Reclaiming Van Gogh
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”
— Vincent van Gogh
In 2011 two Harvard trained, Pulitzer prize-winning art historians published a door stop of a book that ticked off a few folks associated with the Van Gogh Museum.
Why did Van Gogh: The Life ruffle their feathers?
It tossed a healthy hunk of the van Gogh story into the same pile where pronouncements like, “the earth is flat” now rest.
I want to share two common beliefs about van Gogh that authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith proved false.
Because the dismantling of these two aspects of the van Gogh story, as I see it, offers up meaning and encouragement for to artists and writers.
Myth 1: Van Gogh was Never Recognized As a Great Artist
Fact 1: Van Gogh’s Star Was Actually on the Rise at the Time of His Death and He Was Respected by Several Colleagues
Believe it or not, van Gogh could be considered to have been on the verge of fame the year he died (1890).
Did you know the esteemed art critic Albert Aurier saw van Gogh’s work and published a review declaring him a genius while the artist was still alive?
Van Gogh was aware that Aurier referred to him as: “An intense and fantastic colorist,” “a grinder of golds and precious stones.” The critic went on to say van Gogh’s work was “vigorous, exalted, brutal,” as well as “unbelievably dazzling, at once entirely realistic and yet almost supernatural.”
And that’s only the opening paragraph .
Van Gogh was a revered source of inspiration for painter Edvard Munch as well as being an artist the fiercely competitive painter Paul Gauguin considered a worthy rival.
Despite suffering debilitating bouts of mental illness that admittedly set van Gogh apart from others, the artist was more connected and admired than his myth would have us believe.
Van Gogh Didn’t Go Mad Because He Couldn’t Sell His Work
Van Gogh did not go mad because critics ignored his work or because he thought it was never going to sell.
The Aurier review opened the door to invitations for van Gogh to show at galleries where his work would have sold.
Yet apparently van Gogh wasn’t over the moon about the prospect.
As an artist myself I understand how getting critical approval, awards and piles of money would be sweet.
But over time the very act of creating art can prove to be more sustaining than the garnering of society’s approval for that art.
For example my friend actor Denise McCanles used to waitress at The Source Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard by day, to act (without pay) at the Celebration Theater at night. Despite not being paid, those years were some of the happiest of her life so far. Because as she put it:
“I was immersed in my art 24-7 and I felt inspired, alive and fortunate to be surrounded by aspiring and famous theatre people both day and night— that was enough.”
“[…] And then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?” — Van Gogh
Myth 2: Van Gogh Absolutely Committed Suicide
Fact 2: Forensic Evidence Indicates It’s More Likely Van Gogh Was Shot From A Distance In a Field Where He Was Painting
Van Gogh didn’t kill himself because he was “unsuccessful” in the eyes of others.
In fact I don’t think he killed himself period. He was most likely murdered. Perhaps accidentally.
Not good news for van Gogh’s family or humanity but it’s the most accurate version of events available at this time.
Van Gogh: The Life’s last chapter and long appendix lays out a convincing argument that van Gogh was shot by a a local wild-west- loving teen bully and his pals who had taunted van Gogh verbally and physically since the eccentric genius’ early days in Arles.
This makes sense when you ask yourself: ‘If van Gogh wanting to end his life, why did he shoot himself (in the abdomen) in a remote field and then drag himself over a mile and a half on foot to return home?’
One of the world’s top ballistics experts concluded van Gogh’s wound was not self-inflicted.
Want more details? Read this 2014 article in Vanity Fair.
Persistent local stories that van Gogh was killed his by “young boys” had been recorded by a prominent scholar who visited Arles for his book on van Gogh in the early 1930s, before the suicide rumor gained firm footing.
If Van Gogh Didn’t Shoot Himself, Why Do We Think He Did?
The chief originator and purveyor of the suicide narrative (according to Naifeh and White) was artist and critic Émile Bernard.
The authors document Bernard’s penchant for writing gossip-filled, dramatic letters. At least one of these letters apparently spread the story that van Gogh took his own life.
But the reason the suicide story is part of our consciousness today may have less to do with Bernard and more to do with Kirk Douglas.
Blame It On Kirk Douglas
Well, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, novelist Irving Stone and Oscar-winning director Vincent Minnelli.
In 1934 Irving Stone’s first novel Lust for Life was published and became a run away best seller.
Stone never pretended his novel was anything other than a work of fiction based on van Gogh’s life.
And when Stone’s book was transformed into a Technicolor film in 1956, the suicide story was set in the minds of the public like a bug in amber.
“The book and later film “Lust for Life” have, more than anything else, shaped the public perception of Vincent van Gogh.”
— Bernadette Murphy, author of Van Gogh’s Ear.
Why Didn’t Vincent Tell People He Had Been Shot?
The prevailing theory is van Gogh, being the gracious kind of man that he was, wanted to protect the futures of the young bullies who shot him.
Can you imagine the love, equanimity of spirit, and lack of regard for approval that it would take to not correct other’s perception that you shot yourself, when in fact someone else shot you?
If it was me, I’d have shouted my head off about it the second I limped in.
But van Gogh was known to be highly evolved emotionally and spiritually. He wrote:
“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”— Vincent van Gogh
What Love Has To Do With It
No one but van Gogh knows what happened that day.
But it seems even in the midst of, or perhaps because of his bouts with mental illness, Van Gogh knew what mattered.
Love of art, love of nature, love of spirit, love of people.
“Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.” — Vincent van Gogh
I say we reclaim van Gogh.
Not as a tragic victim of circumstance, nor as the highest priced artist in history, but as a role model of the importance of making art you love, with love, even if no one ever writes about it or buys a stick of it.
One day after reading a biography of van Gogh then aspiring singer/songwriter Don Maclean passionately scribbled out the lyrics for “Vincent,” on a brown paper bag.
Maclean wrote the song because he wanted to communicate to the local school kids he sang for during the day that Vincent wasn’t “crazy.”
Tupac Shakur loved Mclean’s song so much, his girlfriend chose to play it on an old tape deck for him on his deathbed.
Give it a listen again, It’s not just an ode to van Gogh.
I think it also acts as a Rumi-like love poem that hits home for us sensitive, eccentric, creative types — who like van Gogh— never quite “fit in.”
If you liked this post you might like to read my post on O’Keeffe, Dali, Rachel Carson , Hopper & Matisse , Beatrice Wood or Frida Kahlo.
Has van Gogh touched your life or your art in some way?
Why do think many people have never heard this version of events about van Gogh?
Leave a comment, I want to learn from your opinion!
Trailer For the Film That Spread The Suicide Ending To Van Gogh’s Story: