I’ve been reading Van Gogh: The Life this month. My first immersion in the art of Vincent Van Gogh was in college, viewing the exhibit “Van Gogh & Gauguin: The Studio in the South” at the Art Institute in Chicago. It was one of the most incredible installations I’ve ever seen, with rooms of Vincent’s work from the short months that he spent in Arles with Paul Gauguin plus notable works from other periods of his life like my favorite, Starry Night. (Which, incidentally, exceeded my high expectations when I saw it in person–it’s famous for a reason.) The exhibit mentioned what everyone knows, that Vincent was brilliant but troubled and that his manic style of working often led him to extremes. He was literally a starving artist, foregoing food for the sake of buying enough supplies to create his layers upon sculptural layers of paint. Of course, the exhibit mentioned his depression, his hospitalization, the famous ear self-amputation, and the sad conclusion of his life and career.
What I didn’t know, and what I’m learning, is the particular shape of Vincent’s demons. Knowing even what I did, I knew nothing of the man. Vincent was the eldest son of a parson, with a mother who strove to be conventional in all things. His siblings were well-behaved and chose lives of profit–in particular his younger brother Theo. From childhood, he was never conventional or well-behaved; he never did what was expected or hoped for him. And, in thwarting his family’s hopes and expectations, he lacked the charisma and humor to create a diversion. From his adolescence until his death, he suffered rejection by family and peers. He didn’t fit in anywhere.
This lack of belonging is rendered even more tragic by the fact that above all else, Vincent longed for his home and family. The Christmas holidays, celebrated fully every year at the parson Van Gogh’s house, often meant that Vincent could return from exile and try, once again, to make his parents love him and to win the respect and admiration of his younger brothers and sisters. The book describes how Vincent would begin writing home in anticipation of Christmas months ahead of time. He was once fired from a job for going home without permission at Christmas. He often made drawings as holiday gifts for his family–pictures of home and the surrounding places that he cherished in his memory.
We know, of course, that the magic of Christmas is no cure for a family locked at odds with one another. And so Vincent was, at all times, too unique to find lasting comfort or peace at the parsonage. There was literally nothing he was capable of doing to earn their regard. His crime, repeated over and over, was the failure to blend in or to stand out for his brilliant accomplishments. Vincent was strange and it made him a stranger to all but himself. One can imagine his despair every Christmas at finding that the family he longed for would never be his.
Vincent’s parents never forgave him for being extraordinary in ways both marvelous and terrible. Even so, I’d like to hope that Vincent himself, wherever he is, can take some comfort in knowing that both his suffering and his skill formed his art into enduring objects of beauty, precious beyond what he must ever have imagined. We are, all of us, strangers and pilgrims, and it was his gift to remind us.