Undergrowth with Two Figures is the only van Gogh painting I have seen in real life. Several times my wife and I have sought it out on visits to the Cincinnati Art Museum. It is not one of van Gogh’s well-known paintings. The work was completed during his almost manic period of productivity from May to July 1890 when Vincent turned out nearly one hundred paintings and drawings in the last seventy days of his life. Undergrowth with Two Figures is an island of peace in sea of turmoil. Van Gogh biographer Philip Callow describes the painting:
“. . . a woodland scene of absolute serenity . . . Nothing is rushed anywhere, the pressure of time has been abolished, and we float down before the peaceful upright lines of young trees. . . . Colors are quiet soft harmonies of white, yellow, speckled green, and lilac. Among these tree and sapling figures move a man and a woman, perhaps lovers walking close together over the soft ground of yellow and white flowers into dense undergrowth. A succession of downward stroked verticals, falling simply like strokes of filtered rain, has brought this magical rendering of a lost domain to pass. Adam and Eve walk again in the cool of the evening.”
It was almost as though Vincent was trying to paint a life he knew he could never have.
VAN GOGH’S LIFE WAS A COMPLETE FAILURE, by any worldly measure of success. His father was a small town pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. At age sixteen Vincent began an apprenticeship with an art dealership that an uncle established in Paris. After seven difficult years he resigned in frustration (he expected to be fired anyway) at what he considered the commercialized betrayal of art. He worked as an assistant teacher for awhile near London, but shortly returned to Holland.
Always devoted to the Church, the Bible, and the example of Jesus Christ, Vincent next turned to the ministry. He began theological training, but found it both difficult and irrelevant and quit after a few months. He attended a three month course for lay preachers, but after his final examination the examiners found him unsuitable for the ministry. On his own, he moved to a poor coal-mining region of Belgium to serve the miners and their families. He eventually obtained an official commission from his mission school, but loses this after three months due to his supposed poor preaching skills, despite his undeniable and even extreme devotion and service to the coal-miners.
Vincent lost in love as he lost in vocation. At age twenty, he fell in love with Eugenia Loyer, the daughter of his landlord in London. She rejected him as passionately as he declared his love for her. Eight years later, he proposed to his widowed cousin—a young mother—and again was firmly rejected. The following winter, while studying art in The Hague, he met and moved in with an alcoholic prostitute, Sien Hoornik, who already had one child and was pregnant with her second. Vincent’s attachment to her was probably born of equal parts Christ-like devotion to save her from her plight, and his deep-seated longing for a happy domestic life—an ideal that was deeply rooted in van Gogh’s psyche. Callow writes, “He saw her as a person injured by life, as he was injured.” Vincent wrote, “Nobody cared for her or wanted her, she was alone and forsaken like a worthless rag.” He was speaking as much about himself as he was about her. Only with difficulty did his family dissuade him from marrying Sien. Not surprisingly, this relationship ended badly also.
As a working artist, Vincent was an utter financial failure. He was always dependent on the allowances regularly sent to him by his brother, Theo, who was an art dealer with the same firm Vincent had left. During Vincent’s lifetime he sold a few drawings and exactly one painting. In 1890 he sold The Red Vineyard, for 400 francs. The Red Vineyard had been painted during Vincent’s sojourn in Arles, France from 1888 to 1889. It was here that he painted some of his best-loved paintings, including Cafe Terrace on the Place Du Forum, The Night Cafe, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and Fishing Boats on the Beach of Saintes-Maries.
But Arles would also be where Vincent would begin to finally lose his life-long struggle with mental and emotional stability. It was here where he cut off a piece of his ear-lobe and immortalized his own self-mutilation in Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe. In the hospital at Arles, he recovered from his wound, and regained some of his mental stability. But it would not last. Not long after, he admitted himself to the mental hospital at St. Remy, about twenty miles from Arles. He was not restricted to the hospital, and at St. Remy he continued to work prodigiously, producing dozens of paintings, including his most famous, Starry Night. After several weeks and two relapses, Vincent left the hospital in May 1890 to live in Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris where his brother Theo lived with his wife Johanna. He continued to pour himself into his painting, producing new works daily. In June, he completes Portrait of Doctor Gachet, which will sell exactly one century later for 82 million dollars, the most expensive Van Gogh painting ever sold. That same month he paints Undergrowth with Two Figures. In July he paints over two dozen works, including what is often thought to be his last painting, Wheatfield with Crows. Of this work, Vincent writes, “I did not need to go out of my way to express cheerlessness and extreme loneliness in it”, but also that the painting expressed, “the health and forces of renewal that I see in the countryside.” His words as well as his painting convey the troubled melancholy he could never shake and his quenchless passion to know and express joy. On July 27th, Vincent went for a walk in the fields outside Auvers and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He died two days later.
Next week: Part 2 – Redemption