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Vincent van Gogh's Religious and Artistic Inclinations

Written by Brett Nelson


Posted on October 31 2019

When it comes to great artists, people are always looking for the sources of their inspiration. People will often turn to their backstories in order to spot something in their formative years which might have contributed to the astounding abilities that they developed later in life. Looking at the parents and other early influences makes sense, and it seems that Vincent van Gogh's character was shaped by both of them in an interesting way.

 Vincent van Gogh's parents were interestingly mismatched. His father was the sort of self-denying, unemotional minister that people often think about when they imagine the grim religious folk of history. Vincent van Gogh's mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus, was the passionate artist of the family. She favored landscapes and watercolors, and her son modeled her behavior and her particular artistic tastes in all likelihood. However, he was a somewhat reserved and thoughtful individual in many situations, quite like his father. In other situations, he could be as turbulent and passionate as his mother. He even ended up taking on both of their interests at different points during his life.

 It seems that Vincent van Gogh was inspired by both parents, and that art and religion had a huge influence on his family in general. Vincent van Gogh was a very religious young man, but he was also very artistic as a young man. Both of these areas were huge parts of his life, but he never managed to find a proper synthesis between them as an adult.

 Some deeply religious artists will specifically use the beauty of their artwork to glorify God or give tributes to whatever spirituality they subscribe to in order to externalize their faith. Vincent van Gogh's artwork was primarily secular. He did indeed aspire to be a priest. However, Vincent van Gogh appeared to have been happier in the art world than he ever was in the world of religious faith. When Vincent van Gogh worked at the Groupil Gallery in London, he was earning more than his father. Retrospectives on his life seem to indicate that this was one of the happiest parts of his life, even though it was very brief.

 Vincent van Gogh's unrequited love for Eugenie Loyer caused him to suffer from a breakdown and return to a more religious way of life. He soon turned to obsessively reading the Bible and denouncing the art at his work until he was fired from the gallery. His religious reawakening led him to become a preacher and Methodist boys' school teacher, but he never ended up going to the School of Theology in Amsterdam, partly out of a disagreement with the Latin language requirement. Vincent van Gogh worked as a missionary after that, but the evangelical committees found his way of living off-putting enough that he was forced to leave that stage of his life behind. It is interesting to contemplate what would have happened if Vincent van Gogh had simply stayed a missionary.

 Vincent van Gogh officially became an artist in 1880, at the age of twenty-seven. The first painting retroactively declared a masterpiece that he ever created was 'Potato Eater,' and he created it in 1885. From then on, Vincent van Gogh became the dedicated and emotionally turbulent artist that history would never forget. Vincent van Gogh died at the age of thirty-seven in 1890. It is humbling to note that most of the brilliant work that Vincent van Gogh is known for was developed within a ten-year period, particularly during the last five years. He accomplished more in one decade than most people accomplish throughout their entire lives.

Vincent van Gogh and His Brother Theodore

 The most important personal relationship that Vincent van Gogh had throughout his life was probably with his younger brother Theodore. In fact, a good portion of what is known about van Gogh today has been filtered through this particular relationship, since it is based on the letters that these two men wrote to each other throughout their lives.

 It should be noted that van Gogh and Theo seem to have had a loving, albeit complicated relationship. Theo was generally in a better position financially than his brother Vincent, and he was the more emotionally stable of the two, which gave him a degree of power in their relationship. The fact that Vincent van Gogh wrote an astonishing six hundred letters to Theo, and Theo only wrote forty letters to his brother manages to speak volumes about their relationship wordlessly. Vincent would show up at his brother's house without an invitation, and he would test Theo's patience throughout their relationship.

 Theo was an art dealer, and he offered his older brother the financial support that he needed during the most crucial periods of his artistic development. However, Theo and Vincent van Gogh often had creative disagreements of the sort that business-people and artists are often going to have. When Vincent van Gogh was developing his own unique style, French impressionism was all the rage, and Theo would caution Vincent about the chances that his work would have in a cultural environment like that. Vincent van Gogh was not what one would call a good negotiator, which caused some conflict in their relationship. As an illustration of their relationship, Vincent literally died in his younger brother's arms a few days after Vincent had tried to shoot himself.

 It is easy to conceptualize Theo as the practical, down-to-earth younger sibling who idolized his cool and talented yet emotionally unstable older brother, and took the highs and the lows in the process. Vincent van Gogh had a troubled romantic life and tended to surround himself with people who were as unstable as he was or worse. Having a much more stable confidant like Theo probably made all the difference in terms of Vincent van Gogh's life, and it is interesting to speculate what his life would have been like without Theo.

 Is The Popular Story Involving Vincent van Gogh's Ear Apocryphal?

 The story involving Vincent van Gogh cutting off his ear is so widely known today that it almost doesn't functionally matter whether or not it is a true story. The public is probably going to continue to believe it one way or another. However, there is still a certain degree of controversy among historians as to whether or not it really happened in the way that people often think that it happened.

 Vincent van Gogh's friend Gauguin primarily supplied the official version of the story. This version has enough inconsistencies that there is still cause for doubt among modern people as to whether van Gogh had other motivations for cutting off his ear. However, it is doubtful that opinions about van Gogh, his body of work, and his overall personality would be much different regardless of his true motivations for cutting off his ear.

 Vincent van Gogh's Artistic Techniques and Education

 Some artists were trained under artistic masters and subsequently went on to develop their own styles afterward. Other people became artists after participating in a more modern, formal educational environment. Art academies have been producing talented artists for a long time. Vincent van Gogh was a self-educated artist.

 There are plenty of debates over whether self-education can create better artists or whether artists need formal education in order to truly succeed. Some people claim that formal education only trains people to draw and paint like art students. Other people will argue that artists need to become educated in the styles that preceded theirs, or they're never going to be able to produce anything that is truly unique. Oddly enough, the way in which Vincent van Gogh developed his technique seems to validate both arguments at once.

 Vincent van Gogh read drawing books almost obsessively. He also really broke down art into its essential elements and went to work trying to master each one of them first in order to achieve the level of proficiency that he wanted. He learned black and white drawing before he started working with color, making black and white drawing something of a foundation for him. He also did his own experiments with perspective in order to truly interpret what he was seeing correctly. Vincent van Gogh also extensively read the biographies of other artists.

 Really, he more or less gave himself an art school education, despite devising it independently. Vincent van Gogh still more or less did everything on his own that he would have done as a student at a formal art school.

 Vincent van Gogh's relationship with other artists is complex. On the one hand, he wrote many letters to other artists and found impressionist art inspiring. He was similarly inspired by Japanese art and philosophy. On the other hand, he was known to get into quarrels with other artists on a fairly regular basis, to the point of alienating quite a few of them. Vincent van Gogh achieved a degree of emotional stability through his art, but his inconsistencies in his personal relationships probably owe a lot to his emotional inconsistencies in general.

 Vincent van Gogh's Reception and Legacy

 The notion that Vincent van Gogh didn't sell a single painting during his lifetime is a very popular one. Many people romanticize the concept of artists who didn't really become famous until after they died, and Vincent van Gogh's life story is often shaped to fit that narrative. The narrative is more dramatic if he didn't make a single sale. However, van Gogh did at least sell one painting during his lifetime: the Red Vineyards near Arles.

 The Red Vineyards near Arles is one of van Gogh's more underrated paintings today. People today can see it at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. He got four hundred francs for it at the time, which would be the equivalent of just over one thousand dollars today. Of course, the fact that it is worth millions of dollars today nicely symbolizes how van Gogh's legacy compares to the reception that he did receive during his life.

 Some of Vincent van Gogh's paintings are more recognizable than others for people today. However, the man was nothing if not prolific. A total of one hundred fifty watercolor paintings have been attributed to him, in addition to over one thousand drawings. More Vincent van Gogh paintings still manage to turn up now and again, after people realize that the paintings that they had all those years were the genuine article, and not the products of imitators. His thirty self-portraits help illustrate the ways in which his style and technique improved with age.

 Did Vincent Van Gogh Have the Quintessential Artistic Temperament?

 When people talk about the artistic temperament, Vincent van Gogh's name will come up more than almost any other artist. Artists are popularly believed to be significantly more likely to face emotional problems of all kinds. At best, many people have the perception that artists are always quirky and eccentric. Vincent van Gogh embodies many of the popular perceptions about artists to the point where his own personality seems to have become the standard by which the personalities of many artists are judged, for better or for worse.

 When artists are emotionally stable, people will often say that they compare favorably with Vincent van Gogh. When artists suffer from mental illness or when they are prone to dramatic and unusual behavior, people will often reference Vincent van Gogh. It is interesting to contemplate what Vincent van Gogh himself would have thought about this development.

 Most people know about the historical anecdote involving van Gogh cutting off his ear. They also recognize van Gogh as the sort of artistic genius who only appears once in a lifetime, if that. Many people are able to recognize van Gogh's paintings for the brilliant works of art that they are. In all likelihood, on that basis alone, van Gogh would be pleased with his legacy.

 Many people who have the artistic temperament, such as it is, don't necessarily object to being perceived as very different, even if it means that people think they're crazy. Being unique is important to them, as is self-expression. Vincent van Gogh was extremely dedicated to his craft, and the fact that his efforts most certainly did not go to waste would probably mean more to him than the fact that the public seems to be overly familiar with the story about his ear.

Discussions involving the artistic temperament tend to leave out the fact that artistic genius is very much a developmental process. Artists put in a great deal of time and effort in order to achieve the level of mastery that they do, even if many of them are going to have some degree of natural talent. The image of a diligent and dedicated artist doesn't always intersect well with the notion of the mad and disorganized artist.

With regards to Vincent van Gogh, it should be noted that the stereotype of a mad genius is never going to manage to sum up anyone's personality. Real historical figures are always more complex than that. It is possible that even the stereotype ought to have more layers to it. Emotionally damaged people often turn to art for the sake of working through troubling feelings or externalizing those feelings. However, that doesn't mean that the art itself is a simple coping mechanism that could have been easily substituted with any other activity. Their dedication to the craft is just as real.

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