.
In a rare moment of self-awareness, Vincent acknowledged, “I am often melancholy, irritable, hungering and thirsting, as it were, for sympathy; and when I do not get it, I try to act indifferently, speak sharply, and often even pour oil on fire.” I’m convinced that van Gogh suffered from mental illness and were he alive today, he would have benefited from psychological and medical treatment. Unfortunately, he lived in a time when so much about mental illness remained unknown and cloaked in shame. You shut “crazy people” up in asylums, where Vincent spent time on more than one occasion.
My heart is heavy for him. I look into those eyes and I see such loneliness and confusion and anger and longing. “I long to love and be lovable—to live,” he wrote to his brother Theo. But Vincent was not so loveable. His parents made plenty of mistakes, and still my heart feels heavy for them too as they suffered so much of their own anguish trying to love their son unconditionally during his short and erratic life of thirty-seven years.
I wonder if Vincent had to memorize the Heidelberg Catechism as a child. After all, his father was a Dutch Reformed pastor. I find it ironic that Vincent grew up in a faith tradition that has this powerful affirmation in the first question and answer: “I’m not my own but belong, in body and in soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Still, he spent his whole life in a passionate and often destructive search to belong.
I still have a few hundred pages to go before I finish this mammoth biography of van Gogh’s life. I’m not sure if he comes back around to the faith he would vehemently denounce or if he really ever walked away from the faith entirely (Vincent was prone to say and do things to get a reaction). I guess I’ll find out as I keep reading. In the end, only God knew Vincent’s heart.
What I do know is that God promised in Vincent’s baptism to never abandon him or forsake him. I believe that God never let go of Vincent, not even in that terrible moment in the field when he took his own life. Vincent may have never felt like he belonged, like he was forever the outsider who had no place to call home, but God remained his compassionate Heavenly Father who forever whispers, “You are mine. You belong to me.”
Maybe this is why van Gogh’s work has such strong appeal for me. Beyond the vivid colors and furious brush strokes, I am reminded that these were painted by a man who embodied the fusion of light and darkness he painted with such intensity. In those vigorous brush strokes I see a man who was lost and broken but who was also firmly embraced by the grace of God. Van Gogh’s story is one that is tragic and sad, yes. But even his story, like all our stories, ultimately finds redemption in the love of God in Christ.
Brian Keepers is the minister of preaching and congregational leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.