VAN GOGH: “always afflicted but always joyful”
Born on 30 March 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands, from a protestant pastor who tried to educate him austerely and away from art, Vincent Willem van Gogh began nevertheless to enjoy drawing right away and decided, quite late, to become a painter by profession. He had a pretty peaceful childhood, firstborn of five children of a well-born mother. However he could not complete his studies due to both his poor school performance and the economic problems of his father. Because of this lack of success in school, he was sent to work soon and, thanks to the recommendation of his uncle, who was an antiquities dealer, he was involved in a house of art that afterwards employed him a lot. This kind of work allowed him to travel and move across different cities until he arrived in London, where he had his first sentimental break; in fact, he had declared his love to the daughter of the guesthouse owner where he was living, but she was already engaged. This heartbreak led him to a severe depression, which drifted him away from work but closer to religion. After about seven years, Vincent was out of a job, but fifteen days later he was admitted to the school of a Methodist Reverend in a suburb of London. The teaching was not remunerated and gave him only room and board but allowed him to give free rein to his religious mysticism. Shortly thereafter, in fact, he delivered his first sermon. As he came back home during the Christmas festivity, his parents expressed their concern about his psychophysical health and persuaded him to stay. They found him a job as a salesman in the library of a neighbouring city. However, van Gogh neglected this job to study and translate sacred texts that he edited himself. As his faith grew, he tried to be admitted at the theology faculty taking part in a course of Evangelization and becoming catechist for a semester. Although his maximum commitment, his efforts were vain and he could finally see art as an opportunity to spread the evangelic message. This was a favourable and peaceful time for Vincent, filled with enthusiasm and love for painting, so much that he decided to leave misery and poverty by going to Bruxelles to plunge into the creative atmosphere of the time and to learn new and refined techniques. His new personal well-being, though, was newly rudely disrupted by unrequited love for a cousin. However, this second disappointment in love did not prevent him from the idea to find a woman, as he wrote; and it didn’t take him long to success in his intent: he fell in love and started a relationship with Sien. The girl was a thirty-year-old prostitute, alcoholic and smallpox-marked, mother of a daughter who was expecting a baby. Their cohabitation burdened Vincent’s finances since he had emancipated his partner from prostitution and was forced to put aside the painting in favour of the “family” well-being. The incompatibility between the two became clear soon and, encouraged by his brother, Vincent left her. Shaken by this failure, he took up painting again with fervent dedication. In order to move temporarily away from his problems, he wandered in north Europe until – tired – he came back to live by his parents’ house, where he created his first masterworks. After his father’s death, however, he realized not to be able to live in such a small and narrow- minded reality, so he moved to Antwerp for a while before Paris marked his turning point. In Paris, he was reunited with his beloved brother Théo. In the middle of the lively European culture, van Gogh became involved with many great artists with whom he shared his artistic visions; Paris allowed him to be appreciated and acknowledged and even to sell a painting. It is no coincidence that he started to use more brilliant and vivid colours. Searching for landscapes in brighter shades, Vincent headed south and arrived in Arles. As springtime came, he started producing paintings relentlessly and developed his very personal style. The inspiration evoked by that place made him open his own atelier: a supportive community of artists where a chief “Abbot” would be put in charge of maintaining order. In this role, van Gogh saw none other than Gauguin, who was not inclined to accept, though, until Théo made him a very profitable offer to persuade him. The two had too different opinions and van Gogh began to grow a sort of aggressiveness – it is said that he chased Gauguin with a razor and since he got away, he cut his own earlobe himself. After this incident, Vincent was hospitalized and, despite the support received by his brother and his friends, he realized to have a psychiatric illness, which remains unclear yet. Shortly after, he spontaneously entrusted himself to the care of a centre specialized in mental illness, that is a mental hospital. Days passed less unhappily than he could have imagined, he could also paint and painted a lot, even though his conditions were wretched; indeed, it was right then that van Gogh created one of his most famous and beautiful masterpieces: The Starry Night. First interests came from the audience and some mentions from the critic as well, so – tired of being in that limiting situation – he asked to be released with a clean bill of health. He could come back to Paris, where he met for the first time his nephew and Théo’s wife since his brother had married meanwhile. After a few days, as planned, he moved to Auvers- Sur-Oise, not far from the French metropolis; that was a quiet place where a doctor, who was a friend of his brother, was living and could take care of Vincent: doctor Gachet. They became good friends, but the mood swings of the painter affected negatively this new relationship. On 27 July 1890, after an en plein air painting afternoon, van Gogh was found bleeding in bed with a bullet in his stomach that doctor Gachet was not able to remove. Vincent spent the day after smoking his pipe and talking with his brother Théo, immediately rushed up. On 29 July he died leaving an unbridgeable void in Théo, who followed him after six months and a short period of internment. The two are now buried next to each other and their gravestones are united by a tangle of ivy grown in the garden of doctor Gachet and planted by Théo’s wife. A tormented and ungrateful life in which he would have also regretted the absence of children, except he thought of his paintings as his creatures and, actually, many now consider his artworks as his offspring. Indeed his descendants were also the artists that he could affect with his genius and intuition, with his will to see in-depth beyond reality. He can be acknowledged as the father of modern art. The following quotation encloses the essence of the Vangoghean ideals, that perfectly express the paradox of accepted suffering: « …instead of abandoning me to desperation, I have chosen an active melancholy, as much as it gave me energy; in other words, I preferred a hoping, aiming and seeking melancholy over the other one that, gloomy and still, despairs».