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Fall 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 2 · pp. 148–56 

Vincent van Gogh: An Eye for God

Rachel Baerg


Vincent van Gogh
The Starry Night (1889)
Oil on canvas,
29 x 36 1/4" (73.7 x 92.1 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss bequest.

It captured my imagination upon first glance and immediately drew me upwards along the shadow of a giant cypress beyond a dark tumultuous sky and far into an enchanted infinity where the fiery stars and planets, seemingly the entire universe, glowed with mysterious intensity. Overwhelmed, I stood in the lobby of the museum, stunned not only by the beauty of the painted vision, but deeply moved by its profundity. The Starry Night encapsulates for me the very essence of Vincent van Gogh’s lifelong struggle from darkness into light—a passionate battle to see for all of humanity the brilliance of the light, the Light of the World.

Van Gogh’s art remains an invaluable gift to us. His story nudges us to reconsider tapping the potential in our sense of seeing.

A MISTAKEN CALLING

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was destined to have become a minister of the Word. Indeed, the men of his family were devoted clergymen; his father and grandfather were both notable Calvinist preachers. From his earliest days, Vincent was convinced that his great love for the Bible and his real desire to serve Christ could be realized by following in the footsteps of his forefathers:

It is my fervent prayer and desire that the spirit of my father and grandfather may rest upon me, that it may be given me to become a Christian and a Christian laborer and that my {150} life may resemble more and more the lives of those named above; for behold, the old wine is good, and I do not desire a new one (Letter 89) . . . Oh that I may be shown the way to devote my life more fully to the service of God and the Gospel. I keep praying for it and, in all humility, I think I shall be heard . . . (Letter 92) 1

Ultimately, van Gogh’s desire for the “old wine” triumphed, though his life and ministry were quite unlike that of his forebears.

It was not until 1880, at the age of twenty-seven, that van Gogh actually decided to paint. The previous five years were characterized by a desperate struggle to establish himself as a minister. His two attempts to proclaim the Gospel, first as lay preacher, then as a volunteer missionary in the mining town of Borinage in Southern Belgium, failed miserably. His unstable temperament, eccentric behavior, and excessive devotion to his job bewildered the people he worked with and finally resulted in complete rejection: rejection by his congregation and rejection by the religious body which had assigned the appointments. Perhaps most painful he also experienced rejection by his own family, particularly his father who literally disowned the son whom he considered wayward.

A NEW MINISTRY

One might guess that Vincent, devastated as he was with his apparent failure in becoming a man of God, might have lost his faith altogether. And yet, quite the opposite happened. Turning his back on previous hopes and focusing on painting, his undiminished passion for God and the need to serve him and others became even more pressing, more urgent.

Van Gogh entered his new life in art not as one who enters a profession, but as one who accepts a spiritual calling. 2 It was not completely unnatural for van Gogh to pursue painting. He had sketched for most of his life, and had worked for several years in the prosperous art gallery owned by his two uncles in The Hague.

The shift however from the world of ministry into the world of art was extremely difficult. In the decade that followed, his entire artistic output would appear on the canvases we know today, canvases that reflect his relentless struggle to justify his particular communication of the faith.

Van Gogh faithfully recorded his ideas and lifelong struggles in more than seven hundred letters he wrote to his youngest brother, Theo. These letters present an intimate record of his spiritual journey into art and {151} allow us to enter his mind’s world. That he confided his innermost thoughts to Theo is not surprising. Theo, himself an art dealer, played a pivotal role in Vincent’s life. Able to look beyond his brother’s idiosyncrasies and his ill-mannered personality, Theo alone recognized van Gogh’s considerable gift, encouraging him to paint and eventually becoming his sole financial supporter. Vincent’s confessions to Theo were many:

To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture . . . (Letter 133).

STILL UNCONVENTIONAL

Vincent’s need to explore his faith in the context of his art was highly unconventional in his day. Just as van Gogh, the preacher, had not been able to fit the mold, van Gogh, the painter, could not follow the lead of his fellow contemporary artists. The other well-known Parisian artists of the day, including the Impressionists, were chiefly interested in aesthetics and describing the surface of the real world as it is seen by the eye. In contrast, van Gogh and his high moral concept of what it meant to be an artist, grounded as it was in a profoundly religious mind-set, did not tolerate the lighthearted lifestyle and “art-for-art’s-sake” mentality of his colleagues.

Yes, van Gogh was interested in aesthetics and the various theories of art, but above all else it was the social purpose of his art that became his chief concern. It is important to understand the distinction—painting was more than a career, more than mastery of technique for Vincent. His pursuit in art was transformed into a spiritual mission, a personal crusade.

Van Gogh, the painter became increasingly preoccupied with creating a new kind of religious art, one which could potentially transform, “revolutionize” an increasingly secularized society. Identifying the urgent contemporary need for a powerful and passionate means through which the Gospel could be preached, van Gogh posed the question:

Is the Bible enough for us? . . . If the spoken or written word is to remain the light of the world, then it is our right and duty to acknowledge that we are living in a period when it should be spoken and written in such a way . . . to find something equally great, equally good, and equally original, and equally powerful to revolutionize the whole of society . . . (Letter W1). {152}

STIMULATING LOVE FOR GOD

Vincent strongly believed that art had the unique potential to move, to stir, to impassion people with the love of God. This conviction became an obsession which drove him to paint continually in the spirit of a martyr. Living on small amounts of money Theo was able to squeeze out of his own pocket, the artist would go days without eating. Unafraid of suffering, van Gogh worked tirelessly, looking to the sacrificial example of Christ to whom he referred to as the “ultimate artist” creating not pictures but people (Letter B9).

Van Gogh’s oeuvre presents a curious dilemma for those quick to classify the artist as “Christian.” While Vincent’s faith, as revealed in his letters, generally conforms to the basic tenets of Christianity, it is not the traditional or conventional image of Christendom that appears on his canvases. Though he copied several biblical scenes by the old Masters, he never felt the need to illustrate the Bible, to paint the image of Christ, his disciples, followers, or saints.

Instead, he persisted in revealing the imperativeness of God. Consumed by an insatiable curiosity, he saw and painted the Divine in nature: the sun, the heavens, the waving fields of grain, the laborers, plowmen, potato diggers, along with infants and children:

One cannot do better than hold onto the thought of God through everything, under all circumstances, at all places, at all times, and try to acquire more knowledge about Him, which one can do from the Bible as well as from all other things. It is good to continue believing that everything is more miraculous than one can comprehend, for this is truth; it is good to remain sensitive and humble and tender of heart . . . . For what can one learn that is better than what God has given by nature to every human soul—which is living and loving, hoping, and believing, in the depth of every soul, unless it is wantonly destroyed? (Letter 121)

Believing that everything is more miraculous than one can comprehend, this central idea is revealed in all of van Gogh’s art; every object, every person he painted was presented as a unique miracle, an intriguing mystery, a fascinating revelation of God. As if through the eyes of a child seeing something for the first time, Vincent translated the awe of these experiences onto his canvases.

AN EYE FOR GOD

Though van Gogh never clearly defined what he believed to be his role, he saw the artist as a visual seeker, someone capable of casting {153} truth in a new light, someone with an eye for God: a seer. Apparently, Plato believed that the mode of entry for the haptic is the eye, but he emphasized that it is not the eye that sees but rather the eye that permits us to see, suggesting that seeing encompasses much more than simply looking, that seeing is a disciplined exercise. 3

Certainly Vincent was absorbed in the discipline of seeing. Having an intense visual sensitivity, vision was his preferred sensory modality for contact with the world around him, vision was a devouring, omnivorous capacity and passion. 4 As A. J. Lubin so poignantly put it, Vincent actually became an eye in his art. 5

He depicts in great detail, allowing the viewer to experience the intricate mysteries of every stamen, every petal, every seed of a sunflower. Van Gogh, through his passionate eye, engages us in the discipline of looking for the hidden miracles as a way of discovering meaning, discovering truth, discovering the presence of God.

Taken for mad in his time due to an unstable personality, van Gogh suffered the emotional anxiety of being misunderstood. In the last two years of his life, he was subject to epileptic seizures and his condition necessitated intermittent periods in hospital—this during his most productive period in Arles.

In May 1889, he was admitted to the asylum at St. Remy to receive more immediate attention during his seizures. It was at St. Remy that he painted The Starry Night. How was a man, so tormented, capable of creating such beauty and promise? How could his anguished soul’s eye conceive The Starry Night?

Vincent was not interested in painting images that reflected a surface beauty or conventional smoothness. His aggressive, thickly layered brush strokes and caustic colors virtually embody the universal elements of tension and despair that are the stock and trade of the human condition. And yet, his art reveals a remarkably affirmative view of life.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle describes great art as the revelation of the cosmos within chaos—a reassurance of the living presence of God in the greatest darkness of life. 6 There is no doubt that van Gogh’s art reveals the cosmos—his paintings continually urge us to touch and feel the vibrating light of God in the world around us.

For Vincent painting represented an act of love; as an artist he saw himself not only as a creator but as one who nurtures:

And in a painting I want to say something comforting, as music is comforting—I want to paint man and workmen with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey {154} by the actual radiance and vibrations of our coloring (Letter 531).

ART A DIVINE GIFT

Even more than an act of love, van Gogh believed art to be a divine gift. Just as nature is a universal gift of God, he saw art as nonelitist, accessible to everyone, including the uneducated and illiterate—those otherwise excluded in the restrictive communication of words:

This [revealing God in nature] is far from theology, simply the fact that the poorest little woodcutter or peasant on the hearth or miner can have moments of emotion and inspiration which give him a feeling of an eternal home and of being close to it. . . . At times there is something indescribable in those aspects—all nature seems to speak. . . . As for me, I cannot understand why everybody does not see it and feel it; nature or God does it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand. For this reason I think a painter is happy because he is in harmony with nature as soon as he can express a little of what he sees. And that’s a great thing—one knows what one has to do, there is an abundance of subjects . . . (Letter 248).

Finally, Vincent believed that the art of painting, the very ability to create, was a gift meant to be shared, a profound act of love, demanding a response. Literally drawing the viewer into the marvelous world of his painted canvas, one keenly senses the artist’s need for counter-communication. Little wonder that van Gogh earned the reputation as the ultimate textbook Expressionist artist who “opens his heart and soul and releases his deepest feelings through images intended to embrace the observer and make him a partner rather than an audience, a participant or, at least, a sympathizer within the picture’s emotional world.” 7

UNAPPRECIATED IN HIS TIME

It is a bitter kind of poetic justice that thousands of people, today, find van Gogh an accessible and sympathetic artist (his paintings among the most valuable in the world), while during his time, for all his devotion and self-sacrifice, his art was not readily accepted. His God-given gift remained unacknowledged, the love revealed in his work was not reciprocated. Even with an art dealer for a brother, Vincent sold only one painting during his lifetime. It was this tragedy—the fear that his art was not communicating, serving no purpose—which eventually led the artist to the desperation of suicide. {155}

Van Gogh’s sad story is a reminder of the dependency that art places on the viewer. To fathom the full impact and depth of his work, one needs an openness to engage with the artist. Perhaps this is where the Christian community falters. L’Engle points out the tendency for smugness among Christians, a presumption of knowing all there is to know about God through the Bible, the written word. 8 Certainly, the Protestant inclination to rely chiefly on the spoken or written word has contributed to the neglect of the visual arts. Art and its relevance to our faith has been sorely undervalued in the process.

Vincent’s art remains an invaluable gift to us. His story nudges us to reconsider tapping the potential in our sense of seeing. It prompts us to risk the spiritual journey along with our children into the realm of art, to visualize the mystery of God through the highly perceptive eye of a great artist. We have certainly settled for second best with the impoverished images of Christ we offer our children in Sunday school!

I thank God for van Gogh’s life, troubled as it was, thankful that he did not remain in the profession of his forefathers, venturing out instead as a missionary with vision. Cliff Edwards puts it succinctly: Vincent through his art was able to reveal a God “so real, so direct, so visible in nature and in people, so intensely compassionate, so weak and vulnerable, and so radically loving, . . . a God we all want to come close to.” 9

Vincent van Gogh had an eye for God! Starry Night remains one of the greatest sermons of our time. Through the window of his canvas, using our omnivorous eye, we luxuriate in the illuminated majesty, mystery, and eternal love of God.

NOTES

  1. Letters quoted in this essay are from J. van Gogh-Bonger and W. van Gogh, eds., The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, 3 vols. (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1959).
  2. John Canaday, Mainstreams of Modern Art (Orlando: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), 346.
  3. Jane Dillenberger, Image and Spirit in Sacred and Secular Art (New York: Crossroad, 1990), xi.
  4. W. W. Meissner, Vincent’s Religion: The Search for Meaning (New York: Peter Lang, 1997), 127.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: North Point, 1980), 17.
  7. Canaday, 344. {156}
  8. L’Engle, 59.
  9. Cliff Edwards, Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1989), x. Another helpful source on van Gogh is Robert Rosenblum, “Van Gogh,” chap. in Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 65-100.
Rachel Baerg completed a Masters degree in Art History at the University of Toronto in 1996. She presents an illustrated series of lectures titled “Image and Mystery of Christ in Art” for adult Christian Education groups and has guest lectured at several colleges. She is currently involved in public art projects in her home city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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