Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Joy of Van Gogh

Van Gogh's Sunflowers was the first painting I ever paid attention to. My mother bought a copy when I was about 10 years old and hung it on the wall in our entry hall.  Following decorating whims and changing addresses, she placed it above the piano, a bed, buffet table, but never gave it away or tucked it in a closet.  When she downsized from her two-story home to a two-bedroom apartment last year, she parted with boxes of possessions, but Sunflowers was always in her "To Keep" pile.  Today it hangs in her bedroom at the retirement community, having been a joyful companion for 50 years.

The name "Vincent" written midway up the vase, intrigued me.  I remember looking in the "V" book, one of the skinniest volumes in my grandparents' World Book Encyclopedia collection, to learn more about him.  I'm sure the basic biography was there -- birth, brief 37 years of life, tragic death, ear-cutting-off incident, insanity, along with a description of his art and selected paintings.  That limited story was all I, and probably most people, knew of Vincent, although there has certainly been much research conducted and scholarly books written about him since.  But nothing to match what was published just two weeks ago.

For the past 10 years authors, Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh grew closer to Vincent Van Gogh than a nosey next-door neighbor.  The only thing they didn't have access to, besides the man himself, was the garbage he might have tossed out in the alley behind his rented rooms in Arles or trash can in the insane asylum at St. Remy Hospital.  The book is 1000 pages long with 6000 more pages of research notes online!  Van Gogh: The Life.

Gregory White Smith (left) and Steven Naifeh signing
books after their presentation
I sat enthralled like a school child hearing the next chapter of a suspenseful "Read-Aloud," as the authors told the audience what they had learned about Van Gogh. The auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was nearly filled with Van Gogh fans, many of us with notebooks and pens, trying to keep up with Naifeh and Smith.  New facts about his life added to the familiar story, while others were unexpected. For example, I never pictured Vincent as a reader, an intellectual, yet the authors said that he  read voraciously in a variety of genres.  He spoke four languages.

Yet, it was through their descriptions of his overwhelming sadness, isolation and pain that I began to understand why I have loved his paintings since childhood.  The authors described Vincent's art as "inner directed."  "His life and art are interwoven; his art expresses what it's like to be human," they said.
Beyond the vibrancy of the colors, the movement in sky and tree, I "feel" the person who
created. . .

                                                                Starry Night

                                                       Bedroom at Arles

Wheatfield with Crows

and so many more.      

As Mr. Smith simply said at the end of their discussion, "Vincent created jubilant art from a sad life."  Where he found the joy, how he touched it and gave it a face through his art, remains a mystery to me.  Perhaps I will learn as I read the book, or perhaps that mystery is better solved by standing in front of one of his paintings.

(Today I ordered two copies, one for myself and the other for. . . my mother.)


  1. There's just something about his work, isn't there? It is joyous, passionate. I have his irises with me. And his sunflowers. And Starry Night is always in my classroom.

  2. The movement and colors are so vital and really unique. The 3 paintings you mentioned are some of my favorites, too.

  3. OMG Twylla, Sunflowers is probably why I became a painter. I stood on line with my mother and aunt for 4 hours at the Brooklyn Museum in 1968, to see a traveling Van Gogh retrospective. It changed my life forever, didn't know why then, now I do.
    THANK YOU!!!

    1. Isn't it amazing how art connects us to something so deep inside ourselves and then to others who experience it in similar ways. Thanks for sharing your "Sunflowers" story!


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