From Preaching to Painting: Van Gogh’s Religious Zeal
by Kathleen Powers Erickson
Kathleen Powers Erickson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, is writing her dissertation "Van Gogh at Eternity’s Gate" while concurrently pursuing a master’s degree in the university’s art department. Quotations are taken from The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Vols. I-III (New York Graphic Society, 1958). This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 21-28, 1990 pp. 300-302 copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
He has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor, declared Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo, in a letter dated 1876. For the next three years van Gogh singlemindedly pursued his calling to the ministry, first as a student of theology and then as a missionary to the coal miners in the Belgian Borinage. Deeply moved by the poverty surrounding him, van Gogh gave all his possessions, including most of his clothing, to the miners. An inspector of the Evangelization Council came to the conclusion that the missionary’s excess de zele bordered on the scandalous, and he reported van Gogh’s behavior to church authorities. Although van Gogh was successful in his ministry, the hierarchy of the Dutch Reformed Church rejected him, and at the end of 1879 he left the church, embittered and impoverished.
Van Gogh remained in the Borinage after the church withdrew its support, and he began his artistic career by making drawings of the simple life of the Belgian peasants. He described this as a kind of conversion experience: "Even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself, in spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I had forsaken in my discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing. From that moment everything has seemed transformed for me." Although most of van Gogh’s biographers view this transition as a rejection of religion, in fact art rather than preaching became van Gogh’s chief form of religious expression. His faith in God and eternity as well as his respect for unadorned piety and the word of God remained firm.
After van Gogh’s "conversion" to art, he rejected the religion of his parents for what he thought was true piety, which he called "the white ray of light." The work of the peasant painter Millet, he noted in an 1883 letter, has a gospel and "this white light." "The sermon is black by comparison." For van Gogh, to believe in God now meant not that one should believe all the sermons of the clergymen or "the arguments and Jesuitism of the bigoted, genteel prudes," but rather that there was a God, "not dead or stuffed, but alive, urging us to love, with irresistible force." Van Gogh pursued his art with his former religious zeal and mission, claiming, "Our purpose is self-reform by means of a handicraft and of intercourse with Nature -- our aim is walking with God."
Rather than choosing the traditional subject matter and iconography of the academic, religious-history painting, van Gogh tried to capture what he saw of the infinite in the subjects of everyday life. "I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals," he wrote, "for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be -- a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting to me." When recounting the birth of a coal miner’s calf he described it as a sacred event, analogous to the birth of Christ, with the numinous quality of a beautiful painting:
Once I saw this in reality, not of course the birth of Christ, but the birth of a calf. And I remember exactly how the expression was. There was a little girl in the stable that night -- in the Borinage -- a little brown peasant girl with a white night cap; she had tears of compassion in her eyes for the poor cow when the poor thing was in throes and was having great trouble. It was pure, holy, wonderful, beautiful, like a Coreggio, a Millet, or an Isräels.
Van Gogh’s first major painting, The Potato Eaters (1885) ,) illustrates his commitment to religious themes and his appreciation for true piety. The painting depicts a family crowded around a small table, sharing a simple meal of potatoes and coffee by the dim light of an overhead lamp. Van Gogh wrote that he had painted the figures in the dark colors of a "very dusty, unpeeled potato." Because of its rough-hewn style, the painting is often noted as the first realist painting of peasants. The mood of the painting is deeply somber, and the sharing of their meager repast alludes to the Eucharist. The ritualistic distribution of the meal also acknowledges a holy presence among the humble peasants gathered around the table. Associating religious themes with the sharing of food was a common artistic device in 19th-century realist art. For example, the Dutch painter Joseph Isräels (Frugal Meal, 1876) attempted to show that the most mundane acts of human experience conveyed the presence of the divine with far more poignancy than the traditional subjects of cross and cathedral.
The figures in The Potato Eaters do not engage each other in conversation, but seem preoccupied with the ritualistic act of serving the meal. The man seated in the chair that bears van Gogh’s signature ("Vincent") stares into infinity with an expression of profound loneliness. The small crucifix hanging on the wall in the background is the only overt reference to Christianity. The painting might seem rather discordant but for its one unifying element: the lamp, with its warm glow piercing the isolation. The lamp was van Gogh’s symbol of love and recalls the light of the gospel which he once brought into the huts of the peasants and miners. In the context of The Potato Eaters, the lamp represents a nontraditional symbol of the "Ray of Light from on High," which van Gogh saw in the literature of Victor Hugo and the paintings of Corot and Millet.
Van Gogh’s other major oil painting of his Dutch period, Open Bible (1885) ,) shows that while his attitude toward conventional religion had changed, he still maintained both a respect for the Bible and, more important, an appreciation of Christ the Redeemer. Open Bible depicts a large gold-leafed family Bible open to Isaiah 53, a small tattered copy of a French realist novel, Emile Zola’s Joie de Vivre (Joy of Life) ,) and a snuffed-out candle in the background. With this combination of motifs, van Gogh recalls the Dutch "Vanitas" tradition of the 17th century, which emphasized the transitory nature of human existence. As such, it may have been a tribute to van Gogh’s father, who died a few months before.
Virtually all art historians who have critiqued this painting see it as a rejection of religion (particularly the Bible) for the modern, joyous lifestyle of 19th-century France. But van Gogh continued to study the Bible even after abandoning his ministerial calling. He still held the Bible in high esteem, writing in a letter to Theo in 1883:
"I told father that in the Bible itself maxims can be found by which we may test our convictions to see whether they are reasonable and just." His interest was in the Bible’s application to modern life: "Now take Michelet and Beecher Stowe, they don’t tell you the Gospel is no longer of any value, but they show how it may be applied in our time, in this our life, by you and me, for instance." Also, Paul Gauguin, who lived with van Gogh in Arles from October through December of 1888, tells us that "his Dutch brain was afire with the Bible."
In addition, the literal interpretation of the "joy of life" ignores the irony of Zola’s title, since the hero in Joie de Vivre, Pauline, perseveres through great suffering (and little joy) as a kind of Christ-figure, much like the hero in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Jean Valjean. The continuity between the image of the Bible in the painting and the image of the French novel thus lies in its emphasis on the Christ-figure -- even more apparent when one considers the subject of the biblical passage depicted in the painting. Although the exact verses are not decipherable, van Gogh was well acquainted with Isaiah 53:3-5, which foretells the suffering of Christ as the sacrificial lamb. During his preparation for ministry, van Gogh admired Christ’s humility as a common laborer and "man of sorrows" whose life he tried to imitate.
Jesus Christ is the Master who can comfort and strengthen a man, a laborer and working man whose life is hard -- because he is the great man of sorrows who knows our ills . . . and God wills that in imitation of Christ, man should live humbly and go through life not reaching for the sky, but adapting himself to the earth below, learning from the Gospel to be meek and simple of heart.
As an artist, van Gogh remained fascinated by Christ. "Oh, I am no friend of the present Christianity, though its founder was sublime." He described Jesus as "the supreme artist, more of an artist than all others, disdaining marble and clay and color, working in the living flesh." Finally, van Gogh’s preoccupation with Christ is visually apparent in his rendition of the Pietà, in which he depicts the Christ figure with the features of his own face and red beard, languishing in the arms of Mary.
One of van Gogh’s first successful lithographs, At Eternity’s Gate (1882) ,) depicts an old man seated by a fire, his head buried in his hands. Near the end of his life, while recuperating in the asylum at St. Rémy, van Gogh re-created this image in oil. Bent over with his fists clenched against a face hidden in utter frustration, the subject appears engulfed in grief. The work would convey an image of total despair if not for its title. Even in the deepest moments of sorrow and pain, van Gogh clung to the faith in God and eternity, which he tried to express in his work:
The expression of such a little old man -- perhaps without he himself being conscious of it -- is unspeakably touching when he sits so quietly in his chimney corner. It reveals something which cannot be destined for the worms . . .this is far from all theology, simply the fact that the poorest little woodcutter, heath peasant or miner can have moments of emotion and a frame of mind which give him a feeling of an eternal home to which he is near.
As van Gogh pointed out, the sentiment in this painting is "far from all theology," but he wanted to show that though he had rejected institutional religion, he remained profoundly religious and firmly believed in a spiritual life after death.
He once wrote to his brother about his "terrible need of -- shall I say the word, religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars." In the stars, as well as in the everyday facets of the simple life of the peasants, he felt the presence of the divine. Along with the old man in At Eternity’s Gate, van Gogh believed that he, too, would find an eternal home after death:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to Tarasçon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is that we cannot get to a star while we are alive anymore than we can take a train when we are dead.
So to me, it seems possible that cholera, gravel, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
In the careworn, bedraggled old man of At Eternity’s Gate, van Gogh portrayed a soul at the end of his earthly journey on his way to "reach a star."
One of the things that does not pass away is the Something on High and the belief in God, too, though the forms may change -- a change which is just as necessary as the renewal of the leaves in spring. I think it a splendid saying of Victor Hugo’s, "Religions pass away, but God remains," and another beautiful saying of Gavarni’s, "What matters is to grasp what does not pass away in what does pass away."
In the humble repast of a peasant family, the juxtaposition of the Bible and Zola’s novel, and the grieving old man sitting by the fire, van Gogh depicted the infinite in the mundane, the existence of God and eternity, "which does not pass away."