the contextual life

thoughts without borders

lusting for the life of van gogh

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a moving account of vincent van gogh’s tortured life 

for many, the mention of vincent van gogh brings to mind images of a swirling evening sky, sunflowers with textured orange and yellow petals, and slightly distorted self-portraits, perhaps one with a white bandage wrapped around the painter’s head, covering the place where an ear should be. what also comes to mind is the image of an artist unhinged.

one of the most recognizable artists in history, van gogh, the dutch post-impressionist painter born in 1853, is both pictorially ubiquitous and personally enigmatic. lust for life, the 1934 biographical novel written by irving stone, cuts through the mythology, fleshes out the details, and creates a sympathetic character.

not well-known about van gogh is his circuitous route to painting and the real growing pains endured while getting there. van gogh was something of a late bloomer; his childhood was not marked by years of art instruction. however, he was born into a family of prominent art dealers with shops in many european cities and in his early 20s he worked in their london gallery selling commercial works to wealthy clientele. he was good at it and advanced quickly. that was until he was rejected by his landlord’s daughter. emotionally derailed and obsessively persistent, he alienated those around him and, after some major professional missteps, lost his job. the irreparable damage was done and van gogh had little choice but to leave the city.

without salary or direction, vincent moved to his uncle’s house in amsterdam where he set out to study his family’s other profession: theology. vincent’s father was a protestant pastor and he himself was not without religious conviction. although failing miserably at latin and greek and unable to deliver an elegant sermon, one pastor had confidence in his skills as a missionary and sent him to borinage, a poor mining town in southern belgium, where the disapproving church authorities gave him 6 months to convince them he deserved a permanent position.

the night cafe

in one of the more comical scenes, when the pastors showed up for their visit, they found that van gogh had not been satisfied purely with preaching. taking his work to heart, vincent had decided he should become part of the community, living as the miners did, which often meant going hungry and walking around filthy from coal ash—cue the parallels to christ. this gesture of genuine devotion had endeared him to the local population but clearly upset the pastors’ conventional sensibilities: they banned him from preaching, swiftly ending his religious aspirations.

once again without salary or direction, vincent went to live with his family in etten, an hour and a half south-west of amsterdam, but the relationship was strained. he was well-meaning and sincere but couldnt shake his status as the black sheep of an otherwise refined family.

although he sketched the mining families in borinage, it was during his time at home that vincent began to take his art seriously, spending full days in the fields sketching the landscape. it’s in this early period that he developed a unique style—unencumbered by formal training and outside influence—but, as was becoming the leitmotif of van gogh’s life, his stay was not without emotional turmoil ultimately leading to his having to pack up and leave the area. he’d fallen for his cousin, which seemed to have grossed out everyone but him.

next, he moved to the hague to study under the reluctant tutelage of his cousin-in-law, painter anton mauve. by then he was receiving a monthly allowance from his younger brother theo with whom he had a heartfelt relationship until the end of his life. the stipend covered rent, food, and supplies so he could devote all his energy to art. theo was a successful dealer in the family’s paris shop and, having close contact with the french impressionists, was one of the few who saw and encouraged vincent’s talent.

terrasse cafe

but alas, the hague proved too stuffy for vincent. the dealer in the city’s shop was traditional-minded, as was his uncle, and vincent’s work didn’t make sense to them. he’d also met a so-called fallen woman who was as close to a wife as he’d even know, which, once again, caused a stir within the provincial circles forever concerned with him by birthright. by the time he left the city, called away by his ailing father, his relationship with the woman had soured. vincent had found it difficult to support a family, which included her two bastard children, and his art on theo’s money.

van gogh was dutch but it’s also the french who have a legitimate claim to his legacy. when theo finally convinced his brother to come live with him in paris vincent was 33 years old. their time rooming together was far from a pleasant experience—vincent frequently picked fights with theo about art and woke him up in the middle of the night to look at the day’s canvases. vincent was frustrated by what he saw as his inability to absorb all the techniques he was witnessing at a dizzying pace. before then, he’d never worked in oil; neither had he heard of the impressionists: monet, degas, renoit, but soon his circle of friends included seurat, the painter made famous to generation x’ers by the museum scene in ferris bueller’s day off, as well as cezanne, gauguin, and henri rousseau.

It looked so easy. All he had to do was throw away the old palette, buy some light pigments, and paint as an Impressionist. At the end of the first day’s trial, Vincent was surprised and a bit nettled. At the end of the second day he was bewildered. Bewilderment was succeeded in turn by chagrin, anger, and fear. By the end of the week he was in a towering rage. After all his laborious months of experimentation with colour, he was still a novice. His canvases came out dark, dull, and sticky. . . .
. . . If it was a hard week for Vincent, it was a thousand times harder for Theo. Theo was a gentle soul, mild in his manners and delicate in his habits of life. . . .
The little apartment on the rue Laval was just large enough for Theo and his fragile Louis Philippes. By the end of the first week Vincent had turned the place into a junk shop. He paced up and down the living room, kicked furniture out of the way, threw canvases, brushes, and empty colour tubes all over the floor, adorned the divans and tables with his soiled clothing, broke dishes, plashed paint, and upset every last punctilious habit of Theo’s life.
. . . “It’s of no use,” he groaned. “I began too late. I’m too old to change. God, Theo, I’ve tried! I’ve started twenty canvases this week. But I’m set in my technique, and I can’t go back to Holland and paint sheep after what I’ve seen here. And I came too late to get in the main swing of my craft. God, what will I do?
but he didn’t come to painting too late, paris was a turning point for vincent. his knowledge of color and approach to painting flourished. the tight-knit group of artists were intensely devoted to their work but, with few exceptions, they were underappreciated, often broke, and mentally unstable. paris had been his most social period and he was beginning to feel run down. 

always a good judge of when to move on, van gogh left for arles, a small city in the southeast region of france. he went to the countryside to regain his strength and to spend some time alone, to process all he’d learned and find his own voice again. presciently, on one of his first days there he was warned by a parting journalist, “Arles is the most violently insane spot on the globe. . . . I’ve been watching these people for three months, and I tell you, they’re all cracked.”

self portrait

the hot sun of arles, not to mention the strong winds, had a tendency to drive the sanest person mad, but the bright light was great for vincent’s use of color—he’d never seen such vibrant yellows. some of his best, and most recognizable, paintings are from this period: the sunflowers, the bedroom, the cafe terrace. but in the end, vincent never stood a chance against the cursed city and soon developed nightmares, experienced bouts of insomnia, and began hearing voices.

by the time he’d convinced gauguin to come live with him he was unpredictable and easily irritated. gauguin was not feeling too amiable either. the two would have heated arguments about art. the excitement ultimately drove van gogh to his breaking point. one night he nearly went after gauguin with a knife but, always one for self-destruction rather than harming others, he opted for cutting off his own ear instead. unrequited love was not involved, unless you count the disapproval of a friend.

the incident, a bit too crazy for even the most tolerant arlesian, prompted a yearlong stay at a nearby sanatorium but episodes of mental breakdown continued and ultimately cost the painter his life.

when alive, vincent van gogh was no better than an untouchable but in death he is one of the most celebrated artists in modern history; and while this is true of many artists across all mediums, stone’s ability to cultivate empathy for van gogh makes his story especially heartbreaking.

a good book is remembered as enjoyable but an extraordinary one creates a desire to know more; and so, the last page of lust for life is not the end, it’s only the beginning.

::[further exploration]::
dear theo: the autobiography of vincent van gogh
van gogh’s paintings on view at the metropolitan museum of art

Written by Gabrielle

March 23, 2011 at 7:43 am

Posted in art, books, reviews

Tagged with , ,

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