This article will explore his philosophy of work and his sense of devotion, as evidenced by extracts mainly from Vincent’s letters to Theo. I have interspersed fascinating bits of Vincent’s life in hopes that the story of this extraordinary man who achieved so much in the face of adversity may inspire you and, perhaps, elicit further admiration (recommended biography) and even sympathy.
The Letters of Vincent van Gogh
During most of his adult years, Vincent van Gogh wrote copious letters primarily to his brother Theo. Vincent wrote less frequently to his mother, one of his sisters, friends, and collaborators. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam maintains a comprehensive compilation of his letters. I also recommend “Ever Yours: The Essential Letters”, a fascinating anthology of Vincent’s letters to Theo.
The accessible correspondence between Vincent and Theo is mostly one-way communication. This is because Theo retained the great majority of Vincent’s letters; but Vincent, owing to neglect, retained just a few of Theo’s replies.
Vincent’s letters offer a profound, soul-searching description of the jagged life of a genius who achieved much in the face of adversity. His letters make a splendid record of his life, work, and philosophy. They have provided the primary source and substance of numerous scholarly studies, particularly by art historians and psychiatrists.
Vincent’s letters reveal the inner workings of his mind and heart like few others have done. His letters were extemporaneous ‘thinking aloud’ journals: he took paper everywhere and scribbled his thoughts spontaneously while he was thinking or creating art. For this reason, Vincent’s letters aren’t easy reads—his thoughts often appear unstructured and abstruse.
Vincent van Gogh on Finding Meaningful Work
Vincent embarked upon his artistic career at the somewhat advanced age of 27. According to biographers, he showed no signs that he was precocious during his childhood. All through youth, Vincent struggled to find his place in the world and held various occupations where he proved deficient. Before resolving to devote his life to art, Vincent wrote,
We’ve talked quite a lot about what we feel to be our duty and how we should arrive at something good, and we rightly came to the conclusion that first of all our goal must be to find a certain position and a profession to which we can devote ourselves entirely.
And I think that we also agreed on this point, namely that one must pay special attention to the end, and that a victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly.
He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune. …
… Do let us go on quietly, examining all things and holding fast to that which is good, and trying always to learn more that is useful, and gaining more experience.
If we but try to live uprightly, then we shall be all right, even though we shall inevitably experience true sorrow and genuine disappointments, and also probably make real mistakes and do wrong things, but it’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit, even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious. [Letter to Theo, April 1878]
Vincent van Gogh’s Concept of Work and Idea of Art
Core to Vincent’s philosophy was his belief that the concept for a work must precede the execution of the work. At the beginning of his tenure as an artist, Vincent outlined his idea of art,
Art is man added to nature … nature, reality, truth, but with a significance, a conception, a character, which the artist brings out in it, and to which he gives expression … which he disentangles, sets free and interprets. [Letter to Theo, June 1879]
Vincent van Gogh on the Primacy of Work
The tragic circumstances of Vincent’s life allowed him to pursue his calling for just 11 years, the time required by most artists to master their technique fully. During those 11 years, Vincent experimented and practiced art with a steady sense of purpose. He continued to paint right up until his fateful suicide. On deeming one’s work as one’s salvation, Vincent wrote,
How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work. [Letter to Theo, September 1883]
Echoing Martin Luther and John Calvin’s emphasis on conscientiousness and hard work (now labeled ‘Protestant work ethic‘,) Vincent believed that work is life’s highest reward and worthy of submission:
I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort. [Letter to Theo, February 1886]
He firmly believed that art—or more generally, work—like religion, was a way to communion with God.
To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture. [Letter to Theo, July 1880]
Vincent’s letters provide a profile of the shifting quality of his moods. Later, as a mature artist, he regarded his ability to create more sacrosanct than his godliness,
I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life—the power to create. [Letter to Theo, September 1888]
Vincent van Gogh on the Sense of Achievement and Identity that it Brings
Throughout his life, Vincent struggled to find meaning and establish some kind of harmonious relationship with the outer world. He seemed governed entirely by emotions (“the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it,” he once wrote to Theo.) People found him awkward and unreasonable; he even didn’t tend to his physical appearance. He acknowledged,
It is possible that these great geniuses (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Zola, Balzac, Millet) are only madmen, and that one must be mad oneself to have boundless faith in them and a boundless admiration for them. If this is true I should prefer my insanity to the sanity of others. [Letter to Emile Bernard, July 1888]
He caused anger, strife, or embarrassment wherever he went. He struggled in his professional and romantic relationships. However, he was determined to seek his sense of social identity through work. He wrote,
What am I in the eyes of most people? A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man, somebody who has no position in society and never will have. Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody. … Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people. [Letter to Theo, July 1882]
Vincent van Gogh on “the Secret of Beautiful Work”: Utmost Sincerity
Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? … To a great extent the cause of the evil lies in the fact that the intentions of the great landscape painters have been misconstrued. Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies mainly in truth and sincere sentiment. [Letter to Theo, December 1882]
One of the keys to Vincent’s greatness is his incredible sincerity to his work. He exhibited his sense of extreme sincerity in two vocations he held before he decided to devote his life to being an artist. In both these instances, he proved deficient by giving too much of what the circumstances demanded of him.
- At age 13, Vincent apprenticed with a leading art dealer in Paris where he assisted in the sale of paintings, photographs, and lithographs. This was his first experience with art. Within months, he began discussing unreservedly his opinions about the qualities of artwork with potential customers and frequently talked them out of sales. Within a year, his employer fired Vincent for conducting himself in a manner antithetical to the interests of the art dealership.
- At age 26, Vincent started work as a lay preacher in a mining community in southern Belgium. Vincent was seized with compassion for the miners who toiled in darkness and exposed themselves to filthy dust. Having fully committed himself to this job and wanting to be like the poor miners, he even smeared his hands and face with soot and dirt. He gave away his belongings, lived on bread and water, and slept on a sack spread out on the floor of his miserable shed. The church’s committee of elders reprimanded Vincent for carelessness in dress and lack of dignity in the conduct of his office. They chastised him for his excessive zeal and dismissed him. His mother complained of his uncompromising stubbornness: “He will never comply with the wishes of the committee, and nothing will change him.”
Vincent van Gogh on Giving Everything One’s Got to One’s Work
After nine years of meticulous experimentation and assiduous practice, Vincent developed his artistic expertise to a level where he could execute art swiftly. For the next two years, he focused on his artwork and produced masterpieces notwithstanding debilitating bouts of mental illness.
On investing in learning technique and mulling over ideas, Vincent said,
I consider making studies like sowing, and making pictures like reaping. [Letter to Theo, September 1882]
Successful people have the ability to concentrate on a single problem for extended periods of time. Vincent wrote,
The sooner one seeks to become competent in a certain position and in a certain profession, and adopts a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one observes fixed rules, the stronger one’s character becomes, and yet that doesn’t mean that one has to become narrow-minded.
It is wise to do that, for life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one thing and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain.
It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people, and at times one is actually obliged and called upon to do so, or it can be one way of ‘throwing oneself into one’s work unreservedly and with all one’s might’, but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely among people and in the world. One should never trust it when one is without difficulties or some worry or obstacle, and one shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself. …
… Launching out into the deep is what we too must do if we want to catch anything, and if it sometimes happens that we have to work the whole night and catch nothing, then it is good not to give up after all but to let down the nets again at dawn.
And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none, and he who thinks he is perfectly wise would do well to start over from the beginning and become a fool. [Letter to Theo, April 1878]
Vincent van Gogh Found Solace and Meaning in Painting
When he lived in the town of Arles in Southern France, he suffered his first attack of mental disturbance and cut off his own ear after a dispute with another artist during Christmas 1888. By May of 1889, he had already suffered two horrifying episodes of psychotic illness. Following a complaint about his conduct by the townspeople of Arles, he was terrified of the possibility of compulsory incarceration. He voluntarily joined the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.
Vincent could not paint during periods of mental illness while at the asylum. On the road to recovery, Vincent sought peace in nature. He found solace and meaning in painting. He drew inspiration from nature and painted some of his well-known works here, including The Starry Night, and Wheat Field series. To Vincent, budding flowers symbolized the cycle of life and butterflies represented hope. Even the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly symbolized the ability of humans to transform,
… since nothing confutes the assumption that lines and forms and colours exist on innumerable other planets and suns as well, we are at liberty to feel fairly serene about the possibilities of painting in a better and different existence, an existence altered by a phenomenon that is perhaps no more ingenious and no more surprising than the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or of a grub into a maybug. [Letter to Emile Bernard, July 1888]
Vincent van Gogh on the Frustration of Inactivity and Incoherence
One of the most impressive features of Vincent’s letters is the depth of his self-analysis, even about his debilitating illness and his helplessness with social wellbeing. Even when growing up, he possessed a difficult temper and lacked self-confidence. He wrote,
Do not imagine that I think myself perfect or that I think that many people taking me for a disagreeable character is no fault of mine. I am often terribly melancholy, irritable, hungering and thirsting, as it were, for sympathy; and when I do not get it, I try to act indifferently, speak sharply, and often even pour oil on the fire. I do not like to be in company, and often find it painful and difficult to mingle with people, to speak to them. But do you know what the cause is —if not at all, of a great deal of this? Simply nervousness; I am terribly sensitive, physically as well as morally, the nervousness having developed during those miserable years which drained my health. [Letter to Theo, July 1882]
Vincent’s lifestyle exacerbated his mental condition and compounded his problems. Towards the end of his life, he was deeply upset by the inability to paint and the incoherence in his creative process during periods of illness. After taking to work again during his stay at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, he wrote,
Life passes in this way, time does not return, but I am working furiously for the very reason that I know that opportunities for work do not recur. Especially in my case, where a more violent attack could destroy my ability to paint for good. … I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide, but then makes for the bank because he finds the water too cold.[Letter to Theo, September 1889]
Conceivably, at the brink of death, Vincent was conscious about his mortality.
Theo van Gogh and Johanna van Gogh-Bonger
No discussion of Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) would be complete without mention of the extraordinary devotion of his brother Theo van Gogh (1857–91) and the zeal of Theo’s wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925.)
Theo van Gogh, the Devoted Brother
Vincent wouldn’t have been an artist had it not been for a squabble he had with his brother Theo who was visiting Vincent after he’d been fired from his job as a lay preacher in 1880. Until then, he held a variety of occupations—art dealer, schoolteacher, book seller, priest—where he proved deficient. Theo declared that the van Gogh family was worried about Vincent’s lack of direction in life, especially after several false starts in various vocations. Vincent once wrote,
Either inside or outside the family, they will always judge me or talk about me from different points of view, and you will always hear the most divergent opinions about me. And I blame no one for it, because relatively few people know why an artist acts as he does. [Letter to Theo, April 1881]
The ensuing dispute between Theo and Vincent marked a serious turning point in Vincent’s life: he resolved to become an artist. He would build on what was once a mere pastime. He would finally find his place in the world.
For the next eleven years, until Vincent’s tragic suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot, Theo supported Vincent not only emotionally, but also provided him a monthly stipend in exchange for his artworks.
The tragedy of Vincent’s life overwhelmed Theo. After losing his adored brother for whom he’d dedicated his life, Theo seemed no more himself. He suffered a stroke that led to paralysis. His health deteriorated rapidly and he died at the age of 33, just six months after Vincent’s death.
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the Determined Sister-in-Law
Vincent van Gogh signed only a few of his pieces “Vincent” but did not sign his name in full. He said,
Van Gogh is such an impossible name for many foreigners to pronounce; if it should happen that my pictures found their way to France or England, then the name would certainly be murdered, whereas the whole world can pronounce the name Vincent correctly. … they will surely recognize my work later on, and write about me when I’m dead and gone. I shall take care of that, if I can keep alive for some little time. [Quoted by Anton Kerssemakers, April 1912]
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law and Theo van Gogh’s wife, played a pivotal role in initiating the legacy and renown of Vincent. Johanna inherited all of Vincent’s artwork from Theo. Theo hadn’t been able to save much money because Vincent had been a perpetual drain on Theo’s earnings as an art dealer. Even though Johanna needed money to live on, she did not sell Vincent’s art.
Johanna came from a wealthy family with connections to artists throughout Europe. In the few years after Vincent’s death, Johanna contributed his art pieces to many exhibitions. She compiled 650 of his letters to Theo and published them in three volumes in 1914. She even wrote the first memoir of Vincent. She shared Theo’s conviction that, one day, Vincent’s artistic genius would be widely acknowledged. She lived to see that day.