“THE WORLD BREAKS EVERYONE AND AFTERWARD MANY ARE STRONG AT THE BROKEN PLACES,” Ernest Hemingway famously wrote in A Farewell to Arms. Van Gogh was not to be one of the many who were strong at the broken places (nor, for that matter, would Hemingway be). Vincent never adjusted to the world, and when the world, in its intractability, would not adjust to him, Vincent resolved, in his own fitful way, to end the relationship.
While Vincent lived with the world—it is hard to describe him as living in the world—he dealt not only with the typical developmental issues of moving from adolescence to adulthood, he likely also suffered from what would now be called bipolar disorder. However, even his periods of elation and creativity were tempered by the genuinely dismal existential circumstances that were often the backdrop of his life.
HE WAS SUSTAINED IN HIS STRUGGLE with the disjuncture between a world he envisioned and the one he experienced by an intuitive faith in God. Vincent looked to Christ not solely as a religious figure, but, as Rainer Metzger put it, “Jesus Christ was the personification par excellence of his own view of the world.” This view was life as the way of suffering, while ever seeking consolation and joy. In his first sermon in Isleworth, England, Vincent’s conclusion expresses this life motif in a verbal painting:
“I once saw a beautiful picture: it was a landscape, in the evening. Far in the distance, on the right, hills, blue in the evening mist. Above the hills, a glorious sunset, with the grey clouds edged with silver and gold and purple. The landscape is flatland or heath, covered with grass; the grass-stalks are yellow because it was autumn. A road crosses the landscape, leading to a high mountain far, far away; on the summit of the mountain, a city, lit by the glow of the setting sun. Along the road goes a pilgrim, his staff in his hand. He has been on his way for a very long time and is very tired. And then he encounters a woman, or a figure in black, reminiscent of St. Paul’s phrase: ‘in sorrow, yet ever joyful’. This angel of God has been stationed there to keep up the spirits of the pilgrims and answer their questions. And the pilgrim asks: ‘Does the road wind uphill all the way?’ To which comes the reply: ‘Yes, to the very end.’ And he asks another question: ‘Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?’ And the reply is: ’From morn to night, my friend.’ And the pilgrim goes on, in sorrow, yet ever joyful.”
“IN SORROW, YET EVER JOYFUL,” the apostle Paul’s description of his own pilgrim journey (2 Corinthians 6:10), would be the continual refrain of van Gogh’s life. He once decorated his rented room with prints of biblical scenes, and beneath each picture of Christ he inscribed those words, “In sorrow, yet ever joyful.” Vincent himself painted very few religious subjects. He did not so much want to depict Christ as emulate him; first in his failed attempt at being a minister, and then through his art. Vincent eventually gave up on the Church that had so disappointed his aspirations and his art took the place of religious observance. But he never gave up Jesus Christ. As Philip Callow put it, “Christ, however, remained exempt. As the greatest of all artists, one who worked ‘in living flesh,’ he still reigned supreme.”
Given his sensibilities and his circumstances, we would expect van Gogh’s art to reflect more and more his ongoing depression and troubled emotions. Yet somewhat the opposite is true. Vincent’s earlier paintings, such as The Potato Eaters (1885), have a limited color range of dark earth tones. The scene itself is somber, reflecting the hard life of Dutch peasants that he wanted to faithfully represent. From 1886 Vincent’s palette became lighter and more vibrant. Many paintings still clearly reflect the agitation of his soul, but we also see the longing to know and express joy. In sorrow, but ever joyful.
If we merely feel pity for Vincent we have missed the point. We are all in the same predicament. Many of us have simply better socialized ourselves with the coping mechanisms, entertainments, and anti-depressants of contemporary life. I have wondered what would have become of van Gogh if he had had available to him the benefits of our modern therapeutic culture. Perhaps he could have been a successful businessman and family man. Would that really have satisfied his unrequited longing, or just dulled his senses?
We also need to be wary of seeing Vincent as the misunderstood Romantic genius whose art was an expression of knowledge that lesser mortals could not share. Art is not a mystic portal to secret knowledge known no other way. But great art does change us. In fact, that is one hallmark of great art, its capacity to make us see and hear and even feel things in different and more expansive ways. My experience is enlarged because of van Gogh’s art. I see starry nights and night cafes, seacoasts and sunflowers, and expansive fields of wheat, and chairs and shoes, and my own life, differently.
“HOPE FOR CONSOLATION WAS IN FACT THE TRUE MAINSPRING OF HIS ART,” Metzger said of Vincent’s work. Van Gogh expressed in his art joy and light which he himself rarely, if ever, experienced. What, indeed, could be more beautiful—and redemptive—than such an accomplishment? Because I am pretty sure Hemingway was not quite right. The world does indeed break us all, but I don’t think many of us are made strong. We mend as best we can and move on. We may learn, but eventually the accumulation of breaks always takes its toll. There is no final strength—not in this life anyway. Perhaps the best we can do is leave fragments that lend meaning to our brokenness and offer others hope for consolation. This is what Vincent did, and I am grateful that he did.