Vincent van Gogh

The famed (infamous?) Dutch modernist Vincent van Gogh was a prolific painter during his short tenure as an artist.  But Vincent was also quite gifted when it came to expressing himself in words as attested to in letters to his brother Theo and a few artist friends.  What are your thoughts on Vincent’s words listed below (extracted from a letter to Theo) as you gaze at one of his self portraits?

¨“I wish they would only take me as I am…I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, suffering as I am, do without something which is greater than I am, which is my life, the power to create.”
Self Portrait, 1890

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


24 thoughts on “Vincent van Gogh”

  1. Vincent suffered not only from physical ailments that he had no control over, but he also suffered from social ailments of people putting their own interpretations of God and religion onto him. They would not accept Vincent for who he was and his physical ailments of having seizures and assumed that he was possessed by demons or evil. This is the God that Vincent could do without, the manmade God. While gazing at his portrait, I see the background he used is blue and green swirls, a cool tone against his fiery red hair. His eyes are a piercing blue, filled with anguish, resentment and sadness, surrounded by loneliness. In Vincent’s words he states that God is bigger than he is, and associates God with his life and his ability to create. He understands the true nature of God and not what society has deemed God to be. God is life and love and creation, not what the rest of the world placed on him as hatred and fear. He shared his thoughts and feelings with those close to him, his brother and some fellow artists. He was not completely alone, but those “religious” people took God and placed Him in a box. Religion cannot box God. God is more powerful and almighty, and definitely is not man. Vincent understood the power of God, although society defined God as rejecting him for his ailments, God embraced him while he suffered, by giving him the power to create and his life. We see this by Vincent saying that he cannot live without God in his suffering. Vincent sees it as his ability to create, but it is God loving him and embracing him in his loneliness and rejection by fellow man under the pretense of religion. In this portrait, Vincent is not at peace and possibly doesn’t even know the love that God truly has for him because it has been clouded by religion, possibly the reason for the cloud-like background in the portrait.

  2. I think he wish’s that the people around him would take him more as a creator then as a madman. Yet the current ideas of his time of religion would make him out to be a possessed man troubled by demons who should be an outcast. This would make anyone depressed so. So I think he still believes in God to keep him going its the higher power in life that allows him to continue to create.

  3. I believe this shows exactly what art meant to Vincent Van Gogh. Creating art was not merely to earn a living or to stand out in a crowd by making a statement. Van Gogh’s meaning and purpose of art was not so provincial. He felt that it was his life, something much greater than he was. He had the power to create, to manifest something into a beautiful piece of art work.

  4. I think Van Gogh was lamenting the fact that people saw him as a mad man. The only interpretation of “they” I see seems to be the people around him. To not be accepted and to have grown up as he did must have tormented him immensely. Perhaps if others would have accepted him maybe he would have been a little less troubled…

    However, all of this pain and torment he poured in to his painting. Which enabled him to create his amazing paintings. His suffering extends to the fact that the only thing he had was himself and his painting. Although he is gifted in painting there are many aspects of his life that keep him from happiness. The talent he has for painting and creating his art is what keeps him going. He has nothing else and his art is the one things that eases his suffering. Placing all of the excess emotion in to his work may have been the only thing that kept him alive for the time that he was living. In this sense it was greater than any thing else in his world, including religion, because it was keeping him alive.

  5. Several years ago, I had the privilege to read a few of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. He expressed himself so directly and simply, and so beautifully and poignantly. It’s definitely worth taking the time to read at least a handful of these letters just to have a sense of his exemplary character. Perhaps I have a romanticized notion of Van Gogh through these letters, the popular song Starry Starry Night by Don McLean, and his mental illness, tremendous sufferings, and romantic failures, but my impression is that he was a good and simple man; earnest, sincere, and naive to the common ambitions of normal people. He possessed no guile, and little understanding of how to manipulate others or the system. He had no real interest in such activity (perhaps because he was so ill, and distracted by so many troubles).

    His urge to create was powerful enough to generate some of the greatest masterpieces, and to place him in the pantheon of the great artists of history. His creativity seems to have been of the purest type, to simply express himself, and to be of service and help where he felt best able. Yet he suffered terribly, and arguably unfairly, in a short, miserable, impoverished, and ignored life. He is an example to all, artists and non-artists alike, to pursue steadfastly and unselfishly our passions and gifts for their own sake, and for the sake of assisting and reaching others. In doing as he had, one might touch that ethereal realm that so many ardently aspire to, and not care the least about it.

  6. This self portrait, as many of Van Gogh’s other self portraits, words are not even necessary to describe the emotion and intensity that radiates off of it. The colours that Van Gogh chooses to include to paint the world around him- hazy with shades of blues and greys- could reflect how he feels about the reality that actually does surround him. It swirls around him in haze of struggle and inner pain, and the cool colours could reflect the coldness of the people that do not accept him.
    All colour in this portrait is dull, cold and muted besides Van Gogh’s face. His face is made up of warm reds and yellows- especially his vibrant and fiery red hair. Van Gogh had much passion when it came to his art and his soul is reflected through his face and eyes from both the use of colour and his expression- the intensity, the passion and the personal anguish. Van Gogh’s words sum up what is being shown through his portrait. The emotion in his face captures the feelings in his letter.
    I also think he is saying how the use of God, a powerful symbol in a lot of art, is meaningless to him, just as what other people expect from his work is meaningless. The most powerful force in Van Gogh’s life was art, and his power to create.
    Van Gogh experienced intense emotional suffering- and by him saying that he doesn’t need anything in his life besides his art, is a powerful statement and truly reflects the torment he experienced in his life.

  7. I believe that he was just stating the humble truth. Because society had viewed his physical and mental troubles as being demon possessed van Gogh knew that he didn’t need religion to create his work successfully. “…but I cannot, suffering as I am, do without something which is greater than I am, which is my life, the power to create.” I truly believe that van Gogh is talking about creating his life (being in love, getting married, starting a family) in that sentence, and that he is not referring to his artwork. After reading it a numerous amount of times it becomes very morbid, you really do feel his pain.

  8. It is truely tragic, Van Gogh’s life. Socail norms forced him into being an outcast and eventually to take his own life. Yet because of his ousting, he is one of the most celebrated artist of our time. And it raises the question of what would happen if Van Gogh had lived at a much later time? Would he have still be ostracized from both society and the chruch? Would he be named a saint for giving away clothing from the chruch to the less fortunante? More importantly, if he was offered help with his condition would he still become the iconic painter that he was? Was his suffering the key factor in his unique and unheard of stlye of painting?

  9. Vincent only wanted what all people want, to be accepted. To live his life freely without being judged. And to let has passions roam freely. His love to create is the greatest force in is life and he can’t deny that passion even though others looked down on him for it. It was his life, if he stopped creating it would’ve meant that he was dead. Even God, something that Vincent grew up with and was taught about couldn’t stop that need to paint. This truly shows how Vincent felt about his creations and an artist’s will to continue creating.
    His self portrait is just another way to show what the truly wants. He wanted to others to look at him for what he was and his style was just another way to show that even though he was different, he was still a beautiful person.

  10. Vincent is one unique person his physical ailment really gave him a different look in life and his life as well. I believe you see this in many of his works not perfection but things as he sees it. His portrait of himself is constantly moving not stop stand still look. It is alive and depicting him as he says, “take me as I am.” everything in his life is if god mad it that way why not show it for what it is.

  11. Vincent Van Gogh was a very ostracized person. He was very misunderstood, being labeled a “madman”. By stating that he can ‘do without God’, he alludes that being an outcast, he is ignored or shunned by God. The last part of the quote he states that to create art is why he lives and how he can survive such a tormented life. By understanding his life, one can look at his art with a clearer perspective.

  12. In a sense, perhaps people were scared of his talent or jealous of his ability to create, and thus directed their attention not on who he truly was, but of his differences from society and found ‘demons’ to blame for his uniqueness. Throughout history humans has routinely blamed others in a negative manor for being different, making up any excuse they can to set apart that individual or group from everyone else in society. In van Gogh’s case, people criticized him for his physical ailments and could not look past them in order to see him as he really was. Everyone in such a situation has once felt what van Gogh did, which is only wishing that they would take him as he is. He need not religion to tell him the way much like others believed was right, but he just needed his passion to live. Thus he lived through his paintings and his power to create which turned to be more influential than any religious beliefs of his time.

  13. Van Gogh’s life story is a sad one, he wanted acceptance (which he never got) and it’s possible that he blamed God for his seclusion. May-be he blamed God for his seizures, but if I were to input my subjective opinion I would say he was more upset with how stringently people of his day were interpreting the Bible and how they would use it to ostracize people who appeared even a little different. He probably felt vicitim to a 19th century witch hunt.
    In a lot of ways he was similar to Rembrandt, both of them valued “the power to create” more than they valued appealing to social constructs. Both of these men did not conform to satisfy others. Van Gogh even say in the letter to his brother that he thinks art and the power to creat are more important than he is.
    Yes, the way he died was tragic, but could you really see a figure such as him dying peacefully in his sleep?

  14. It’s a shame that Vincent was so poorly judged by the community; particularly those in the church. I believe he found his true church in the natural world. The sky was his cathedral. He had the ability to see intense life and color in anything. I believe he was actually in touch with the divine in many ways. He used everything and anyone as a subject; whatever was available to him. And I think of color primarily when I think him. These vibrant colors were the essence of his passions and emotions for life. He captured life. He valued life.

    In a documentary I watched recently about him, this quote was read: “I would not be too surprised if the impressionists started to criticize my way of working soon because rather than reproducing what is in front of me I use color in a more arbitrary way to express myself more powerfully.”

    I heard today on PRI’s ‘The World’ that Vincent only sold one painting in his lifetime. Apparently, ‘The Red Vineyard’ sold for only 400 francs. It is sad to compare that to a sunflower painting of his that sold for about $49 million a few years ago. The story also covered the release of Dutch musician Diederick Van Eck’s new album inspired by the artist’s life: I wonder what he would think of the world if he could come back for just one day.

  15. My interpretation of Van Gogh’s letter to his brother Theo was that even though most of society did not accept him as a person or artist, he looked beyond that to see what was truly important in his life, his art. Van Gogh even mentioned that he could do without God in his life or in his paintings. I believe his passion for art is what gave him strength to seek past the judgments of others and to continue what he did best.

  16. Van Gogh was a man who bore the brunt of the dark side of religion; the persecution, resentment, and fear. There is a great deal of pain in the eyes of his self portrait, and even more in the vicious brushwork. Disillusioned with the church, he found solace in the ability to create; that “something greater” that he found, the creative spirit. He unleashed this in his work, likely a method of therapy, that resulted in his astounding creations. The presented portrait is intense; the man has a penetrating gaze, enhanced by the chaotic background and the folds in the clothing. In a maelstrom of chaos, his eyes and face seen oddly still, thoughtful and communicating much of the artist’s torment to the viewer. This was his solace; the greater power he sought, the power to create and express and transmit emotions buried inside to the surface. Truly, a powerful thing, and a tragic man.

  17. Van Gogh is as prolific in words as he is on canvas. When I gaze at his work, I am reminded of the circle, which has no beginning and no end. When reading his statement to his brother, I question not his mental stability, but the mental stability of those surrounding him. Why in fact was he not accepted and deemed as a genius during his lifetime? He, like the geometrical dimensions of the circle, and it’s ability to be the antidote, were perhaps ahead of it’s time. Who would have imaged that the circle would be the primary shape enabling the automobile to ignite and change history. Who would have thought that Vincent van Gogh’s work would ignite and inspire, when he, at the time he was alive, was deemed as nothing short of an outcast.

    Genius is often times overlooked, but as permanent as the circle, it persists and will not be denied.

  18. The story of Van Gogh is a depressing one. Being shunned by a society that does not understand creativity and expression had to make his mental condition all the worse. It is hard to imagine what amazing things he could have made had it not been for barriers pushed on him by society. Be it larger society or the simple rejection by peers, artistic endeavor will likely always be held back by the politics and opinions of the day. When I look at his self portrait, I see that creative background behind him while his own figure stands as a cold reality and testament to the basic portrait and figure paintings society wanted to see.

  19. Van Gogh had a difficult life since he was a young child, he not only suffered from epilepsy but also the aversion from society because people thought he was possessed by the devil given their ignorance with his disease. This also led many people to be unhappy with his accomplishments as an artist.
    Vincent was a very talented and gifted artist with the ability to transform any image to a canvas which successfully reflected his feelings of the image while painting. The letter to his brother clearly shows his frustration and desperation for the need to be accepted in society. Despite all that he had accomplished as well as the significant impact he made on others in helping them, he was unable to be happy. Like the letter to his brother, his self portraits reflected feelings of loneliness, sadness, and discouragement through the obvious expressions on his face. Not only did his self portraits suggest how he felt, but they also show the manner in which he painted which used powerful brush strokes and intense colors to illustrate his emotions. Vincent’s fascination in expressing his vision of art in miraculous ways helped him in part to liberate his emotions and feelings, but was not enough to ultimately keep him alive.

  20. Van Gogh was an extremely troubled person and this can be seen in his paintings. His depression can be seen in the expressions on his face in his portraits and in the aggressive brushstrokes. His personality, no matter how sad or violent he seemed, added an original and beautiful quality to the paintings, Society saw him as a crazy person, an outcast, and he was never truly accepted as a great painter until many years later. His art was all he had to retreat to and it was something that would always be there for him.

  21. I think he is saying that all he wants to do is create his art, he doesnt care if he is possessed by demons or damned for all eternity all he wants is for him and his art to be seen for what they merely are. Not by what it means in terms of religion and god or what is percieved to be good or bad or evil . He just wants to create.

  22. I like to see vincent as a true artists his work seems to not lie even though for his insanity he still sees what he is going to paint as how he sees it. There is no deception in his work it is original to the bone.

  23. I believe that van Gogh was a troubled soul and had no real mortal happiness in this life . i think his ability to create was him creating his happy place and some where he would rather be or the way he wishes the world would look . I think his intense look in his eyes in this self portrait are his thoughts in progress as he looks at himself and wonders why he is the way he is . He wonders where his life is int his world and why he is the way he is why “they” would not take him for him . the outcast the loner and the strange , Funny how today we admire and devour ourselves in his life and work today . If only the world saw him as we do now ….. what would he have become ???

  24. What an interesting man. When i think of Vincent, I always wonder if people would have treated him differently, if his art would have been as beautiful. I’m sure Vincent had the skill, but the paintings, at least I think, wouldn’t have had the same life, the same stories. It is a shame that we admire him as much as we do now, when at the time, people took him for granted.

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