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Vincent van Gogh's life: Success or Failure?

By Gary McDonald

During Vincent's lifetime his critics declared him a failure. But one hundred and nine years after his death, modern society's love of his paintings and personal letters provide proof of the creative acceptance he was denied while he lived. Unlike the period in which they were created, these objects signify and represent the success van Gogh yearned to achieve.

During the Post-Romanticism period, criticism and turmoil permeate the arts, and seldom does an artist leave a paper trail of texts and visuals as brilliant and revealing as those from Vincent van Gogh. His letters give the reader insight into his life's story. They deliver the state of mind and spirit in which his art is produced, as well as a running commentary on his progress. They reveal his personal relationships and reinforce current psychological insight into van Gogh the man and the artist. His letters define his views on that which becomes the most important aspect of his entire life: his paintings.

In 1890, society viewed his suicidal self-inflicted gunshot wound as murder and dealt with his demise as though his last act on earth was a crime against society. He was buried without reasonable respect or ceremony in observance of their culture. In today's environment, suicide is viewed as the result of an illness treated unsuccessfully. Mental health conditions such as depression will affect 18% of Canadians at some point in their life; in 67% of those affected, medication is an effective treatment (Dr. Norman Endler). If van Gogh could have received this help, his life may have been prolonged. Of course he didn't; he died much too young, and quietly left an enormous legacy: his art and his letters. Given the worldwide acceptance of his work and genius, Post-Romanticism art-lovers have declared Vincent van Gogh's life an indisputable success. They purchase his paintings for enormous sums when they are infrequently placed on the market. In the case of van Gogh and other break-through artists, it takes the public decades to appreciate their artistic value and their genius. Wealthy art lovers pay millions of dollars for his paintings. Students of art and the humanities study his letters and paintings because of the impact they have made in the world of art; his life is the epitome of the thoughtful Post-Romanticism Artist at work.

Is it possible that van Gogh knew of the eventual acceptance of his style and paintings? My guess is "no." In a letter to his younger brother Theo from London dated March 6, 1875 he writes, "Don't regret that your life is too easy, mine is rather easy too; I think that life is pretty long and that the time will arrive soon enough in which 'another shall gird thee and carry thee where thou wouldst not'" (Roskill 89). At this point in his life, van Gogh is studying for the Ministry and continually quotes the Bible and trusts his destiny to God. In another letter to Theo from Paris dated September 17, 1875 he writes, "A feeling, even a keen one for the beauties of Nature is not the same as a religious feeling, though I think these two stand in close relation to one another"(Roskill 91). Unlike many of the artists of his day and of the Romantic Period, he has a strong faith in God as well as the love of nature. He writes in the same letter, "Let us become rich in God..." van Gogh continues, "Let us ask that our part in life should be to become the poor in the kingdom of God, God's servants" (Roskill 91). These utterances indicate that his attachment to worldly possessions is slim, or non-existent, and that whatever he and his brother Theo will achieve will be through God's will. It is with these thoughts and his dependence on God for the future, that he fails to develop the interpersonal skills that are necessary for his success and acceptance. Vincent van Gogh continues his retreat from society.

In mid August 1883, Vincent forges his destiny when he declares in a letter to Theo written in The Hague, "My firm resolve is to be dead to anything but my work…" and he continues in the next paragraph, "There is no anguish greater than the soul's struggle between duty and love, both in their highest meaning. When I tell you I choose my duty, you will understand" (Roskill 203). Closer to the end of this letter, he seals his fate with these poignant and heartfelt words, "Duty is absolute. The consequences? We are not responsible for them but for the choice of doing or not doing our duty, we are responsible. This is the direct opposite of the principle: The end justifies the means." At the end of this revealing letter he sets the tone and direction for the rest of his life when he writes, "…but you understand that I trust in the future with serenity, and without one line in my face revealing the struggle in the deepest depth—You will understand, however, that I must avoid everything which might tempt me to hesitate, so that I must avoid everything and everyone that would remind me of her"(Roskill 204/5). Vincent never recovered from Kee's [her] rejection of his love, and consequently, throws his life into an unbalanced state with a narrow existence: a concentration on his paintings to the exclusion of other natural and human pursuits. His motivation to master the use of colour and brush techniques, when combined with his insatiable desire to "…express the sentiment better…" (Letter, early August 1883) (Rothskill 198) drove him to the excellence we venerate today.

His letters are the written proof of the man Vincent van Gogh was: what he thought about, what was important to him, what he did with his time on earth and whom he loved. It has been said, that whatever we do in life, we should leave some thoughts in writing for our loved ones. Vincent van Gogh left seven hundred and fifty letters, eight hundred and seventy paintings to uncover his wisdom and talent as a painter, a thinker, a humanitarian and a man who "wanted to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures—not made to please a certain cult in art, but to express a sincere human feeling"(Letter, The Hague, early August 1883) (Rothskill 202).

If it were possible for Vincent to hear and see the impact his art's sincere human feelings have made on the last half of the 20th century art-loving world, he might lean over and say, 'I wasn't sure Theo, but I felt it would come to this, we did it, didn't we? We're a success at last.'

Works Cited

Roskill, Mark. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. London: Flamingo, 1983.

Endler, Dr. Norman. The National Bureau of Economic Research.

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