Van Gogh’s story is shot through with complexity, and I do not intend to over simplify it, but one compelling question must be asked. How did a man who was in his youth so earnest for the Word of God, for the gospel, for Christ, for devoting his life to serving God–how did he come to such a miserable end?
“Theo, woe is me…” On my flight home last night I became engrossed in Dear Theo, the unvarnished letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his attentive younger brother Theo. Penned by a desperate man, writing to a brother whom he deeply loved and implicitly trusted, Van Gogh exposed every tattered thread of his tormented soul. It is many things, but one is a chilling psychological study of the artistic temperament and culture, which compelled Vincent to caution his brother, “you must beware of getting your young family too much into the artistic setting.”
What sobered me the most while reading was the gaping contrast between the desires and aspiration of Van Gogh in his early twenties and what he became at the end of his short life (he died at thirty-seven). Growing up in a Dutch Reformed family in the Netherlands, surrounded by the Bible and the gospel, his father a pastor, Vincent wrote, “…it is a delightful thought that in the future wherever I shall be, I shall preach the Gospel; to do that well, one must have the Gospel in one’s heart; may the Lord give it to me.” His appeared to be a single-minded vision for his life’s work. “Theo, woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel; if I did not aim at that and possess faith and hope in Christ, it would be bad for me indeed.”
By all his earlier accounts of his father and family, the Van Gogh household was no nominal Christian home; there is no sense whatsoever that his father led them in merely perfunctory expressions of religion. While in England, he wrote of his parents, “…so strong is the family feeling and our love for each other that the heart uplifts itself and the eye turns to God and prays: ‘Do not let me stray too far from them, not too far, O Lord.’” What parents would not want their son or daughter to feel this way about the home and family?
Vincent’s passion for his family concurred with his passion for the Bible. “You do not know how I yearn towards the Bible. I read it daily, but I should like to know it by heart, to study thoroughly and lovingly all those old stories, and especially to find out what is known about Christ.” This seemed to be a young man who not only read his Bible, but read it christologically, eagerly searching to find the Lord Jesus in its pages.
I read on. Long and minutely detailed letters, covering months, several years. And then something began to change. My gut lurched (not simply from the turbulence as we bounced over the Rockies toward Seattle). Whole letters contained an obsessive fixation on his painting and on being successful as an artist. Repeatedly throughout the autobiographical account those letters form, Vincent begins to reveal a systemic shift in his values, his priorities, his passions, his aspirations.
In one sense, Van Gogh’s letters form a chronicle of poverty; he was in perpetual need of fiscal bailouts from his family, and the dependence frustrated him. “I hate not to be quite free.” Meanwhile, his attitudes toward his parents, especially his father, incrementally shifted. “Father is not a man for whom I can feel, for instance, what I feel for you. He cannot sympathize with or understand me.” Vincent felt his father owed him the money he needed to survive as an artist, but he resented his father’s Christian beliefs. “I cannot be reconciled to his system, it oppresses me, it would choke me.”
The most tragic change I observed in the letters, however, was Vincent’s attitude toward the Word of God. “I too read the Bible now and then, but in the Bible I see quite different things from those father sees, and what father draws from it… I cannot find in it at all.” He goes on to explain his new way of reading the Bible. “When I read– and really I do not read so much–only a few [biblical] authors, I do so because they look at things in a broader, milder, and more lovable way than I do, and because they know life better, so that I can learn from them; but all that rubbish about good and evil, morality and immorality, I care so very little for it. For, indeed, it is impossible always to know what is good and what is bad, what is moral and what is immoral.”
What a dramatic shift! From yearning for the Bible, getting its truths down in his heart, knowing Christ revealed in its pages, Vincent was honest enough to admit that he now rarely read the Bible, and only very selectively, dismissing much of it as “rubbish.” In one sense, Van Gogh was a man ahead of his time; his moral relativism was well formed long before post rationalism.
Throughout the rest of the letters, perpetually destitute Van Gogh is obsessed with perfecting his craft, and with making money from his artwork. “I am a devil for work… I consider myself decidedly below the peasants… Very difficult, very difficult.” In an artistic frenzy, Van Gogh created over 900 paintings and 2,000 drawings.
Soberly, I read on. Theo’s heart must have broken as he watched his beloved brother slip further below the line of despair into insanity. Van Gogh described his increasing fits of madness, the “abominable nightmares,” the frequent “terrible fits of depression” that came over him, his regrets, his “self-reproach about things in the past,” his grinding unhappiness, his toying with the idea of giving up painting, “which costs me so much and brings in nothing.” But he is forced to conclude, “at my age it is damnably difficult to begin anything else.”
By this stage in his art, Van Gogh’s subject matter had altogether changed. “Of course, there is no question of doing anything from the Bible.” Though he feared his own derangement would land him in the old cloister in Arles where lunatics were housed, he was, nevertheless, drawn to painting the inmates at the asylum. Plunged more deeply into despair after a violent argument with fellow painter Paul Gauguin (scholars disagree about how it happened), Van Gogh resorted to self-mutilation; he took a straight razor and sliced off his own ear, sending it to a prostitute at the local brothel. Whereupon, he found himself for a time confined in the asylum.
In between bouts of derangement that became more protracted, he wrote, “my life too is threatened at the very root, and my steps too are wavering.” The man who would be heralded as the greatest post-impressionist painter–now impoverished, lonely, his skill as yet undiscovered and unappreciated–two days before he died July 29, 1890, in his last letter to Theo Van Gogh wrote, “What’s the use?”
Van Gogh’s story is shot through with complexity, and I do not intend to over simplify it, but one compelling question must be asked. How did a man who was in his youth so earnest for the Word of God, for the gospel, for Christ, for devoting his life to serving God–how did he come to such a miserable end? Perhaps Van Gogh himself told us: “Theo, woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel; if I did not aim at that and possess faith and hope in Christ, it would be bad for me indeed.”
And so it will be for you. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (I John 5:21).
Douglas Bond is author of twenty-eight books, conference speaker, church history tour leader, Oxford Creative Writing Master Class tutor. This article is used with permission.