Van Gogh_A Power Seething, page 1
Advanced Praise for Van Gogh
"Vincent Van Gogh’s life story is almost too well known, but Julian Bell has made it harrowing, urgent, and touching all over again. Bell's pulsing, immaculately carpentered language is an event in itself. Passage after passage made me stare in wonder (and some jealousy) at his word choices and the never conventional rhythms of his sentences. And how great to have Van Gogh’s story told without heroics or sentimentality—and with the edgy vitality with which it was lived."
“What distinguishes Bell's elegant rendering is an astute perception of his artistic vision and shimmering descriptions of his work…A graceful, empathetic, deeply probing portrait.”
“Bell bring his insight as a fellow artist to the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh in a condensed, accessible primer on the renowned artist."
“In this astutely and poetically distilled biography, Bell draws us into Van Gogh’s life and consciousness as he chronicles the artist’s struggles with familial and societal expectations and offers fresh and intimate insights…A vividly illuminating portrait both for readers versed in Van Gogh and those who are newly curious.”
ALSO BY JULIAN BELL
What Is Painting? Representation and Modern Art
Mirror of the World: A New History of Art
Text copyright © 2015 by Julian Bell
All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.
Published by Amazon Publishing, New York
Amazon, the Amazon logo and Amazon Publishing are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.
Author photograph © Elizabeth Roberts
Cover design by Rodrigo Corral Design
This book is dedicated to the memory of Oliver Lindsay Scott, 1951–2011
About the Author
I HAVE WRITTEN THIS book out of my love for Vincent van Gogh, the uniquely exciting painter, and Vincent van Gogh, the letter writer of heart-piercing eloquence. Researching it, I have gotten to know something of Vincent the social animal, the misfit tearing a ragged course through the late nineteenth-century Netherlands and France. I have also come to love this third side of Vincent, although I do not always like him. I have written the book because, as I see it, there is an open space among the three facets of the man. Although the letters offer the greatest commentary any artist has ever supplied on his own work, they may often be at odds with what Vincent actually painted and with the record of his actions, and indeed they are frequently at odds with one another. These internal differences ask for some outside voice to interpret them. My objective has been to offer an interpretation that is up to date, unmystified, concise and at the same time compassionate.
Concision is the objective because at the point at which I write, in 2013, the resources for biography have become so huge. When it comes to the more than twenty-one hundred paintings, drawings and prints that Vincent produced during his ten-year career as an artist, the one-volume catalogue raisonné by Jan Hulsker (last revised in 1996) is now being supplemented by a series of catalogues detailing the collection of Amsterdam’s recently refurbished Van Gogh Museum. The volumes that have been published to date are models of contemporary scholarship. The same is true of the marvellously produced complete edition of the letters, published in 2009 and edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luitjen and Nienke Bakker. When it comes to the factual record of actions, anyone such as myself who is interested in Vincent can only be deeply grateful to Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith for the thoroughness with which they have compiled and interrogated the evidence in their 953-page Van Gogh: The Life (2011), however one may judge their deductions.
I come to this task with my own experience of working as a painter. From that angle, Vincent’s actions seem to matter because his paintings matter, rather than vice versa. I believe he would have agreed with that order of priorities, and I also believe that much of his life was spent joyfully because it was spent in this kind of work. Nonetheless, my sense of the occasion, as I put forward this account of Vincent, has less to do with painting than with performance. With such an orchestra of information as is now at hand, with such a complex score, a newcomer can only mount the stage in trepidation. Here follows an attempt to find the melody and pitch.
AS A BOY, Vincent van Gogh liked exploring scrub and stream banks. His eyes would be drawn to a wren’s nest hidden in a heathland bramble patch, with its cone of stalks and leaves and moss, or to those of sparrows and thrushes in the hawthorns, or the woven hammocks of the golden oriole. (Count the wren and the oriole “among the artists,” he would later write.)1 Nearer home, he would crouch at a creek, reaching between cress and rushes to snatch up diving beetles and slip them in a bottle.
The province of Brabant, straddling the Netherlands’ border with Belgium, is largely poor, sandy land, and as of the 1860s, the acreage won from its heaths and oak- and pinewoods was still quite slight. These rye fields stretched beside one bank of the stream, homes to larks that rose from them in summer. On the other, meadows and potato plots bordered the path sloping up towards the garden gate. Elisabeth “Lies” van Gogh, six years Vincent’s junior, remembered the figure her brother cut as he approached that gate: stocky, forceful, with his shoulders hunched and his brow furrowed over “small and deep-set eyes.”2 He would brush straight past the game she was playing with Anna and Theo — the children in between, born two and four years after him — make his way past his parents, who spent much of their time in the garden, and head upstairs. In the second-floor bedroom he shared with Theo, he would empty the bottle. He added the expedition’s insect haul to a collection in a lined cardboard box, neatly inscribing Latin names above each pinned specimen.
Vincent’s mother — also Anna, née Carbentus — was in the garden to tend its beds of marigolds and moss roses, to instruct the gardener as to the pea rows and fruit trees beyond and to encourage her children to work the plots she’d assigned them. Her husband, Dorus (short for Theodorus), liked to sit there to write his sermons. Sunday mornings, Dorus stepped out the front door — his family behind him, likewise dressed in black — and headed right along the south side of the marketplace of Zundert, crossing another sandy village square, to take up his duties as rector to the Dutch Reformed Church. Little admired in the pulpit — a short, slight man who mumbled and rambled — he nonetheless maintained moral, educational and financial authority among his small congregation, standing up for Protestant interests in a predominantly Catholic corner of the Netherlands.
While most of Zundert’s peasantry shared a faith with their fellow Brabanters across the adjacent Belgian border, the Van Goghs upheld urban Dutch culture in the straggling heath-side settlement. Improving reading matter filled the parsonage. The Bible held supremacy, but so much in modern writing seemed to complement it. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol urged those huddled together at the fireside to feel how desolate life could become without mutual compassion. Johann David Wyss told the tale of The Swiss Family Robinson, in which the close-knit members, shipwrecked on a tropical
Dickens, Wyss and Andersen steered their readers towards kindly social responsibility, and this chimed with Dorus’s preferred line in contemporary Dutch Protestantism. The Groningen school of theology proposed that God speaks to each of us through our hearts; that our experience of the natural world is one of the languages He employs; and that the church’s role was less to instil than to nurture and facilitate this moral education. It was a temperately progressive position in an era resounding with the Romantic writings of the early nineteenth century and with the aftershocks of the French Revolution and its radical sacrilege. Dorus’s own remit, however, was not so much to move things forwards as to stand firm, upholding his own denominational “pillar of society” (as Dutch phraseology expressed it) — one component of the stout edifice that was the nineteenth-century Kingdom of the Netherlands. One hand he outstretched to help the needy — such Protestant peasants of the parish as were ailing or down on their luck — while the other saluted the fortunate, the respectable. The rector’s ambitions were as modest as his physical stature; his whole working life would pass this way, uncomplainingly spent in the backwoods of Brabant.
Dorus had followed his own father’s footsteps into the church, taking up the Zundert post in 1849. Nonetheless, the Van Goghs had long considered themselves somebodies — persons with “honorable positions in the world,” as Johanna “Jo” Bonger, Vincent’s sister-in-law, would express it in a memoir. Among them, as in the Dutch state more generally, pious duty walked shoulder to shoulder with worldly success. Two of Dorus’s older brothers had gone into the military — one, Jan, to end up an admiral — while another three started businesses. Hendrik “Hein” van Gogh with his bookshop in Rotterdam and Cornelis “Cor” van Gogh with another in Amsterdam were both outshone by the spectacular good fortunes of Vincent “Cent” van Gogh, for whom Hein would end up working.
“Uncle Cent” rode the midcentury European economic boom by selling pictures. Reproductions — steel engravings, and then photogravures, showing historical or religious scenes, faraway places, cute children and animals and whatever else would grace a respectable home — were the mainstay of his emporium in The Hague. With numerous local picture makers to draw on from a Dutch tradition of fijnschilderij (meticulous naturalistic painting) that had on some level survived since the nation’s artistic “golden age” two centuries before, Cent also brought in lines of imagery from salons and academies abroad. His flair for the picture business caught the eye of a yet larger player in that field, Adolphe Goupil in Paris, who invited him to join forces. From 1861 onwards, after Cent became junior partner in Goupil & Cie, he inhabited a lofty financial and social plateau, with one mansion in Paris and another custom-built outside Breda, the town in Brabant where his father had preached.
Cent and the slightly younger Dorus — the debonair cosmopolitan and the earnest rural parson, the man of a thousand pictures and the man of the true Word — made unlikely brothers, yet marriage interlinked them. Anna Carbentus, Dorus’s wife from 1851, was the older sister of Cornelia, whom Cent had wed the year before. It helped the matchmaking that the women were on a social level with the men: Their father, Willem, ran a prominent bookbinding business in The Hague. The Carbentuses were pious, sturdy hard workers, Anna, in particular, being credited by Jo Bonger with an “unbroken strength of will.” They were also, it appears, cursed with psychochemical ill luck. One of Anna and Cornelia’s seven siblings was classified “epileptic”; another died, in obscure circumstances, by his own hand; and Willem himself would succumb in his fifties to some form of “mental disease.”
Cent and Cornelia’s marriage produced no children. Dorus and Anna began their family with a son named Vincent . . . began it this way, in fact, twice over. The first recipient of the name was stillborn, and his headstone to this day confuses visitors to the Zundert Dutch Reformed Church. The other, born exactly a year onwards on March 30, 1853, would be buried in France thirty-seven years later.
There were beetles, birds and their nests, and the words in the books that identified them. There were garden games in which to organize the little ones — Anna, Theo and Lies, to be joined by Wilhelmina, or “Wil,” when Vincent was nine years old, and Cornelius, or “Cor,” five years later. Beyond one another’s birthdays, there was the deeper thrill of Christmas, hallowed each year by fir trees and Dickens readings. There was the making of family presents, which might well be drawings done from observation, since their mother had introduced all her children to this standard accomplishment of the educated classes. There was the reinventing, after lights out, of tales of adventure for the benefit of little Theo, in the bedroom they shared.
And then there was school. At first Vincent attended classes in the village, but after a year Dorus and Anna pulled him out, fearing the company was coarsening their son’s behaviour. Three subsequent years under a home governess were meant to prepare him for boarding school at age eleven. But neither the establishment in Zevenbergen nor the one he joined two years later in Tilburg, another Brabantine town, seems to have left Vincent with anything to be thankful for. He learned, evidently — extending his grasp of French, English and German and of the European literary canon — but he took to no teachers and made no close friends. The only recollection of Zevenbergen he would later write down was of “standing in a corner of the playground when they came to tell me that someone”— his father —“was waiting for me.”3 The main evidence of the Tilburg years is an 1867 school photo in which a sullen, stiff-necked fourteen-year-old can be made out, his body language staking out a distance from the surrounding “they.” The separation became a severance in March 1868, when, for unrecorded reasons, he quit school to return to the parsonage halfway through the school year.
Parents must open their arms to wayward children; there’s nothing the Gospels spell out more surely. But this was a burdensome homecoming, family records imply. Their forceful eldest son had been hard work from the start —“I was never busier than when we only had Vincent,” his mother remembered.4 Dorus and Anna, with their liberal inclinations, fell back to accommodate a boy who was insensitive to the social niceties they valued and who threw his weight around when thwarted. The energy of concentration that Vincent could apply to a nest or an insect showed up as sheer ferocity when engaged in a battle of family wills, and very early, it seems, this feral strength set his lighter-framed father into a defensive containment mode. What was he up to now, the broad-shouldered teenage lout with the shock of red-blond hair who could be heard slamming the back door? Gone out to roam the heath again, no doubt. They never knew when he’d be back; he took little more account of rainstorms, blizzards and nightfall than of the rituals of coffee drinking with the doctor’s family and other such “good folk” of the parish, beloved by his mother.
Over a year of stalemate ensued before the lad could be set on fresh tracks. If he wasn’t cut out for his father’s role in society, he might yet do something in his uncle’s line of business. In July 1869 the sixteen-year-old Vincent left Zundert to begin an apprenticeship with Goupil & Cie in its art emporium in The Hague. He became one of the branch’s two junior assistants who packed up prints for clients, helped hang canvases in the store’s fine art gallery and kept the stock neatly filed. The job entailed getting a working knowledge of every contemporary line in “art,” as defined from a salesman’s perspective — from medieval-esque “troubadour” romances to views of the pyramids, from bashful nymphs to the rugged heaths and glades painted by the Barbizon landscapists. Vincent became highly proficient at all this. As his sister Lies remarked in her memoir of him, the naturalist co
The youthful branch manager his uncle had appointed, Hermanus Tersteeg, presented the apprentice with a provisional role model — suave, natty and culturally self-assured. Vincent used what little free time he had to ramble around the staid, cold-hearted streets of The Hague and to extend his reading, getting a taste for Romantic poetry. At the same time, here was a late adolescent with the red light district just a short detour off the walk home from the store to his lodgings — a turning he avowedly took, heeding the standard wisdom of the era according to which sexploitation might be regrettable, but masturbation spelt ruin. A brothel, anyway, offered a quick fix for loneliness. A year into his apprenticeship, home was home no longer; the Reformed Church relocated Dorus and family from Zundert to another parish twenty miles away. The deracination added to the many reasons Vincent might have to feel “out of spirits” and, by way of consolation, to take up a pipe (“it does you a lot of good”).6
Vincent’s praise of tobacco sits alongside praise for Goupil & Cie —“such a fine firm”— in the earliest preserved pages of his correspondence, one of the great documents of nineteenth-century literature.7 It would be handsome to call the addressee of these recommendations, Vincent’s brother Theo, the other protagonist of this story, for in many ways he was jointly responsible for the Van Gogh oeuvre. But the evidence is lacking fully to present him in that role. The fact that Theo kept most of the thousand-odd letters he received from Vincent over the following eighteen years, whereas Vincent preserved only a handful of Theo’s, is indicative. Not exactly of a one-way relationship, but of a deep interdependence, starting from the earliest days in the shared bedroom and expanding via their continued shared passions for pictures and for reading, that is evident throughout. But while Vincent had ferocious energy, Theo had diligence. Delicate both in manners and in physique, he had his father’s “goodness of heart” (in Lies’s words) and a responsiveness to others absent in his older brother.8