WASHINGTON—Every day since early October, thousands file reverently past 72 paintings which hang in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The popularity of the exhibit Van Gogh's van Goghs, on view here through Jan. 3, is no surprise. Vincent van Gogh's mental suffering, his devotion to art, his anonymity in life, his suicide at age 37, and above all his brilliant painting have made him a cultural legend. But the exhibit also reveals the strength of van Gogh's Christian identity, an aspect of his art that has been ignored by commentators and curators alike.
Spirituality infuses his canvases — from his early work, sober and dark, done in his native Holland, to the final vision of black crows alighting over a sizzling yellow wheatfield. A religious aspect shines forth in the subjects he chooses to paint, in his recurring biblical references — even the very way he lays down color reflects this character to the open-minded viewer.
For all the attention to van Gogh's final years in the south of France — where he hacked off his left earlobe during a seizure, where he consigned himself to an asylum, where he painted sunflower, and olive groves and a starry night — some important early biographical data get lost.
Van Gogh was born in 1853 in Zundert, The Netherlands, the oldest son of a devout Protestant minister. In his 20s, van Gogh vacillated between a career in art and a religious vocation. At age 22, while working in Paris for international art dealers, he immersed himself in religion which led him, in 1876, back to Holland, resolved to follow his father into the ministry.
After a short period of training as an evangelical preacher, van Gogh began his first ministry in the mining region of southern Belgium. He was particularly fond of the people, identifying with their hard work and devotion to one another. When his appointment was not renewed, he returned to Holland to live with his parents; following his younger brother Theo's advice, he resolved to become an artist.
When van Gogh first began painting regularly, he emulated the French painter Jean-Francois Millet, best known for his scenes of harsh peasant life. It was a subject which resonated with van Gogh's experience among the miners. The masterpiece of this period, “The Potato Eaters” (1885) is included in the National Gallery exhibit.
“The Potato Eaters” shows a family of five gathered around a dinner table. Exhausted faces and painfully angular bodies are the visual proof of poverty and hard work. But caring and mutual concern also characterize the scene. It is a portrait of suffering and a portrait of the redemptive power of love; a small wall crucifixion in the painting's shadowy eaves subtly underscores this message. Though he chose art as a vocation, van Gogh cherished the values and beliefs of his ministry to the miners.
Two poles powerfully influenced Vincent van Gogh: the Bible and the modernist French aesthetic to which he was greatly attracted. To explore the French artistic scene directly, van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 where he lived with Theo.
“Self Portrait with Felt Hat” (winter 1887-1888) is the masterpiece of the Parisian period. A no-nonsense, neatly attired van Gogh stares the viewer straight in the eye. In terms of volume and space, this is a classic portrait of a red-bearded young man. But its brush-work and use of color is absolutely radical: energetic dashes of red and yellow and green compose the face. The suit is a staccato of blue and yellow marks. Around his head is a halo of color, concentric rings of contrasting pigments whose proximity sets off the notorious vibration and color-saturated intensity of van Gogh's late work.
Much has been made of van Gogh's genius as a colorist. Color, in fact, became almost an obsession. But his interest was not merely technical; van Gogh described color as being spiritually significant. In a letter to Theo, he explained that he intended to use vivid color as halos were used in Renaissance painting — as a divine sign.
For van Gogh, painting was never a mere technical or artistic challenge, but both perceived and represented the awesome power of creation. His art and his voluminous correspondence show a man motivated by two abiding Christian principles — love and truth. “May it not be that one can perceive a thing better and more accurately by loving it, than by not loving it?” he asked.
In the spring of 1888, van Gogh moved to the south of France, choosing the town of Arles as his base. He was captivated by the light and landscape of this exquisite Mediterranean region. Some of van Gogh's best known images came, from that year, including “The Harvest,” “The Night Cafe,” and “The Bedroom.” But that winter, van Gogh was struck by epileptic seizures marked by episodes of psychotic behavior. In one of these fits, he threatened fellow artist Paul Gauguin with the razor which he later used to slash his own ear.
Seven months later, van Gogh admitted himself into a mental hospital in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, where he stayed for about a year. Amidst sickness and anguish, van Gogh continued to paint; some of his greatest works were painted in the last eighteen months of his life.
Christian iconography emerges again in van Gogh's late painting, and death becomes a major theme. He painted a touching “Pieta” (1889), copying the composition from the French artist Eugene Delacroix but using his own brilliant palette of lemon yellow and ivy green for Christ's body; images of olive groves and stalks of wheat in other works resonate with the Bible.
He used nature to explore the theme of death and rebirth in paintings such as “Wheatfield with a Reaper” (1889), “Emperor Moth” (1889), and “Butterflies and Poppies” (1890). Of the figure of the reaper, van Gogh wrote: “I see in him the image of death, in the sense that humanity might be the wheat he is reaping … But there's nothing sad in this death, it goes its way in broad daylight with a sun flooding everywhere, with a light of pure gold.”
Van Gogh went north in May 1890, taking up residence in Auvers-Sur-Oise just outside Paris, to be closer to Theo and to visit a doctor who specialized in neurosis. His last works, “Landscape at Twilight” and “Wheatfield with Crows,” are turbulent images of darkness descending; the crows in flight are an image of death at hand. Yet the unity of earth and sky in color and brush-work, and the inner glow of both paintings, also represent a vision of transcendence, of a reality beyond this vale of tears. In July 1890, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest. He died two days later.
Van Gogh's van Goghs will travel from Washington to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will be on view from Jan. 17 through April 14, 1999.
Eleanor Kennelly and Victor Gaetan write from Washington, D.C.