One of my favorite artists of all time is Vincent Van Gogh. The rich color and deep emotive quality of his paintings have always struck a deep chord with me. But it wasn’t until just recently that I began to learn more about the man. As I began to dig into the life of the artist, I was deeply moved by what I found.
Vincent Van Gogh – the famous Dutch artist who greatly influenced 20th century art - was a man of deep personal faith in Christ. Moved by his desire “to preach the gospel everywhere,” Van Gogh served as a Methodist minister’s assistant as a young man. When he wasn’t doodling, he translated passages of the bible to English, French and German. (Believe it or not, Van Gogh didn’t pick up a paint brush until he was almost 30 years old! Just think,what might the world be missing out on because you have yet to attempt that which you dream about?!)
Van Gogh later moved to Amsterdam with the intent of studying theology a school there. When he was unable to pass the entrance exam, however, he opted to study for a brief time at a protestant missions school near Brussels instead.
It was from here that Van Gogh went to the missions field. Moved by his personal conviction to spread the gospel, he took up a temporary missionary position as an evangelist in small mining community in Belgium. Interestingly, Van Gogh committed to live a poor, meager lifestyle amongst the mining workers in order to adopt their way of life and to minister to them. The local priesthood, however, didn’t like that. They didn’t like that at all. So they dismissed the passionate young man for what they called, “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.”
As one might expect, this had a profound effect on Van Gogh. Personally, I’m not sure he ever fully recovered from it.
As he grew older, Van Gogh was an increasingly troubled man who never seemed to be able to reconcile what he understood about God with what he perceived in the church. Van Gogh understood all too well that one can know all of the right answers about God and yet be so far from him.
Here is an excerpt from a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in October of 1884:
“I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm - but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.
Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, You can’t do a thing. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerises some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can’t’ once and for all.
Life itself, too, is forever turning an infinitely vacant, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears, any more than it does on a blank canvas. But no matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily. He wades in and does something and stays with it, in short, he violates, “defiles” - they say. Let them talk, those cold theologians.”
There is so much here about courage, risk and excellence, but I especially love the way Van Gogh ends: “Let them talk, those cold theologians.” I can relate with that.