I’m neither an artist nor an art critic. I'm just a person who likes to look at art and think about life. I have found that doing the first often facilitates the second.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Vincent van Gogh—from reading his letters to Theo (his brother and greatest supporter), to parsing the lyrics of the iconic Don McLean song that begins "Starry, starry night..." Those lyrics were running through my head on a recent trip to Europe, where I encountered (not for the first time) some of the many haunting self-portraits Vincent painted in his short, passionate life.
Looking into his blue eyes, studying each painting for the third or fourth time, shuffling back and forth between them but always returning to that direct, intense gaze, I got lost in musings on what his art and life meant to me. Once I had finished viewing the paintings, I took some time to synthesize my thoughts, and I realized that the lessons van Gogh has taught me are lessons he offers to all who are willing to look for them. So, here are a few of the things I think he'd hope people took away from his work:
1. Shadows imbue a scene, a character, a life, with depth.
Without shadow, everything is two-dimensional—flat. Vincent’s self-portraits are brutally honest—they don't blur his craggy features—on the contrary, they're strongly modeled in shadow. And all of his work has a tendency to contrast heavy, dark shapes with light, airy backgrounds.
And, of course, Vincent had plenty of experience with shadows in his life. He yearned for love and companionship but struggled to maintain intimate relationships. He felt compelled to express his vision even though it was consistently rejected and reviled by his contemporaries. I believe that, even then, Vincent recognized the consolations of the shadow. He wrote, "Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it."
2. The big picture won't become clear until you step away from it.
Up close, Vincent’s brush strokes are a mess, only resolving into a masterpiece from a distance. In fact, one of my favorite things to do is to toggle back and forth in front of one of his paintings, marveling at how the impetuous swirls and gobs of paint become trees and stars and people when you step just a few feet away.
This truth could be applied to the artist himself as well. During his lifetime, he experienced one apparent failure after another, both artistically and personally. Only after his death was his true genius recognized. Ironically, as he wrote, "Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures."
3. Originality is more compelling than perfection.
Although Vincent worked doggedly to improve his draftsmanship, the true glory of his work is its originality, not its virtuosity. His distorted, awkward figures are fascinating in a way mere technical expertise could never achieve. Vincent himself said of his painting, "Exaggerate the essential; leave the obvious vague."
Likewise, in his life he couldn’t seem to help being an original. This did not go over well. (He was petitioned by the residents of Arles to leave their town). "I try more and more to be myself, caring relatively little whether people approve or disapprove."
4. Never stop questioning what you think you know.
To see what is really there, you must be willing to set aside preconceptions and look with unbiased eyes. Although we all know that brown hair isn’t really bright red and green and blue, somehow, in a painting, these colors blend in the eye to create a reality that feels even browner than brown.
Vincent put it this way: "Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who only dream by night." He also said, "It is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky." (I'll say.)
5. There's beauty in everything.
Vincent loved to paint everyday folk like himself, and he didn’t whitewash or romanticize their lives. During his early years as a preacher to the miners of Belgium, he was dubbed "the Christ of the coal mines" for his willingness to share the brutal life of his spiritual charges. "I see drawings and pictures in the poorest of huts and the dirtiest of corners."
After he severed one of his own ears in a fit of madness, he didn’t shrink from painting himself with a bandage covering it. Vincent seemed able to take in and hold the full spectrum of life, from the sublime to the excruciating—but perhaps it was that strain that eventually led him to take his own life.
As Don McLean sang, "I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you."
As I stood and stood and stood in front of Vincent’s portrait, holding that hypnotic gaze, I thought about what he had confided to his brother Theo long ago: "I would rather die of passion than of boredom." The world certainly lost him too soon, but if we look closely enough, we'll find in his paintings clues to life lessons that can help us make each day count just a little bit more.