Vincent Van Gogh


Carpenter’s Workshop Seen from the Artist’s Studio  The Hague, May 1882 Pencil, pen, brush, heightened with white 28.5 x 47 cm Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller


They say it’s who you know.

Vincent Van Gogh knew everybody. His family was in the art business, selling prints and hustling great art to the masses. He became friends with Gauguin who was already in the door of the art world himself. He studied with established, distinguished artists of his day. He knew all the dealers either personally or through his family contacts.

But he never sold anything. Nothing. Ever.

Now, this is a little bit of a cheat for he did receive a few commissions which he mostly didn’t deliver, but of his own originating work: bupkis.

How is it possible that work of such fantastical genius could go ignored? Well, sometimes it’s who you know, and they all knew Vincent.

He was loud, he was beggarly, he stank most days, wore rags as often as not, was violent, paranoid, and argumentative. When feeling religious he’d walk about stock stiff with the sword of revelation running down his spine telling everyone exactly what was wrong with them.  He’d work himself into such a state that the very bristles of his hair seemed to ring his head in a spiny halo as each follicle fought to free itself from his mad, mars-red flesh.  He was a scary dude who in the same letter would tell his brother he was dead broke and oh, by the way, I’ve taken in a pregnant whore so I may need some extra money for a while.

Fortunately for us all, Vincent’s brother Theo was a saint. Theo was that rare person who could see beyond his brother’s desperate illness to the gentle, wondering artist inside. Few could have believed in those days that such an absolute failure of a human being could at the same time wield such staggering intellect and discipline.  The letters from Vincent to Theo are truly one of the gifts of literature, offering exalted language on a difficult art and providing real insights into the burning madness of a creative genius. When you read Vincent’s letters you realize that he could easily have been a great writer had he not had a more compelling attraction to the visual arts.  Van Gogh’s command of language is wonderful to behold if only for the countless ways he finds to ask for money.  I don’t really mean to be funny here, for one of the real drags in reading his correspondence is how he constantly maneuvers to make himself look both more noble and more needy at the same time. But back to language, Émile Zola, a fabulous author, said art is “Nature as seen through a temperament.” Compare this to Van Gogh from his letter to Theo, “Art is man added to nature.”  Simpler, more elegant, more poetic, Van Gogh makes Zola look like a prolixian punk.

I offer the sketch above instead of one of his more famous oils. It is there to remind us that there is no such thing as “accidental genius.”  Van Gogh spent nearly two years doing nothing more than drawing, because he thought an artist ought to know how to draw if he was ever going to paint anything worthwhile.  In all that time he sold nothing. Nada. Zip.

This is a very prosaic drawing. It has no hidden meanings, it is just what he saw looking out his window. Van Gogh was a great believer in working with what he was given. The view out the window is free, so that’s what he draws. Simple as that. He knew instinctively the secret of the universe, that all subjects are equal in the ways they lead us to art and to the eternal. He gave us sowers, workers at the loom, potato eaters.  We work our way bit by bit through to the art: this is the pencil, the pencil leads to the line, the line to the point, the point to the atom, the atom to the strings of creation that shimmer and shake and burst in flashes of color, the fiery synapses of neurons in the mind of God.  Who can doubt when looking at his later work that, braver than Moses, Van Gogh stared into the burning bush and spent the rest of his short, tragic life bringing it to the rest of us, even as it consumed him.

This drawing is simple and straightforward, but it is a lesson for our You Tube age when everybody seems to want to be hailed as a creative genius right away. Sometimes you have to do the work first. You can point to success stories in every direction, people who make fortunes before they are grown. But those people are rarely free. They are owned by managers and handlers and PR types who dictate their every cold-hearted move. No one ever dictates anything to the Van Goghs of the world. Nothing. Zero. Squadoosh.

I would rather be Miles Davis than Justin Bieber; I would rather be Van Gogh and mad than Leroy Neiman and sane.

Maybe Van Gogh was naïve thinking an artist ought to learn to draw before he tried his hand at serious painting. Who cares any more? Hell, the computer is going to render the image for you, anyway. But this is what Van Gogh said about such practical little steps in a letter to Theo: “So everything is prosaic, everything is calculation, as regards a plan that, after all, has poetry for its end.”

He dared, can you believe it? What effrontery! He consciously tried to make honest art that would live forever. The bastard really was mad.

What the heck, you guys have been good. Here’s one of his sower pictures, from 1888.


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8 Responses to Vincent Van Gogh

  1. Steve says:

    I am so glad you have a platform for teaching.

  2. catherine whittington says:

    All fine and good. I will argue a few points:

    “Sometimes you have to do the work first.” Not sometimes, always.

    “They are owned by managers and handlers and PR types who dictate their every cold-hearted move.” I take exception to including “PR types” … (unless you’re saying the fortune-hunting artists are cold-hearted, in which case carry on.)

    “I would rather be Miles Davis than Justin Bieber; I would rather be Van Gogh and mad than Leroy Neiman and sane.” The above insult notwithstanding, I’m glad you’re not either – I prefer you being a great writer who’s semi-sane.

  3. Dana Brenner says:

    You do have to be able to draw before you paint – learned that in college. Drawing teaches you to look and look hard at the subject matter
    . I look at the tiniest detail of his drawing and am able to see how it lead to his incredible, personal painting style.

  4. Robin Morrison says:

    Two or three times a year I encounter a blog I want to follow. You’re this year’s first.

  5. Pingback: Thomas Nast | The Automat

  6. Pingback: Albrecht Dürer | The Automat

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