Why Van Gogh Inspires Me

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Growing up, I used to hear the name Vincent van Gogh and feel disgusted, thinking, “Oh, yeah. That’s that crazy guy who cut off his ear and must have spent too much time sniffing his paint.” He didn’t really mean anything more to me than that, which I was perfectly fine with. To me, he was some artist who went insane, nothing more.   
Then I grew up and learned more about him. 
And in one single, random moment of my life, when I was lying in a chair at the dentist’s, waiting for him to begin root canal surgery, I looked around the room and saw the most beautiful painting I had ever seen, and that’s when I realized I was wrong about van Gogh. 
It’s called “Starry Night Over the Rhone,” the lesser known starry night van Gogh painted in his lifetime. It reminds me of the way the church and house lights reflect in the river near my home. It reminds me of the way it rains in town, covering the streets in puddles that grab every glitter of light and stretch it into long columns on the asphalt. It is the way van Gogh saw light, and by that fact alone, incredibly priceless. 
And back in that dentist’s office, I was mesmerized by it, mesmerized by the artist who I soon discovered wasn’t what I had always thought he was. 
The truth is that van Gogh is a miracle, really. A man who lived a hard life marked by:

A brain lesion which may have given him severe nausea, headaches, impaired vision, slowness of speech, paralysis in one half of his body, aggression, personality changes, seizures, and memory loss

Epilepsy made worse by this brain lesion and his consumption of absinthe.  
Bipolar disorder and manic depression. 

Thujone poisoning from the absinthe, which he drank to combat his anxiety and depression. 

Lead poisoning from the paints he used. 

Sunstroke and hypergraphia, or the need to write continuously. 

Losing his position as a preacher, his first passion, you could say, because he gave so much of what he had to the poor and his superiors didn’t find it dignified.  

Episodes of sudden terror and lapses of consciousness. 

Major fits of anxiety and mood swings. 

To put it simply, van Gogh was quite broken his whole life, and yet, he painted. He painted beautiful things, remarkable things that came, not from appreciation of beauty necessarily, but from pain. Deep, gnawing pain that he turned into light and flowers and trees and stars. 
Not only did he paint great things, but he said great things:
“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”  

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.” 
What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”

“As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.” 

“I feel such a creative force in me: I am convinced that there will be a time when, let us say, I will make something good every day, on a regular basis….I am doing my very best to make every effort because I am longing so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things mean painstaking work, disappointment, and perseverance.” 

I’ve often wondered at van Gogh’s strength, at his power to keep creating and sharing beauty when his life was dark and lonely. His heart was broken by disappointment and discouragement, his neighbors and friends abandoned him, and yet, he kept going. I wonder about that because sometimes, my life is a little dark and very lonely. My heart is broken and I hurt.

It’s always baffled me that at these moments of pain, I write the most often. And van Gogh never stopped painting in his pain, right? Maybe that’s the order of the universe. Maybe trials and heartache are as near to inspiration and creativity as peace and meditation. Maybe we have to be disappointed and heartbroken sometimes so that we can paint starry skies and blog advice about life for somebody else who’s going to go through the same things. Maybe God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us talents to use as tools when Satan makes it seem like we are nothing, that no one cares about us or our lives. We can retreat to the Lord to heal inwardly, but we can also lead the front and do something with what we know and have to heal outwardly. Van Gogh often talked about how he painted to show other people beauty and happiness, and I wonder if he also did so because he had to find a way to heal himself. Maybe “Starry Night Over the Rhone” was his way of proving to the world, yes, especially himself, that there is hope, even in the darkest of circumstances.

Maybe we all do that, too.

I guess this is me saying that this blog is my “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” I don’t write because I’m strong. Heaven knows how weak I am. I write because life is hard, because I get my heart broken, because I get lonely sometimes. I write because I’m human. And I guess I write because I hope that someday someone will read this stuff and see home. See the stars and the reflection of light looking back at them.

Even when everything seems dark. 

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2 comments

  1. Nicely researched and written. Van Gogh is my favorite painter. There is something intangible in his work which speaks to me.

  2. A long time ago, I saw the movie “Lust for Life” directed by Vincent Minnelli (Meet Me in St, Louis” “An American in Paris”, etc. and starring Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh.

    The painting Cafe’ Terrace at Night was featured in the movie.

    It was the first painting in which he used starry backgrounds.

    In a letter (written in French of course) from Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh, (his sister) Arles, 9 and 16 September 1888, he said: “I was only interrupted by my work on a new painting representing the exterior of a night café. On the terrace there are small figures of people drinking. An immense yellow lantern illuminates the terrace, the facade, the side walk and even casts light on the paving stones of the road which take a pinkish violet tone. The gables of the houses, like a fading road below a blue sky studded with stars, are dark blue or violet with a green tree. Here you have a night painting without black, with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green and in this surrounding the illuminated area colours itself sulfur pale yellow and citron green. It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot. Normally, one draws and paints the painting during the daytime after the sketch. But I like to paint the thing immediately. It is true that in the darkness I can take a blue for a green, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since it is hard to distinguish the quality of the tone. But it is the only way to get away from our conventional night with poor pale whitish light, while even a simple candle already provides us with the richest of yellows and oranges.”

    The second painting in which he used starry backgrounds was this one…”Starry Night Over the Rhone”.

    He wrote about this one to his brother, Theo: “Included a small sketch of a 30 square canvas – in short the starry sky painted by night, actually under a gas jet. The sky is aquamarine, the water is royal blue, the ground is mauve. The town is blue and purple. The gas is yellow and the reflections are russet gold descending down to green-bronze. On the aquamarine field of the sky the Great Bear is a sparkling green and pink, whose discreet paleness contrasts with the brutal gold of the gas. Two colorful figurines of lovers in the foreground.”

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