Theo van Gogh; holding the lonely madness of genius.

Vincent van Gogh is all too often seen as the mad genius who created masterpieces while in a state of ecstacy and infatuation, the man who cut off his ear in despair and took his own life, but that is a distortion.  He was more an intensely driven man,  awkward and socially inept, desperately trying to be accepted by the only means he knew, his writing and his art.  He was a lonely man.  He worked ceaselessly to find meaning by expressing what he saw as the soul of nature and people.   Deeply passionate and insecure, Vincent struggled to find an identity in art, and one that could be valued by society, but all too often, his intensity and awkwardness were too much.  It put off the very people who might value his work. 

Vincent was the eldest of a large close knit family.  His father was a preacher and for a time Vincent tried to find an outlet for his zeal in religion, as a minister in a poor coal mining region of Belgium, but his attempts to get close to his parishioners by living like them shocked his elders and they refused to support him.  He worked in his uncle’s firm of art dealers, but his intensity put people off.   He was a rebel.  He had strong inflexible views about religion and argued constantly with his father.  His passionate nature, his need for love, could lead him to form intense attachments, like the one to his widowed cousin, but he was all too often rebuffed.  

After his father died, his sister, Wilhelmina, told Vincent to leave home because his eccentric behaviour was causing comment in the village and upsetting his mother.   Vincent would have felt this rejection keenly, but the fact of the matter was he was too much, too much for other people and too much for himself.   

His brother Theo persuaded Vincent to go to Paris to meet other artists and learn from them and continued to support him both emotionally and financially.  His work in Holland had been poetic, dark and melancholic.  His move to Paris led to a thawing of his palette.  He visited all the greats; Pissarro, Gauguin, Manet, Seurat and absorbed everything they had to teach him while developing his own unique style using a combination of vibrant brushwork, delicate draughtsmanship, an emotionally charged palette and everyday motifs.  He worked tirelessly at his craft, single minded, focussed and remarkably lucid, constantly improving refining in his quest to capture the essence, the source of meaning.  

What Vincent was struggling with was the dilemma of the creative artist.  While he needed to have the creative space to develop his own unique expression,  that expression, his identity, could only be validated  through his art.  It was a paradox; he had to be alone to belong, his obsessional  intensity fended people off though he desperately needed their love.   He wanted more than anything else to be accepted and he never stopped working.  His entire oeuvre was accomplished in a brief 10 year period between 1880 and 1890.  He was entirely self taught,  using a frame he had read about in a book to master perspective.  He learn to master expression, character.  It was as if he needed to get beneath their skin, to really connect.   His most fervent wish was to mean something to the people around him, to make a useful contribution.  ‘Man is only here to accomplish things’, but his work was little appreciated during his lifetime . 

Work had always been a lifesaver  for Vincent, his reason for living, his entire meaning in life.  Nothing else mattered.  So what went wrong?   Why did he cut off his own ear?  Why did he shoot himself?   As ever, it was a combination of events.  Theo’s plans to get married may have prompted him to move down south and get his own place.  Arles was different, strange, and had an intensity of light a vividness of colour that seemed to resonate with something inside Vincent.  Things were more extreme there, more dangerous, and he was lonely.   And then there was Gauguin’s visit.  Vincent had loaded so much meaning on this visit.  They would be brother artists, paint together, start a colony of artists in the south.   But Paul Gauguin was more self sufficient that Vincent, more of a loner.  He was sociable enough but he distrusted intimacy and would have found Vincent’s needs intrusive.  He became irritated.  Vincent was too whinging.  They argued.   Vincent lost his temper and threw a glass at him.  Gauguin decided to leave.  In desperation, Vincent cut off his ear.   If that was intended as a gesture to make him stay, it backfired.  He was left alone and desperate, and admitted himself to an asylum.  He recovered for a while.  His paints allowed him to focus his thoughts on something outside his own morbid preoccupations, but eventually it all got too much for him.  He began painting images of death.  His work was not selling.  Nobody cared.  It was hopeless.  And one sunny morning in the corn field, he shot himself. 

Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t born an artistic genius, he made himself one though the most intense focus and dedication.  What created the brand Van Gogh;  self belief, courage, imagination, perseverance, and faith could so easily be transformed into the single minded obsession, the  fanaticism, the lack of compromise and the escape from reality that could slip into a darker palette without human comfort or hope.  He needed the unflinching of Theo, faith is the meaning of his own art and the approval of artists he admired.   His genius need to be held, to be contained.   Like specialist plants and animals, he was all too sensitive and vulnerable to changes in his social environment.  Without Theo, he could not survive.  A year later, Theo died too.    


The real Van Gogh; the artist and his letters, is currently exhibited at the Royal Academy until April 18th.  Don’t miss it!