Vincent van Gogh and Aesthetic Guilt

by Norm Nason

(Also published in the magazine, TheScream)

© 2003 Norm Nason. All rights reserved. No portion of this essay may be reproduced in any form without prior approval from the author.


In the spring of 1987, a sunny yellow oil painting of sunflowers sold at Christie's auction house for a breathless $39.9 million. In November of that same year, a powerful canvas depicting a garden of blue irises sold at Sotheby's in New York for a dizzy $53.9 million, the highest price ever received for a work of art at that time. A year later, a portrait called Dr. Gashet sold for $82.5 million and yet again, in 1990, for an astonishing $158.2 million. All of these paintings were created by Vincent van Gogh, a Dutch artist who completed some 875 paintings and 1,100 sketches in his lifetime. Yet he sold only one of these, The Red Vines, for 400 francs (approximately $80.00). This increase in value (occurring in the years since Vincent's death) is an expression of our progressive society, as well as our widespread awareness—due in part to the effects of modern mass-communication—of the sentiments of a highly gifted, articulate man.


Society, for the purpose of this discussion, is more than an association of individuals whose members exhibit organized patterns of relationships. It also includes the element of culture, which means that society carries a link with the past. Culture is society's memory, and it is culture that is responsible for the progressive nature of society. Without memory, a society would not learn from its mistakes; it would be stunted by ritual and doomed, as the saying goes, to relive the past over and over again.


Although today there are many societies, it is indisputable that our global, economically based society is growing and swallowing smaller ones, expressing its dominance. Due to advances in communication as a result of technology, today's global society possesses the longest, most accessible, most permanent memory in the history of mankind. This sets the stage for a deeper appreciation of the past than was ever possible before.


If a society is to place a high value on a particular artist's body of work, certain criteria must be met. To begin with, the work itself must have Artistic Merit. That is, it must embody a certain technical virtuosity; a result of either strenuous formal training on the part of the artist, or years of disciplined self-study. Second, the body of work must have a certain Social Relevance. In other words, it must possess characteristics held in high regard by the society as a whole. Third, the body of work must be Sizable, in order to gain the widest possible exposure and combat inevitable losses over time. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the artist himself must cultivate an Open Heart, and express it through his work. He must be one who speaks honestly and with sincerity—one who gives of himself—if he is ultimately to gain the admiration of generation after generation. This is not to say that his intentions must be clearly communicated. Indeed, many a popular artist had been misunderstood. Nor must his outlook be that of the optimist. What is important is that the artist express his humanity, being one in whom the widest possible audience may look into, as into a mirror, and see a reflection of itself. The viewer must walk away from the work of a great artist enlarged, enriched, made somehow better by the experience.


Artistic Merit


Although it is unnecessary to reproduce the well-documented chronology of his life in this brief essay, it is appropriate to propose that van Gogh's formal training as an artist began in January 1879 when, at 26 years of age, he was appointed mission preacher at Wasmes in the Borinage, Belgium. Here, after a serious explosion in the local mine, Vincent tended to the injured and the sick. He lived in a poor worker's house and had few possessions, but he discovered—in a profound and enduring way—his own love for humanity. This insight was important because it provided him with the necessary motivation to paint for the remaining eleven years of his life. At this time—and continuing throughout his life—Vincent read voraciously: not only the Bible and Shakespeare but Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dickens, Zola, Maupassant, Michelet, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Walt Whitman, and many others. These readings enhanced his appreciation of the world at large and soon he began to draw, including detailed sketches in his correspondence.


In 1881 Vincent stayed at The Hague School where his cousin, Anton Mauve, gave him lessons in drawing and painting. Although he later broke with Mauve, the association sparked an interest in the work of Millet, Daumier, Delacroix, Rubens, Frans Hals and Rembrandt, among others. For the next several years he experimented in watercolor and oil until slowly the dark, brooding color of his early work gave way to a lighter, warmer palette. In January 1886, Vincent registered as a pupil at the Academy in Antwerp and though he did not stay there long, he met and was influenced by Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Emile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with whom he had many conversations about what later became known as Post Impressionism. It was Lautrec, in fact, who first suggested to Vincent that he move to Arles in the South of France, where, as we will see, his work reached its highest level of maturity.


In his correspondence Vincent spoke at length of the superior light associated with the South of France, a region that I have had the pleasure of seeing first hand. Here the bright, luminous light saturates colors and intensifies their chroma. In Arles, the mistral—a brisk and constant wind—blows from the North. This wind diffuses clouds high in the atmosphere, creating transparent white sheets that reflect the sunlight in all directions. The effect is not unlike studio portrait photography in which a wide, diffused light source is often used to gently illuminate a subject. With this light the edges of shadows become soft and less distinct, while colors harmonize without losing their brilliance. The Mediterranean climate of Arles imitates this effect. Here numerous clouds float high overhead, while the ever-present mistral stretches them thin like cotton candy in a child's hands. The result is bright sunlight that is diffused high above, illuminating the earth from many directions at once. Shadows become feathered and less distinct, while colors vibrate. This is the light of which Vincent so often spoke in his correspondence; the light he recognized as being necessary for the creation of his most effective canvases.


For van Gogh, color represented more than simply a means of reproducing, or copying, what he saw. As he put it: "Instead of trying to imitate exactly what is before my eyes, I am using color in a much more arbitrary way in order to express myself more strongly." By choosing the word arbitrary, Vincent did not mean haphazard or random. He meant that he mindfully used colors that were exaggerated, more energetic, more expressive than those he actually saw in his subject.


In Arles and Saint-Rémy Vincent's colors blossomed, for the landscape wholly justified his use of an exuberant palette. He loved this windy, sun-drenched region—as grains of sand visible within the pigment of some of his canvases can verify. Many of Vincent's paintings from this period represent some of the most effective use of color ever achieved. For example, his Haystacks (Arles, June 1988) is a lovely, vibrant depiction of rural France with its vivid yellow hay and pale sky. Boats on the Beach (Arles, June 1888, after sketches made at the mouth of the Petit-Rhône), is a wonderful study of contrasts. Set against the flat, solid forms of the sea and sky are beached red and green boats that seem to vibrate on the sand, their masts and rigging craning gracefully like the necks of birds.


Vincent was aware that his use of pure, undiluted color created a more vibrant, energetic effect. But he also realized that if these colors were used consistently, an overall feeling of tranquility would be achieved. As he wrote to his brother: "You will understand that nature in the South cannot be painted with the palette of Mauve, for instance, who belongs in the North, and who is, and will remain, a master of the gray. But at present the palette is distinctly colorful, sky blue, orange, pink, vermilion, bright yellow, bright green, bright wine-red, violet. But by intensifying all the colors one arrives once again at quietude and harmony. There occurs in nature something similar to what happens in Wagner's music, which, though played by a big orchestra, is nonetheless intimate."


The care and deliberation with which Vincent approached his craft is apparent while observing his painting, and also while reading his correspondence. Consider, for example, the following passage: "The more ugly, old, vicious, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent. Jewelers too get old and ugly before they learn how to arrange precious stones well. And arranging the colors in a picture in order to make them vibrate and to enhance their value by their contrast is something like arranging jewels properly, or designing costumes."


Vincent's brushwork, though highly stylized, was not haphazard as one might first assume. A close examination of any number of his mature paintings shows an extremely methodical approach. View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground, for example (Arles, May 1888), is an impressive exercise in control and efficiency. The Plowed Field (Arles, September 1888), Cornfield at Noon (Saint-Rémy, September 1889), Cypresses (Saint-Rémy, 1889), Olive Fields (Saint-Rémy, November 1889), The Road Menders (Saint-Rémt, 1889), the famous Irises (Saint-Rémy, May 1890), and The Field Under a Stormy Sky (Auvers-sur Oise, July 1890) are just a few of many fine examples. In all of these, strokes of the brush are both rhythmic and calculated, leading the eye in a pre-determined ballet across the surface of the canvas. It is interesting that while controlled, his brushwork is also bold, almost frightening in its capacity to take risks. His strokes are driven, rich with pigment and defiant to the point of fearlessness (The Starry Night, Saint-Rémy, June 1889, is a fine example). To the novice, such energy hints of madness. To the artistically astute, Vincent's lavish brushwork speaks of personal integrity and clarity of intention. With such abundant energy, it is not surprising that in the last two years of his life Vincent painted nearly one canvas a day, many of them masterpieces.


Vincent's letters overflow with illuminating, descriptive passages that say more about how an artist sees than perhaps anything ever written. For example, he describes the painting of an orchard in this way: "The ground violet, in the background a wall with straight poplars and a very blue sky. The little pear tree has a violet trunk and white flowers, with a big yellow butterfly on one of the clusters. To the left in the corner, a little garden with a fence of yellow reeds, and green bushes, and a flower bed. A little pink house." Or consider this detailed, gentle passage: "Yesterday in the square I painted a large landscape, showing fields as far as one can see, looked at from a height, different kinds of green growth, a potato field of somber green color, between the regular beds the rich violet earth—on one side a field of peas in white bloom, then a field of clover with pink flowers and the little figure of a mower, a field of long and ripe grass somewhat reddish in tone, then various kinds of wheat, poplars, on the horizon a last line of blue hills, along the foot of which a train is passing, leaving behind it an immense trail of white smoke all over the green vegetation. A white road lies across the canvas. On this road a little carriage, and white houses with harshly red roofs by the side of this road." Rarely has an artist possessed such an articulate visual sense, and rarely, if ever, has one left such a well-documented account of his observations.


As we see, then, Vincent's progression as an artist was a result of both formal education and self-teaching. He borrowed from what impressed him—for instance, he collected and was influenced by Japanese prints—but he held onto his own beliefs about what art should or should not be. To van Gogh, art was a kind of religion, inextricably mingled with the cycle of life and with humanity. He felt that an artist was not only a creator of images, but an observer of nature and man.


Social Relevance


The Rubens' Woman was once thought to represent the ideal female form. Although today the work of Rubens is admired for many reasons, times have certainly changed. Tall, thin and tan females grace the pages of today's fashion magazines and appear on television and in films, and are now generally preferred to Rubens' fleshy, pale, abundant women. Compared to the time in which he lived, the Rubens' woman has lost much of her social relevance. If an artist's work is to be thought of as masterful, then, it must speak to a society in its own language, and must communicate a message that is relevant to its time.


In the last 20 years of his life, Vincent wrote over 800 letters, mostly to his younger brother, Theo (with whom he often argued but nonetheless loved dearly). Due to the good judgment of Theo's wife Johanna, these letters have fortunately survived intact. They are available in print, and were used as the basis for Irving Stone's wonderful books Dear Theo and Lust for Life, later made into a movie of the same name. We cannot overlook the simple truth that because of the availability of these letters, we possibly know more about Vincent van Gogh—his personal thoughts and feelings—than we do any other artist. This is part of the reason that we, as a society, value him as much as we do. It is human nature to cherish what we know, what we have come to understand. Military strategy instructs that the enemy is mysterious, different, foreign, inhuman. This is done so that when the moment of truth is at hand, a soldier may find it within his power to kill his adversary. For the same reason, lacking knowledge about a particular artist makes it easier to dismiss that artist's work as being frivolous, uninteresting, or lacking any relevant meaning. It stands to reason, then, that the more we come to understand an artist's sympathies, the greater the chance that we will recognize our common heritage.


Part of the reason for van Gogh's popularity today is that he is ripe for our time. Our society places emphasis on the strength of the individual. It is not surprising that we value the work of one who accomplished so much alone. Here is the work ethic, spelled out clearly and with eloquence. Here is the plight of the individual against overwhelming odds; isolation, poverty, alcoholism, illness, alienation, loneliness. In his own way, Vincent tells us that the Journey is the goal, rather than the Destination. He implies that dedication, hard work and personal sacrifice are worthwhile in-and-of themselves. He was uncompromising in his beliefs, stubborn and steadfast. In our disposable society littered with hate and prejudice, Vincent reminds us of the value of commitment, empathy and selfless love. It is a powerful message. It is what we long to hear.


An Open Heart


Perhaps more than anything else, Vincent possessed an ability to see the human condition clearly. Not only the objective sight of the intellect, but also the more subtle, intuitive sight of the soul, the spirit. His special gift was his ability to interpret what he saw, to humanize it, to place something of himself within each picture he painted.

In order to better understand how this is possible, let us briefly examine the nature of reality and various forms, or stages, of abstraction. Consider a bouquet of flowers in a vase of water, set upon a table in the sunshine. The true nature of this still life may never be known to us, but the colors and shapes that we perceive with our eyes are what we have come to understand as reality. This differentiation—between what something actually is and what we perceive it to be with our senses—represents the first level of abstraction. Let us then take a photograph of this scene, and examine the image. What we see is something quite close to the actual still life, and yet somehow different. The dimension of depth is gone for one thing, as is the vivid color, luminescence, and vitality of the original. This second level of abstraction is more severe than the first, more distant from reality.


Now let us imagine what happens when we paint a picture of the scene, further abstracting the image from reality. In a photo-realistic painting, little of the artist's spirit is captured in the canvas: he simply records exactly what he sees. An abstract artist, on the other hand, may place so much of himself in the painting that its subject becomes unrecognizable. Van Gogh's great achievement was his ability to communicate much about himself through his paintings, while at the same time retaining structure, relevance and meaning. Vincent never intended to obscure the viewer's perception, but rather, to codify his personal vision using everyday objects and settings. In her nourishing and insightful book If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland sheds additional light on the nature of Vincent's creativity:


"If you read the letters of the painter van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was. It was just this: he loved something—the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them. And that was all there was to it.


"When van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at the watery twilight, a thin lamp-post, a star, and he said in his letter something like this: 'It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.' And then on cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.


"When I read this letter of van Gogh's it comforted me very much and seemed to throw clear light on the whole road of Art. Before, I had thought that to produce a work of painting or literature, you scowled and thought long and ponderously and weighed everything solemnly and learned everything that all artists had ever done aforetime, and what their influences and schools were, and you were extremely careful about design and balance and getting interesting planes into your painting, and avoided, with the most stringent severity, showing the faintest academical tendency, and were strictly modern. And so on and so on.


"But the moment I read van Gogh's letter I knew what art was and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.


"Van Gogh's little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness and care. He made it as much like what he loved as he could."


Vincent's understanding of art was instinctual, visceral, and not dominated by trends or artistic movements of the time. His sense of art came from the heart, and the desire to communicate to his fellow men his life experience. Here are some of the things Vincent said about art:


"In a few years I must finish a certain work. I need not hurry myself; there is no good in that—but I must work on in full calmness and serenity, as regularly and concentratedly as possible, as briefly and concisely as possible.


"What has changed is that my life was then less difficult, but as to the inward state that has not changed. If there has been any change at all, it is that I think and believe and love more seriously now what I already thought and believed and loved then.


"They cannot understand that the figure of a laborer—some furrows in a plowed field, a bit of sand, sea and sky—are serious objects, so difficult but at the same time so beautiful, that it is indeed worth while to devote one's life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them.


"Painters understand nature and love her and teach us to see her."


In a very real sense, Vincent van Gogh teaches us that we will never know what another man looks like unless we try to paint him; we will never understand another man unless we try to tell his story.




We are all familiar with the incident in which Vincent cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute, but few are aware of the details, let alone his motive in performing such a bizarre act. Since an understanding of this incident is critical to my thesis, let me first describe it clearly, as it actually happened.


On February 20, 1888, Vincent arrived by train in Arles and soon rented a yellow house not far from the Rhône river. Recognizing the fact that few artists were fortunate enough to make a good living at their craft, he soon formulated a plan in which many artists might live under one roof in the South. As he explained to Theo: "I wish I could found a small house for welcoming these poor impressionists from Paris—that are friends of mine—and yourself." In theory, members of this cooperative would support one-another both artistically and financially, encouraging one-another and sharing equally in whatever profits were made from their joint efforts. Vincent's first recruit was Paul Gauguin, an artist introduced to him by his brother in Paris. Gauguin was nearly broke and had little to lose by moving South, so on September 20th he joined Vincent in the small yellow house in Arles.


At first the two got along well, often painting together in the fields and low hills surrounding the Ancient Roman town. Surviving are several examples of their work done together, each painting different interpretations of the same scene; each borrowing ideas from and influencing the other. It was not long, however, before cracks began to develop in their relationship. Gauguin enjoyed painting from his imagination; Vincent painted from life. Gauguin had a dominating personality and wild temper; so did Vincent. In addition, Gauguin grew ever more tired of the climate and bright light of the South—precisely the things that attracted Vincent to the area.


With November coming, the two artists quarreled bitterly—even violently—no doubt promoted by their constant smoking of tobacco and drinking of absinthe. Trapped indoors by the cold wind and rain, they grew ever more tired of one-another. Gauguin spoke of leaving, effectively abandoning Vincent and his idea of building an artist's colony in the South. On Christmas Eve, things came to a head. By Gauguin's account in Avant it Aprés, the famous incident took place as follows: "In the evening I had a snack for supper and felt the need to go out alone to take in the air that was laden with the scent of oleanders in bloom. I had crossed almost the whole of the place Victor Hugo, when I heard behind me a light step. It was rapid and abrupt, and I knew it well. I turned around just as Vincent was coming at me with a razor in his hand. I must have looked at him then with a very commanding eye, for he stopped, lowered his head, and turned round and ran back towards the house.


"On getting to the Place, I saw a large crowd waiting for something. Close to our house a few gendarmes were standing and being given orders by the Superintendent of Police, a small man wearing a bowler. Vincent had gone back home and cut off his ear flush with his hair." [He actually cut off only the lower third of his left ear, but this fact does little to better our view of the situation.] "He was certainly long in stopping his hemorrhage as there were blood-stained toilet-towels lying on the floor downstairs next morning. When he was able to go out with a towel being tied round his head and with a large béret being settled on his head, he went straight to a local brothel in which he was sure of meeting somebody. He gave the house-keeper his well-cleaned ear after he had previously put it into an envelope and said 'Here is something to remember me by.' Then, he went away, got back home and went to bed."


Perhaps Vincent gave his ear to the prostitute, Rachel, because he had witnessed this ritual in the bull ring. In Arles, there is a splendid Roman arena which was, in Vincent's time as well as our own, used for bullfighting. Once a bull had been killed the toreador cut off one of the ears and presented it to his love. It is possible that Vincent, in his highly emotional state, presented his ear for similar reasons.


There is more to it than this, however. Vincent's act of self-mutilation was archetypal and highly symbolic, deeply rooted in the subconscious. It was an act not unlike that of Oedipus, who gouged out his own eyes in order to punish himself for sins he saw himself commit (killing his father and marrying his mother). Vincent cut off his ear because he could no longer bear the burden of what he was hearing. This applies not only to the words of Gauguin, but the implied words of his society at large. He could no longer bear to hear that Gauguin would soon be leaving (indeed, he left the next day), that his pursuit of artistic truth was futile, that his dream of an artist colony in the South was flawed, that he seemed ever-dependent upon his brother Theo for support. He could no longer bear to hear that his health was failing, that his paintings would not sell, that he was unable to forge a successful, lasting relationship with a woman and raise the family that he so desperately desired. So in one frenzied, cathartic moment, Vincent retreated into himself, and tried to make it all stop.


Aesthetic Guilt


Today, our global society knows more about van Gogh than perhaps any other artist. His hundreds of paintings are scattered in museums and in private collections the world over, and command some of the world's highest prices. We admire his work, instinctively understanding that in some profound way he painted for us—unlike, say, Andy Warhol with his Campbell's Soup cans. Vincent bared his soul and showed us, in a frank and intimate manner, what it is like to be human. This was his intent, for as he said: "The world concerns me in so far as I feel a certain debt and duty towards it, and out of gratitude want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures—not made to please a certain tendency in art but to express sincere human feeling." Van Gogh instructed us not how to see or how to feel, but how he saw, and how he felt. He never wore a mask, never pretended to be someone other than who he was. What guided him was his belief that a lifetime spent depicting the human experience—if shown in a true and selfless way—was worthy of the acceptance, if not the admiration, of his fellow men. Sadly, this vision was not realized. The artist died without hearing us, because while he lived we were unable—or unwilling—to hear him. We were too late to acknowledge and appreciate Vincent the man, so instead we now project our appreciation onto his paintings. In this sense, our society bears the burden of aesthetic guilt.