Something of the Eternal: Van Gogh's Vocation

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In History of Art at Mount Angel Seminary, I use several passages from a one-volume edition of Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, which is edited by Mark Roskill, during our study of Post-Impressionism.  Some of the passages illustrate Van Gogh's thinking about color, while the passages below illustrate Van Gogh pondering his vocation.

Self-Portrait as a Painter, 1887-1888, located in the Van Gogh Museum

Theo provided Van Gogh with financial support throughout his life because Van Gogh struggled so much to obtain the materials necessary to pursue his work, his calling:

It would be difficult for me to express my thoughts about it [Theo's financial support].  It constantly remains a source of disappointment to me that my drawings are not yet what I want them to be.  The difficulties are indeed numerous and great, and cannot be overcome at once.  To make progress is a kind of miner's work; it doesn't advance as quickly as one would like, and as others also expect, but as one stands before such a task, the basic necessities are patience and faithfulness.  In fact, I do not think much about the difficulties, because if one thought about them too much one would get stunned or disturbed (187).

We all may become daunted if we consider all the obstacles inherent in accepting our vocations, and we demonstrate our faithfulness by recommitting ourselves each day.  Because my students are discerning their own callings to the Catholic priesthood, I hope they will find some of their experience reflected in Van Gogh's letters.  In the fall of 1883, Van Gogh wrote to his brother from Drenthe as Theo considered leaving his work as an art dealer and also working as a painter:

Now art dealers have certain prejudices, which I think it possible that you have not shaken off yet, particularly the idea that painting is inborn - all right, inborn, but not as is supposed; one must put out one's hand and grasp it - that grasping is a difficult thing - one must not wait till it reveals itself.  There is something, but not at all what people pretend.  Practice makes perfect; by painting, one become a painter.  If one wants to become a painter, if one delights in it, if one feels what you feel, one can do it, but it is accompanied by trouble, care, disappointment, periods of melancholy, of helplessness and all that, that's what I think of it.  I think it all such a nuisance that I just had to make a little scratch to forget it.  Forgive me, I won't say anything more about it, it is not worth while . . . (215-216).

Van Gogh acknowledges the "delight" he receives from the process of his work, as well as the sadness and disappointment.  Some of that disappointment was due to how his work was received by other artists.  From Arles in mid-August of 1888 he wrote:

And I should not be surprised if the impressionists soon find fault with my way of working, for it has been fertilized by the ideas of Delacroix rather than by theirs.  Because, instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly.  Well, let that be as a matter of theory, but I am going to give you an example of what I mean.
I should like to paint the portrait of an artist friend, a man who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because it is his nature.  He'll be a fair man.  I want to put into the picture my appreciation, the love I have for him.  So I paint him as he is, faithfully as I can, to begin with.
But the picture is not finished yet.  To finish it I am now going to be the arbitrary colourist.  I exaggerate the fairness of the hair, I get to orange tones, chromes and pale lemon.
Beyond the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint an infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue I can contrive, and by this simple combination the bright head illuminated against a rich blue background acquires a mysterious effect, like a star in the depth of the azure sky.
In the portrait of the peasant I again worked this way, but without wishing in this case to evoke the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the finite.  Instead, I think of the man I have to paint, terrible in the furnace of the full ardours of harvest, at the heart of the south.  Hence the orange shades like storm flashes, vivid as red hot iron, and hence the luminous tones of old gold in the shadows.
Oh my dear boy . . . and the nice people will only see the exaggeration as caricature (277-278).

Given the seminary setting of History of Art and that the second half of the course is dedicated to Orthodox iconography, Van Gogh's thoughts from Arles in early September of 1888 are also beautiful and striking:

And in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting.  I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our colourings (286).

Portrait of Camille Roulin, 1888, located in the Van Gogh Museum

Reading all of Van Gogh's letters would be a worthwhile endeavor, so as to bring even more of his radiance to History of Art.