“Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.” – Vincent Van Gogh.
Culture is a discourse constructed on the shaky ground of narrative. The history of the arts requires an angle, and the angle applied to the narrative surrounding Vincent Van Gogh is one of a troubled genius, a painter whose pioneering works were placed in the hands of time and slid through the fingers of her ungrateful grasp, resulting in dejection and ultimately suicide. His pictures have forever been coloured in the retrospective lustre of solemnity, some dower notion that behind the beauty lies the double-tragedy that they were the product of suffering and their creator never got to bask in the boon of recognitions glow. Van Gogh’s story has been recapitulated a thousand times over, and usually, it is a misbegotten falsehood.
The story goes that at the age of sixteen, in 1869, Van Gogh began his painting apprenticeship with the internationally renowned Goupil & Cie. By the age of 23, in Paris 1876, Van Gogh was dismissed by the company. He spent the next five years as a disenchanted wayfarer weaving a winding path through the cities of Europe. In 1881, Vincent finally returned home and lived with his parents. By this point, Van Gogh’s younger brother, and closest sibling, Theo Van Gogh, had also started working for Goupil & Cie, but unlike Vincent, he had risen to a prominent position in management and began to support his older brother financially, sending money home from Paris. With a combination of guilt and gratitude bubbling away within Vincent, he vowed to repay his brother through the profits of his art. He sent the paintings to Theo to sell, but the Parisian audience dismissed them, and no such profits were forthcoming. Many believe that it was from this seeded marriage of unwavering determination continually being closed off by fate and the guilt of servitude to a younger sibling that his unstable mental state began to stir, and the genius of his work flowered without fruits.
Around this time, his style came to the fore. His iconic short sharp brush strokes began to dominate his works, and his canvasses were soaked in the sanguine colours of summer. Still, failure followed. In late 1888, he mailed his ear to a sex worker. He spent the following year in a psychiatric hospital, where he produced the bulk of his major works. Starry Night depicts the view from an Asylum window, where he would sit by his easel.
He absorbed the beauty of a balmy day like a sponge and rung it out in a kaleidoscopic splurge on canvas, illuminating the stars in the swirl of spiderwebs as though distant setting suns had abseiled the heavens on silk and lowered themselves for a closer look at the beauty below them in the cover of gathering dusk. Now sadly, that painting and its night brighter than day brilliance, the effervescence of the firmament and its butter-brushed tones, are coloured like the beautiful yet fevered thoughts of an asylum patient as opposed to the art of man relishing in the magic of the night. The notion of a troubled genius tragically unrecognised in his time won out over the notion of a genius with troubles whose circumstances precluded recognition. This notable difference embalms the rest of his narrative and has been propagated in the broader story of culture forevermore, crystallising the angle of the woe begotten artist and his dejected final fate.
By 1890, after his prolific year in hospital, he slowly began to be recognised. However, shortly after the casual uptake in appreciation of his work, his brother decided that he would leave his comfortable position and start a business of his own. For years Vincent had been depressed about being a financial burden for his younger brother, and now that worry was suddenly exacerbated. In a lifetime mired by folly and misfortune, this was the blow that broke Vincent’s will and, aged 37, in 1890, he shot himself in the act of suicide and later died in his brothers loving arms on the 29th of July, leaving behind nearly 1300 works of art on paper and more than 850 paintings in total. Or at least that is the story depicted in Irving Stone’s classic novel, which was transposed into film and passed on through history thereafter as the accepted tale.
However, the truth is far more mysterious, and fortunately, it is brushed with considerably more hope and humanity. The work of biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White-Smith has uncovered various discrepancies in the story of his final days. Traditionally the tale was that he walked through town one morning with his easel and painting equipment in toe. He began work in a field before deciding he had had enough and shooting himself in the heart, missing, blacking out, later reawakening and walking back into town only to die in bed as a result of his wound.
The damning material evidence for this widely accepted tale is that Vincent didn’t own or have access to a revolver. Furthermore, modern ballistics dictates that if the bullet did not leave his body, he must have been shot from a distance. Somehow, he also completely missed his heart. The gun was never found, and neither was the easel he had carried out with him earlier that day.
Circumstantial evidence also seems to refute the notion of suicide. For instance, why would he take an easel out with him anyway? Why would he choose to shoot himself in the abdomen? And why would he wander back into town hiding his wound, to later be found by his landlord covered in blood only to tell him, “I wounded myself in the fields,” and “don’t accuse anyone.”
The alternate story is one that has been held in Auvers-sur-Oise – the French town where Vincent lived and died – since it happened. Vincent had become friends with a local boy, Gaston Secrétan, who wished to be a painter. As Van Gogh sat by his easel in the fields, the boy would discuss art with him, asking for tips and anecdotes about the various art scenes and galleries of Europe, galleries where the works perched before them on Van Gogh’s easel would later hang. This friendship was a tonic to Van Gogh’s troubles, and for that, the artist was happy to endure the endless pranks and teasing of Gaston’s younger brother René.
René Secrétan and other local lads would mock Van Gogh unendingly for his general eccentric appearance, best described in a holistic sense as dog-eared. They would prank the artist as he painted in the field, lacquering the tip of the paintbrush that he would lick with chilli powder when he wasn’t around and generally bullying him. One day, René journeyed into Paris with his family to watch a Buffalo Bill show. The young boy was so enamoured by the performance that when he returned to Auvers-sur-Oise, he was dressed in full cowboy drag, complete with a working revolver in a pistol holster. In the days immediately following Van Gogh’s fatal wounding, the Secrétan boys were taken by their father to Paris. When they returned, René’s revolver was never to be seen again. Thus, it is the view in Auvers-sur-Oise and corroborated by tireless research on the part of biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White-Smith that Vincent was shot accidentally after a quarrel between the two brothers, and Vincent’s final acts were to ensure that nobody was punished for the tragic catastrophe.
Regardless of exactly how Vincent’s final days unfurled, it would seem that the angle with which his life has largely been approached has been a falsehood. The mythologised fateful end to his life has imbued his entire existence with a shade of sorrowful lament. The rhetoric is that his paintings came from a place of darkness, as though it was the necessary fuel that ignited the transfiguration of inner-turmoil onto a scorch-marked canvas, and that this tragedy is only furthered by the fact that such a pained outpour was only ever met with failure. However, whilst it may indeed be lamentable that he never got to enjoy the munificent rewards of his honest toil, this is but an asterisk attached to the glorious celebration of life in all its guises that his work embodied. His paintings represent the defiant sheltered flame of hope, inviolable to the darkness that sometimes howled around it.
It seems that, if anything, his poignant output encapsulates an often-touted quote on creativity put forward by the legendary writer Kurt Vonnegut, when he said: “Nobody will stop you from creating. Do it tonight. Do it tomorrow. That is the way to make your soul grow – whether there is a market for it or not! The kick of creation is the act of creating, not anything that happens afterward. [Create], and you will discover that you have your reward.” Van Gogh’s work sings of this soul-growing boon.
He may have suffered a lot in life, but his art offered an exultant escape from this rather than being a product of it. When painting the sky was always a blissful azure blue, complete with the “yellow and orange” that goes into it. With a brush in hand, he was huffing the hue of the heavens that he was casting in colour. As he said himself, “I dreamed of painting and, then I painted my dream.” His work and the slowly changing narrative surrounding it invokes the grander notion that through the tumult of his life, Van Gogh parted the clouds and saw the beauty of brighter days beyond, a beauty that now millions get to share in via galleries all over the world.