The Great Fire of Van Gogh
“There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke through the chimney.”
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo in 1880 in which he recounted, “They [the evangelists] exclude the man with an open mind. Their God is like the God of Shakespeare's drunken Falstaff, “the inside of a church.” This was his first letter to Theo in over a year, which had been their longest drought in correspondence to date. In this letter to Theo, Vincent also compared himself to a caged bird that desperately needed to be set free. He needed another way to serve God, to find God. Desperately needing to be set free from the bounds of religion and the caged bars of the Church, he left. It was only a few months later that he decided to devote himself to his “drawings.” In his next letter to Theo, he said, “But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course…first the pain, then the joy.”
For van Gogh, God no longer existed in ministry work, which was how he had previously understood serving God. The development of van Gogh’s theology is as intriguing as van Gogh’s art because the two are nearly indistinguishable. Grant claims, “People are drawn not just by the paintings but also by the man who painted them…homage to the man and admiration of his art are all but inseparable here.” Van Gogh’s life and theology are an integral part of the evolution of his art.
Van Gogh lived most of the summer of 1890 in Auvers, France just north of Paris where his brother Theo lived. Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Wheatfield With Crows” is considered one of his last paintings, if not his final painting. In a letter to Theo in May 1890, he described, “They are immense stretches of wheat fields under turbulent skies, and I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness.” This painting, near the end of van Gogh’s life, captures an intensity and ferocity of emotion that van Gogh possessed after his time in the clinic at Saint-Remy. Harry Eiss considers this painting, “a brilliant expression both foreshadowing the suicide and giving it a wonderfully complex expression filled with meaning.” In a blinding contrast, Vincent’s turbulent sky meets golden wheatfield where a flock of crows stirs violently into the blue. In the painting, all of the crows fly in the same direction except for one that is left alone in the turbulent sky. Perhaps, this symbolized where van Gogh saw himself–– set to fly isolated under treacherous blue heavens. His brother noted that Vincent was depressed during his visit to Paris earlier that July, and within weeks Vincent assumedly shot himself. In his final month, van Gogh expressed feelings of regret in many of his letters as he recounted old memories and his recent visit to Paris. The pain in Vincent’s life is evident, but whether or not this pain that drove him to commit suicide remains in question.
When considering Vincent’s “Wheatfield With Crows,” one is left with the haunting images of black crows scattering from the wheat––tricksters in the sky, overturning sanity and bringing the turmoil of insanity. We imagine the sadness that van Gogh desired to express in this painting, and where van Gogh’s theology was during his final days. Van Gogh’s friend Emile Bernard wrote after his funeral, “He is lowered into the grave. Who could not have cried at that moment; this day was so much made for him that one could not help thinking that it could have still made him happy.” Van Gogh’s sorrow became the sheer isolation that he had observed and felt so viscerally. No longer was he experiencing the disappointment of a failed career in the ministry of the Church and no longer did he struggle to realize his gift as an artist and live with the constant struggles in relationships. Rather, van Gogh was left with a searing sadness of isolation, loneliness, and regret. One of van Gogh’s great successes was that he accomplished his goal of expressing raw emotion with his art. This extreme emotion is contained within van Gogh’s unrestrained golden brush strokes clashing against the dark blue sky as the crows scatter amongst the chaos.
Van Gogh’s theological evolution over the course of a decade and a half was sincerely marked by his experiences of suffering. While struggles were certainly not all that characterized van Gogh’s life during this time, it is undeniable that his sadness influenced the trajectory of his art and the expression his theology. His suffering aided his ability to identify with the struggles of the working class, which opened his potential to not only create astounding works of art around them but to also develop an incredibly robust theology that expanded beyond the Church of his homestead. His thought development was thorough, and while his usage of Scripture faded over time, his wrestling with the theological issues of reality did not. Wherever the Bible lacked, his experience and art expanded. His God was also more than the God of suffering. He not only identified with the suffering Jesus, but he also demanded more out of life. He was convinced that a bitter pill of faith was not all that could be offered by spiritually because he had experienced the spiritual wonder that his art brought. The awe within his creative experience was the greatest expression of his theology. The black and white pages and the red letters of Jesus could not capture the raw emotion of van Gogh’s reality. Van Gogh’s world was scathing with clashing golden wheat against raging blue sky.