This spring I guest-wrote and narrated an episode of the Makers & Mystics podcast on the life, art, and spirituality of Vincent van Gogh.
The son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, Vincent was a lifelong seeker after God who sought through his work to convey the pervasion of the Divine in the everyday. Before he was an artist, he was a missionary to a destitute coal-mining village in Belgium. His ministry was so incarnational—he lived just like those he served—that the sending agency deemed him too undignified to be a minister of the gospel and cut off his support. Hurt by its hypocrisy, Vincent left the institutional church, but he never abandoned his faith. That faith did evolve, however. His so-called evangelical period gave way to a period of artistic discovery, which enabled him to revel even more deeply in the mystery of God and the ethics of Jesus—which he wrote about frequently in letters to his brother Theo.
Despite personal suffering and an acute awareness of the suffering of others, Vincent was very attuned to the beauty of this world and lived a life of wide embrace. He saw the image of God in people and in nature and honored that image through his paintings, of sunflowers, cypresses, olive groves, wheat fields, farmers and mothers and postmen, soldiers, doctors, café owners, and his own self. When he was institutionalized, he continued to paint, so long as his health allowed it, and some of his finest work comes from this period at Saint-Rémy, including The Starry Night. (“When all sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars,” Vincent wrote.) While some interpret the agitated brushstrokes of his later paintings as evidence of internal turmoil and instability, might they not instead express his view of the universe as vibrant, wild, pulsating with life and energy? It is a myth, after all, that Vincent painted in fevered states.
As I was doing research for the podcast episode, I encountered many poets who have responded in verse to specific paintings of Vincent’s, or more generally to Vincent’s oeuvre, vocation, and legacy. I’ve selected three such poems from the latter category, each of which serves as a wonderful introduction to the man and his work—a distillation of his essence, even. I’m struck by how all three poets use religious language to describe Vincent’s paintings: hymns, psalms, prayers.
I’ve compiled the images referred to in the poems, plus a few other representative ones, in the tiled gallery below. To enlarge a photo and to view more info, click on its caption, visible by hovering your cursor over the bottom.
“Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe,” January 1889. Oil on canvas, 51 × 45 cm. Private collection, Chicago.
“Dear Lover of Light” by Abigail Carroll
Dear Lover of Light,
There lived a priest
so in love with light
it drove him mad.
Paint was his thing.
When he could no longer
preach, he hopped a train
south, took up a brush,
turned zinc and lead
into gaudy, wild-
of the dawn. He slapped
stars as big as brooches
on the sky, danced
crows across bowing fields
of wheat, exalted a bowl
of onions, a bridge, a pipe,
a chair, a bed. Postmen
were his friends—
so too were irises,
if you think of a painting
as a kind of song, he too
canticled the sun.
A Vincent enthusiast
This poem appears in A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim (Eerdmans, 2017) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
“Dear Lover of Light” is from a collection of verse-style letters addressed to Saint Francis of Assisi, a thirteenth-century friar who was in love with Christ and with creation—he called animals, the natural elements, and celestial bodies “brothers” and “sisters,” as in his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” and is said to have preached to birds and tamed a wolf.
Abigail Carroll sees Francis as a kindred spirit to Vincent, who, she says, also “canticled the sun.” Vincent’s paintings are like songs of praise. Instead of words he used color—and yellow was his favorite (yellow ocher, cadmium yellow, zinc yellow, chrome yellow), representing for him life, energy, happiness, hope, and friendship.
“When he could no longer / preach” refers to Vincent’s being let go from his village preaching post by a religious board that deemed him too ineloquent and too radical. He moved to The Hague, where he befriended a pregnant sex worker named Sien and her daughter Maria, giving them shelter in his apartment and supporting them as best he could with his own meager funds. From there he went to Nuenen, where his compassion for the working poor manifested in the many earth-toned paintings of this period, including his first major work, The Potato Eaters, showing a family gathered around the dinner table, enjoying the fruit of their labors. After two years in Paris, Vincent needed a respite from the city noise, which led him to Arles in southern France, where he really started finding himself as an artist. He was enraptured by the way sunlight flooded the Provençal landscapes, making them radiant.
Carroll’s poetic descriptions of Vincent’s paintings—dancing crows, jewel-like stars, bowing wheat—capture his sense of all of creation being alive unto God, infused with the sacred. Vincent found great joy in observing what flowered around him, from the irises that grew outside the asylum where he committed himself to the almond tree he painted as a gift for his newborn nephew Vincent, whom his brother named after him. And Vincent saw sacred beauty not only in the natural world but also in everyday articles and objects, be they a pair of well-worn boots in the mudroom or the empty chair of his friend Paul Gauguin.
“What Happened When He Looked” by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
His miners are made of earth, his sowers so close
to the colors of the fields, only the broad hat, the sack,
the outflung arm keeps them from fading into wheat.
But sometimes, he found, the earth itself turns
to water. Mountains tumble like rapids, waves
curling, blue, roiling and leaping like
the Psalmist’s mountains clapping their hands.
And water turns to air. As life turns to breath.
The sky grows heavy with sun and draws
everything into its fierce embrace, urging
matter upward and homeward to where
the energies of earth begin.
And then there is fire. When they are alive enough
(or we), bushes burn. If you see it, you go
reeling home along a roadway you suddenly know
is temporary and might evaporate or begin
to pinwheel around a star, taking you with it
beyond deeper and deeper blue, into yellow that melts
to a core of thick, transparent white where love
burns day and night to fuel the fallen seed.
This poem appears in The Color of Light: Poems on Van Gogh’s Late Paintings (Eerdmans, 2007) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
This poem is structured around the four classical elements, understood as the material basis of the physical world: earth, water, air, and fire. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre notes how in Vincent’s paintings, these elements take on characteristics of one another: for example, in Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape, the hills surge and flow like water, and in The Sower of 1888, the air burns like fire.
In this latter painting, Vincent said he wished to use the yellow sun as a symbol of Christ’s presence, a sort of halo that covers everything it touches. (See also Letter 673: “I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations.”) The Sower shows the union between the temporal and eternal, two interpenetrating realms. “The sky . . . draws / everything into its deep embrace, urging / matter upward and homeward,” McEntyre writes.
Vincent saw, in the famous words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God.” A reference, of course, to the burning bush in Exodus 3:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (emphasis mine)
McEntyre titled this poem “What Happened When He Looked”—that is, what happened when Vincent, like Moses, looked with intent on the miraculous sights that go unnoticed by so many. What happened is, like Moses, he heard God speak. What happened is he experienced a mystical union with that “something on High—inconceivable, ‘awfully unnameable’— . . . which is higher than Nature.” Vincent’s artmaking was a reverent act of beholding and of bearing witness to that something.
The final line of McEntyre’s poem refers to Jesus’s parable of the fallen seed, which once it dies, springs forth life—a picture of the promise of resurrection. The sun, or white-hot love of God in Christ, is generative, the energy that raises us out of the dark and fuels our growth and flourishing. Vincent’s paintings radiate that love.
During his time as an assistant preacher under the Rev. Thomas Slade-Jones in Isleworth, England, in summer 1876, Vincent wrote to Theo,
I am still far from being what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed. I want to be bound to Christ with unbreakable bonds and to feel these bonds. To be sorrowful yet alway rejoicing. To live in and for Christ, to be one of the poor in His kingdom, steeped in the leaven, filled with His spirit, impelled by His Love, reposing in the Father [. . .]. To become one who finds repose in Him alone, who desires nothing but Him on earth, and who abides in the Love of God and Christ, in whom we are fervently bound to one another.
Though Vincent would later renounce orthodox Christianity, he retained his love for Christ and his sense of awe in the face of the Infinite active in the here and now.
“Van Gogh” by Jeanne Murray Walker
All right, I love him for the way
he painted Vermilion! Orange! jagged as
shouts, and when no one bought them,
no one even heard him,
he shouted louder,
and years later, not one sold,
he cut off his own ear.
Then he had to bring it back on canvas
hundreds of times,
in the brass swelling
of the bell
that called him to dinner,
in the complicated iris
at the end of the asylum path.
Think how stooping
at a fork in the road
he might have seen a stone-shaped ear,
how the human heart,
once it knows what it needs,
will find it everywhere, how
in the curve of his delicately padded cell
one starry night, he must have murmured
everything he had ever wanted to say
straight into the ear of God.
This poem appears in A Deed to the Light (University of Illinois Press, 2004) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
If McEntyre’s poem is about looking and provoking others to look, Jeanne Murray Walker’s is about wanting to be heard, and takes the ear as its central image. Vincent is, of course, notorious for the psychotic episode that culminated in him cutting off his left ear. (His self-portraits show the bandages on his right ear because he painted them by looking in a mirror.) Walker imagines him thereafter seeing ear-shapes everywhere in nature—delicate curves and hollows—manifestations of his longing to be listened to.
Vincent’s paintings are prayers, Walker suggests, that went straight into the ear of the One who hears, who holds all our joys and sadness in love. Others didn’t hear Vincent, but God did.
I will mention that it is a myth that Vincent never sold a painting during his lifetime. True, he sold few—his most significant sale was The Red Vineyard, purchased in January 1890 by Anna Boch while Vincent was convalescing at a psychiatric hospital—“but still,” writes Rainer Metzger in Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, “the fact should not be overemphasized; after all, Vincent was so willing to give his paintings as presents that many would-be purchasers never needed to part with a penny” (566). And he sometimes made in-kind trades with his paintings.
It’s also false that Vincent died without ever having received recognition for his work. Actually, he was a rising star in the art world. The avant-garde circles in France and Belgium recognized his talent before his death. He was exhibited a few times and received a gushing review in January 1890. Several fellow artists spoke favorably of his work, and of course his brother Theo, an art dealer, was a tireless champion, even supporting him financially for years so that he could paint. It wasn’t easy getting established, and yes, there were many people along the way who didn’t see the value of what he was doing, but Vincent kept at it. He was still in his early career when he died on July 29, 1890, at age thirty-seven. After his death the audience for his work, and thus appreciation for it, grew exponentially, thanks in large part to his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who edited, translated, and published all 652 letters from Vincent that she had in her possession, lent his paintings to various exhibitions, and promoted his work in other ways.
But on a personal level, Vincent was often overlooked, known as something of an eccentric, a crazy person, for which he was often teased and tormented. In fact, one theory about his death, originating in the 1950s but popularized by the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their 2011 book Van Gogh: The Life, is that he was shot by teenage bullies. (The Van Gogh Museum rejects this theory, declaring his death a definitive suicide.)
Vincent battled mental illness: during his lifetime he was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy that causes seizures, hallucinations, and manic depression. While he made friends in each city he lived in, his illness tended to cause rifts, sometimes permanent ones. On occasion he wrote to Theo how lonely he was.
So even when Vincent was starting to attain professional recognition for his art toward the end of his life, he still felt at times unwanted and misunderstood. “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” He wrote this line in June 1880, but it’s a sentiment that would resurface in his letters over the next ten years—the idea that people aren’t interested in the gifts he has to offer, be they relational or artistic.
Walker’s poem captures that mixture of confidence and doubt, self-assuredness and vulnerability, hardness and softness, and above all the dogged persistence that characterized Vincent. He “shouted” his soul onto canvas and into a world that in many quarters was plugging its ears. And he “murmured” it to the heavens, where it was received openly, caringly.
To learn more about Vincent van Gogh, here are some recommended resources:
- The aforementioned “Vincent van Gogh” podcast episode (Makers & Mystics Artist Profile Series no. 28) breaks down Vincent’s art and faith in under twenty minutes.
- The world’s largest collection of van Gogh’s work is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The museum has an excellent website, which includes high-resolution photos of 200+ paintings and 500+ drawings, plus interactive “Stories” on such topics as “Nature and the Artist,” “Inspiration from Japan,” and “Brotherly Love: Vincent and Theo,” in which you click through bit by bit to view art, archival photos, and quotes connected together with short narration—very engaging! (Kudos to whomever designed the interface.) You can even take a seven-video virtual tour of the museum in 4K, seeing how all the galleries are laid out.
- The freely accessible website Vincent van Gogh: The Letters contains scans, transcriptions, and translations of all van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, his artist friends Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, and many others. They are heavily footnoted and include sketches and other enclosures, and the website enables universal searches! I can’t afford the official six-volume, complete illustrated and annotated print edition from Thames & Hudson, but I do own a Penguin Classics edition, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, a generous selection introduced and editorialized by Ronald de Leeuw and translated by Arnold Pomerans, which is mostly what I quote from in this article. An abridged book like this one might be a good place to start if you’re not able or willing to invest a ton of time poring over the full correspondence, some of which is dull or rambling.
- Van Gogh’s paintings have been victim to some truly poor-quality reproductions circulating online. The full-color Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings (Taschen, 2012) was indispensable to me as I researched the artist, as it documents his full catalog of paintings (note: not drawings) with high-resolution photos that capture as accurately as possible the works’ colorative and textural richness. These are arranged by period and contextualized with essays.
- The award-winning HENI Talks produced a seven-minute video titled “Van Gogh’s Olive Trees,” which is gorgeously shot and covers more than just the titular subject.
- Movies? I really enjoyed the 1956 biopic Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas—the characterization seems to me spot-on, and overall it does a great job with historical accuracy—and the oil-painted animated feature Loving Vincent from 2017 [previously]. I was not too keen on the recent At Eternity’s Gate starring Willem Dafoe.
There are many spiritual biographies on Vincent van Gogh, or books about the religious impulse behind his art:
At Eternity’s Gate, published by Eerdmans in 1998, was the first of its kind and is still probably my favorite; the author has advance degrees in both religion and art history and does an excellent job arguing that Vincent’s spiritual life was essential to the unfolding of his artistic vision. Carol Berry’s Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh, though, would probably be my top recommendation to those who just want to dip their toes in and engage Vincent’s story in a less academic, more personal, way, as Berry, an art educator with a background in Christian ministry, interweaves the lives of Vincent and Henri with personal memoir—an excellent gift book.