I’ve been reading Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith seemingly forever, taking breaks now and then to read other books. It’s a tome but I’ve enjoyed getting to know Vincent, which is possible because we have a treasure trove of letters between him, his siblings, his parents and others. Has any other great artist left behind such a complete inventory of his or her thoughts? And short of reading all those letters, it’s hard to imagine a better way to get to know Vincent than reading this exhaustive biography. Naifeh and Smith have read the letters for us.
I’m not done with the book so I don’t what happens to Vincent in the last seven years of his life (except that the art he created in those last seven years changed the world). I’m in 1883 when, at age 30, after bouts with mental illness, a string of failed relationships and broken friendships, a life of failed endeavors despite extensive work painting & drawing, and no success whatsoever, Vincent is forced to move back in with his parents because he has nowhere else to go.
As a former girlfriend of mine (who says a lot of smart things like this) pointed out to me, we know far too little about the struggles of artists prior to their success. That is what we should be teaching in schools, the struggle to become a creator. Instead all we talk about are the creations. I wish as a young wannabe writer I had known more about the struggle. It’s not that I thought becoming a writer would be easy. I just did not fully realize how hard it would be. It’s easier to climb a mountain when you know you setting out to climb a mountain.
After Vincent moves home, he spends a lot of time arguing with his father Dorus, who is a minister in the Dutch village of Nuenen. In this excerpt (p. 373-5 of the paperback version of the bio) you get a good feel for Vincent van Gogh’s struggle during the first thirty years of his life, not so much the particulars but his state of mind:
Their clashes sometimes lasted three or four hours, according to one witness. Even when they ended–when Vincent stormed out–they didn’t end. Every shouting match was followed by long stretches of silence in the parsonage, a darkness of recrimination far more threatening than the fireworks of temper. Just as he had in Etten two years earlier, Vincent spent days pretending to be “invisible”–enacting the very judgment that he protested against. Rather than speak to his parents, he wrote them notes. At meals, he pulled his chair to the corner of the room, placed his plate on his lap, and sat in utter silence. He ate with one hand, using the other to shield his face, as if hiding. When his behavior attracted reproving stares, he accused his parents of treating him like “a big, rough dog” that “runs into the room with wet paws,” barks too loud, and “gets in everybody’s way.” Possessed by this conceit, he spun it into a long, bitter indictment that hints at an even more bizarre playing-out of the judgments against him.
He is a foul beast. All right–but the beast has a human history, and though only a dog, he has a human soul, and even a very sensitive one, that makes him feel what people think of him . . . The dog feels that if they keep him, it will only mean putting up with him and tolerating him, “in this house” so he will try to find another kennel. The dog is in fact Father’s son, and has been left rather too much in the streets, where he could not but become rougher and rougher . . . The dog might bite, he might become rabid, and the constable would have to come to shoot him. . . . The dog is only sorry that he did not stay away, for it was less lonely on the heath than in this house, notwithstanding all the kindness. . . . I have found myself–I am that dog. [Vincent’s quote, italics in original]
Trapped in this cycle of abuse and escalating outrages, Dorus and Anna van Gogh coped in the only ways they knew how. They offered the universal panaceas of new clothes and earnest prayers. They offered to lend Vincent money to pay off his debts. They complimented his drawings (“He is doing several that we think are beautiful,” Dorus reported to Theo.) They made hopeful excuses. “When he looks back and recalls how he has broken with all former relations,” Dorus explained, “it must be very painful to him.” Whenever possible, they surrendered to the storm of his moods. When he demanded a studio–like Rappard’s [a gentleman painter friend who Vincent aspired to be]–they set aside their objections and cleared a room in the parsonage that had been used for a laundry, spending precious funds to install a stove and a wooden floor “to make it nice and warm and dry.” They offered to put in a window for more light.
In perhaps the hardest concession of all, they capitulated to the immutability of their son’s strangeness. “We are undertaking the experiment with real confidence,” they wrote Theo soon after Vincent’s arrival, “and we intend to leave him perfectly free in his peculiarities of dress, etc. . . . There is simply no changing the fact that he is eccentric.”
But Vincent could not be satisfied. Every attempt at appeasement was met with greater and greater provocation as he focused the anger of a lifetime on his captive captors. He saw only criticism in their gifts (“my clothes were not good enough”) and condescending indulgence in their courtesies. “Their cordial reception grieves me,” he complained. “Their indulgence without acknowledging their error is, for me, perhaps worse than the error itself.” He referred to the laundry room dismissively as an “apology of a studio” and almost immediately began demanding a better one. He answered every offer of accommodation with more rigid demands and fiercer rhetoric. “I cannot stand the least appearance of being in agreement with [Father],” he wrote two weeks after arriving. “I am dead against him, absolutely in opposition to him.” When his parents expressed doubts about him remaining in Nuenen, Vincent resolved to stay; when they reaffirmed their welcome, he threatened to leave. The gift of the laundry room studio triggered walls of martyrdom (“you people do not understand me, and I fear you never will”) and the melodramatic vows to make himself scarce. “I must try to find a way not to ‘bother’ you or Father any longer,” he wrote Theo. “Let me go on my own way.”
Vincent, who ended up staying two years, sounds like a typical teenager and he acted like a teenager for many of the same reasons a teenager does. I think he hated being dependent on his brother and most frequent correspondent Theo (who had supported him and his parents for years) and hated being forced to live with his parents as a dependent. He yearned to be a successful, respected painter and pillar of the art world. Ironically his uncle and Theo were pillars of the art world. They were successful merchants of popular art prints. (One of several career paths Vincent had tried unsuccessfully.)
By 1883, Vincent had been painting and drawing diligently–obsessively–for years. It no doubt developed his artistic skills. The problem was, he had mostly been painting and drawing, for him, the wrong things (human models) in the wrong mediums (he was determined to succeed in black and white) in the wrong style (he seemed to favor realism over impressionism). He was about to start painting, for him, the right things (landscapes and scenes) in the right medium (oil) in the right style (his own).