(1853–90). One of the four great Postimpressionists (along with Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne), Vincent van Gogh is generally considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt. His reputation is based largely on the works of the last three years of his short ten-year painting career, and he had a powerful influence on expressionism in modern art. He produced more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings, but he sold only one during his lifetime. His striking colors, coarse brushwork, and contoured forms display the anguish of the mental illness that drove him to suicide.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert in the Brabant region of The Netherlands. He was the eldest son of a Protestant clergyman. At the age of 16 Van Gogh was apprenticed to art dealers in The Hague, and he worked for them there and in London and Paris until 1876.
Van Gogh disliked art dealing, and, rejected in love, he became increasingly solitary. He began to prepare for the ministry, but he failed the entrance examinations for seminary and became a lay preacher. In 1878 he went to the impoverished Borinage district in southwestern Belgium to do missionary work. He was dismissed in 1880 over a disagreement with his superiors. Penniless and with his faith broken, he sank into despair and began to draw. He soon realized the limitations of being self-taught and went to Brussels to study drawing. In 1881 he moved to The Hague to work with the Dutch landscape painter Anton Mauve, and the next summer Van Gogh began to experiment with oil paints. His urge to be “alone with nature” took him to Dutch villages, and his subjects—still life, landscape, and figure—all related to the peasants’ daily hardships and surroundings. In 1885 he produced his first masterpiece, ‘The Potato Eaters’.
Feeling too isolated, he left for Antwerp, Belgium, and enrolled in the academy there. He did not respond well to the school’s rigid discipline, but while in Antwerp he was inspired by the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens and discovered Japanese prints. He was soon off to Paris, where he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin and discovered the impressionists Camille Pissarro, Seurat, and others. Van Gogh’s two years in Paris shaped his personal style of painting—more colorful, less traditional, with lighter tonalities and distinctive brushwork.
Tired of city life, Van Gogh left Paris in 1888 for Arles in the south of France. He rented and decorated a yellow house in which he hoped to found a community of “impressionists of the South.” Gauguin joined him in October, but their relations deteriorated, and in a quarrel on Christmas Eve Van Gogh cut off part of his own left ear. Gauguin left, and Van Gogh was hospitalized. Exhibiting repeated signs of mental disturbance, Van Gogh asked to be sent to an asylum at St-Rémy-de-Province. After a year of confinement he moved to the home of a physician-artist in Auvers-sur-Oise for two months. On July 27, 1890, Van Gogh shot himself; he died two days later.
Despite his deteriorating mental condition, Van Gogh’s time at Arles, in the asylum, and at Auvers proved to be his greatest productive periods. At Arles he painted with great energy the sun-drenched fields and flowers; at St-Rémy the colors of his paintings were more muted, but the lines were bolder and the whole more visionary; in the northern light of Auvers he adopted pale, fresh tonalities, a broader and more expressive brushwork, and a lyrical vision of nature. The sale of Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ in 1987 brought the highest price ever paid for a work of art up to that time—53.9 million dollars.
Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation
No wish conceived, no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication;
A sense o’er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, every where
Eternal strength and Wisdom are.
But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorned, those only strong!
Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still!
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed.
Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!
And shame and terror over all!
Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which all confused I could not know
Whether I suffered, or I did:
For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,
My own or others still the same
Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.
So two nights passed: the night’s dismay
Saddened and stunned the coming day.
Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me
Distemper’s worst calamity.
The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from the fiendish dream,
O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,
I wept as I had been a child;
And having thus by tears subdued
My anguish to a milder mood,
Such punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stained with sin,
For aye entempesting anew
The unfathomable hell within,
The horror of their deeds to view,
To know and loathe, yet wish and do!
Such griefs with such men well agree,
But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?
To be loved is all I need,
And whom I love, I love indeed.
I asked the earth and it answered, “I am not He”; and all things that are in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they answered, “We are not your God; seek higher.” I asked the winds that blow, and the whole air with all that is in it answered, “Anaximenes was wrong; I am not God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, and they answered, “Neither are we God whom you seek.” And I said to all the things that throng about the gateways of the senses: “Tell me of my God, since you are not He. Tell me something of Him.” And they cried out in a great voice: “He made us.” My question was my gazing upon them, and their answer was their beauty.
All Things Made New
Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.” 6 And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. 7 He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. 8 But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Vincent wanted to be a preacher. On a pretty Sunday in 1876, he preached his first sermon. It went well enough, but his eyes only began to sparkle as he described God’s beauty in the world. He said
I once saw a very beautiful picture: it was a landscape at evening. In the distance on the right-hand side a row of hills appeared blue in the evening mist. Above those hills the splendor of the sunset, the grey clouds with their linings of silver and gold and purple. The landscape is a plain or heath covered with grass and its yellow leaves, for it was in autumn. Through the landscape a road leads to a high mountain far, far away, on the top of that mountain is a city wherein the setting sun casts a glory. On the road walks a pilgrim, staff in hand.
Not much came of Vincent van Gogh’s hopes for ordination. He pursued theological studies in Amsterdam in 1877 unsuccessfully before moving to Belgium to begin a ministry without it. By the end of 1879 he had become convinced that he was a failure and decided to take a break to figure it out. He thought painting would help him relax until God’s will for his life became clear.
The Creator delights in creation, especially when it occurs in its pinnacle – that which he made in His image.
As Ken Kovacs wrote in his book Out of the Depths:
God loves to take what is old or worn or broken or useless or tired and transform it. God loves to take into Godself all the hate, all the sin, all the excruciating pain and mind-numbing, heart-freezing sorrow of human existence and then do something marvelous and wonderful with it, offering something new in its place. God loves to take all of our tears and our hurts and our regrets, our shame and our guilt and then do something extraordinary with them, transforming them. God takes on every death force in ourselves, in our families and relationships, our communities, nations, and world and decisively redeems and restores. That’s the goal, that’s the purpose, that’s what God is doing now and that’s the direction of God’s time. It’s the promise of the Christian experience.
I invite you to meditate on 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new,” this week and claim this vision for yourself; ask yourself:
What does this verse mean in this season of your life?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.
You can read all the biographies you want about him, but through it all van Gogh will still not have revealed himself to you. For van Gogh to reveal himself to you, you need to look at his paintings. As the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras writes: “We know the person of van Gogh, what is unique, distinct and unrepeatable in his existence, only when we see his paintings. There we meet a reason (logos) which is his only and we separate him from every other painter. When we have seen enough pictures by van Gogh and then encounter one more, then we say right away: This is van Gogh. We distinguish immediately the otherness of his personal reason, the uniqueness of his creative expression.”
The difference between the arts and the sciences now becomes clear. When I see a painting by van Gogh, I know immediately that it is his. But when I come across a mathematical theorem or scientific insight, I cannot decide who was responsible for it unless I am told. The world is God’s creation, and scientists in understanding the world are simply retracing God’s thoughts. Scientists are not creators but discoverers. True, they may formulate concepts that assist them in describing the world. But even such concepts do not bear the clear imprint of their formulators. Concepts like energy, inertia, and entropy give no clue about who formulated them. Hermann Weyl and John von Neumann were both equally qualified to formulate quantum mechanics in terms of Hilbert spaces. That von Neumann, and not Weyl, made the formulation is now an accident of history. There’s nothing in the formulation that explicitly identifies von Neumann. Contrast this with a painting by van Gogh. It cannot be confused with a Monet.
The impulse to create and thereby give oneself in self-revelation need not be grand, but can be quite humble. A homemaker arranging a floral decoration engages in a creative act. The important thing about the act of creation is that it reveal the creator. The act of creation always bears the signature of the creator. It is a sad legacy of modern technology, and especially the production line, that most of the objects we buy no longer reveal their maker. Mass production is inimical to true creation. Yes, the objects we buy carry brand names, but in fact they are largely anonymous. We can tell very little about their maker. Compare this with God’s creation of the world. Not one tree is identical with another. Not one face matches another. Indeed, a single hair on your head is unique-there was never one exactly like it, nor will there ever be another to match it.
The creation of the world by God is the most magnificent of all acts of creation. It, along with humanity’s redemption through Jesus Christ, are the two key instances of God’s self-revelation. The revelation of God in creation is typically called general revelation whereas the revelation of God in redemption is typically called special revelation. Consequently, theologians sometimes speak of two books, the Book of Nature, which is God’s self-revelation in creation, and the Book of Scripture, which is God’s self-revelation in redemption. If you want to know who God is, you need to know God through both creation and redemption. According to Scripture, the angels praise God chiefly for two things: God’s creation of the world and God’s redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. Let us follow the angels’ example.