I have heard it said that there is a very thin line between genius and insanity. One historical figure that seems to lend credence to this thought is the Dutch Post-Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh was the son of a pastor who grew up in a world filled with religion and art. During Vincent’s brief 37 years of life, he transitioned from art dealer to missionary to self-taught artist before he died of a gunshot wound to the chest on July 29, 1890.
Van Gogh would have died in obscurity if not for the efforts of his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh, who made it her life’s mission to bring Vincent’s art to the world after his death. Amazingly, Van Gogh only sold one of his roughly 900 oil paintings during his lifetime, The Red Vineyard. He sold this painting to Anna Boch for 400 Francs (~$1,000).
Van Gogh is also famous because of the fact that he severed part of his ear with a razor after a fight with his artist-friend Paul Gauguin. In an act of madness, he presented the severed ear to a prostitute that he had befriended. Vincent struggled with epilepsy and mental health most of his adult life. His famous paintings, The Starry Night, was painted while staying in an asylum in Saint-Remey-de-Provence, France one year before his death.
What is not broadly known about Van Gogh is that he was a man of faith throughout his life. Before becoming a painter he was a theology student and served as a missionary to the poor coal miners in the Belgian Borinage. Vincent was moved by the poverty and misery of the miners that he ministered to. His compassion led him to give up most of his earthly possessions, including most of his clothing, to the poor miners. These actions were viewed as extremism and he was relieved of his duties which led Vincent to despair and to become disillusioned with the established church.
Vincent turned to art as a means of expressing his faith and hope in God. He believed, “our purpose is self-reform by means of a handicraft and of intercourse with Nature — our aim is walking with God.” After this difficult experience with the church he wrote, “I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals,” he wrote, “for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be — a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting to me.” The pain that Van Gogh experienced in the world around him helped him to identify with the sufferings of Christ. Many of his paintings have recorded his journey of faith in obvious and subtle ways.
As I have been reflecting on Vincent’s life, I am struck by the fact that he yearned to find God’s purpose for his life. Although Vincent began his pursuit of God through religion and the established church, he ultimately learned more about the truth of the Scriptures by suffering in the world with the people around him. He found a way to communicate his heart through his art. Post-Impressionist art is characterized by the use of vivid colors, thick application of paint, distinctive brush strokes, and real-life subject matter. The thick paint that Van Gogh applied to his oil paintings took months to dry. In fact, the paint on one of his last paintings, Daubigny’s Garden, was probably still wet when he left this world to find peace. He struggled to find peace and joy in this life, but God used his pain to create something beautiful. Vincent van Gogh is one of God’s masterpieces for those who have eyes to see.
Dear Lord, forgive us when we use religion to hold people back from finding a saving relationship with you. Help us to believe that you want to do something amazing with our lives. I am a sinner, but you have declared in your Word that I’m one of your masterpieces. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we can know your joy and peace. Thank you for using us to accomplish your good plans. You are an amazing God who is patient with us because you know that we are not dry yet.