White Iris: Vincent Van Gogh and How the Church Failed Him

March 30, 1853, marked the birthday of one of art's most tormented souls. It is little known that painting wasn't his first vocation. Before he studied art, he studied theology and served as a missionary. After he got pulled out of the field for "overzealousness", he got little support from his church. He spent many years spiraling downward, obviously still interested in Jesus but no longer interested in Christianity, until his ultimate suicide in an insane asylum. Although he was misunderstood in his generation, today his paintings sell for millions. His life is an example of the "how-not-to" manual in the way churches treat their artists.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in Groot Zundert, Holland, to Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Reverend Theodorus van Gogh. His father was the pastor of a Protestant church and raised young Vincent to love Jesus. The oldest of six children, he had three sisters and two brothers. One of his brothers, Theo, would become his champion. Their uncle Vincent, called “Cent”, worked for the French art dealers Goupil & Cie. There is little information about Vincent’s childhood, but apparently it was quiet and normal. His education was sporadic and probably had little or no art in the curriculum. But in 1870, when he was 16, Vincent got a job at the Hague Gallery run by Goupil & Cie. At nineteen Vincent’s job transferred him to London while Theo, who also worked for Goupil, went to The Hague. Two years later, in 1875, Vincent went to Paris, the heart of the art world. However, Van Gogh soon lost all passion for the arts. Instead, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and become a preacher.

Vincent, age 13

Vincent, age 19

Apparently his parents were happy with his decision to enter the ministry, since they agreed to pay for his theological education. Vincent briefly became a teacher at a Catholic boys’ school, a Bible translator, and then an assistant to a Methodist pastor. Soon, Vincent decided to devote his life as a missionary to poor miners in the Borinage, a small region of southwestern Belgium, where he ministered and evangelized in this downtrodden community.

"He (God) has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor," Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, in a letter dated 1876. He gave all his possessions, including most of his clothes, to the poor in that community. He cared for the miners at his own expense, even giving his bed to a poor person who slept on the floor. People who knew him at this time compared his selflessness to St. Francis of Assisi.

Although ministry and life became difficult in the Borinage, Vincent Van Gogh preached the Gospel with a passion, even to the point of entering the mines themselves to reach the miners. He wrote about his ministry to his father:

“You know how one of the roots or foundations, not only of the Gospel, but of the whole Bible, is ‘Light that rises in the darkness’. Well, who needs this most, who will be receptive to it? Experience has shown that the people who walk in the darkness, in the center of the earth, like the miners in the black coal mines, for instance, are very much impressed by the words of the Gospel, and believe them, too.”

For release from the stress of this essentially inner-city ministry, Van Gogh took up charcoal sketching. He had no proper training in art, except for his five years working at a gallery (and anyone can understand that looking at paintings is very different from painting them). After six months as a missionary, the governing body of the Dutch Reformed Church forced him to resign, citing his overzealousness and passion as the reason. Apparently he did not fit the cookie-cutter image of a “missionary” or “minister” appropriately enough for the church of his day. Still, his passion for reaching the lost in that community was evident, since he continued to minister in that community without the blessing of his church. His parents and brother Theo continued to support him as a missionary, but eventually Vincent had to admit that he could no longer minister in those destitute circumstances without the support of his church. Theo caught a glimpse of Vincent's charcoal drawings and, seeing an obvious talent, encouraged him to pursue an education in art.

Finally, at the age of 27, Vincent moved back in with his parents and took it upon himself to learn how to draw masterfully. Disillusioned by the church, Vincent rejected institutional Christianity for what he thought was true piety, which he called "the white ray of light." He was mentored by the realist painter Anton Mauve, who was also his cousin by marriage. Many of his pieces from this era depict peasant life, a reflection of his time and ministry at the Borinage. Vincent didn't forget his burden for the downtrodden, although he was spiritually disgusted with Christianity. He befriended a prostitute who already had one child out of wedlock and was currently pregnant with another. Vincent fell in love and used her as a model to practice and perfect his figure drawing skills. He once said, "I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals, 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." Eventually, Vincent moved out of his parents’ house and rented a room from a local Catholic church.

Drifting from one dogma to another, Vincent wrote at this time that God is "not dead or stuffed, but alive, urging us to love, with irresistible force." He also claimed, "Our purpose is self-reform by means of a handicraft and of intercourse with Nature -- our aim is walking with God."

Soon Vincent befriended other artists, including his contemporary Anthon van Rappard, in the province of Drenthe. He learned about the works of other contemporaries all over Europe. One of his biggest influences was a famous painter named Jean-François Millet. He studied figures and painted The Potato Eaters (below), which was a commercial failure during his lifetime, although it is now one of his more famous works. It demonstrates the dark, morose palette of colors that he favored at that stage of his life. Although his paintings were not lucrative, Vincent’s passion was even more evident. He decided he needed more art training, so he enrolled in an art academy in Antwerp.

Another piece Van Gogh painted at this time was called The Open Bible (also called Still Life with Open Bible, below). It gives some important insight into his religious leanings. Although many art historians have viewed this painting as proof that Van Gogh had abandoned the Bible – indicated, it is said, by the extinguished candle and the prominence of Emile Zola’s novel Le Joie de Vivre in the foreground – Van Gogh himself did not claim that. He said, "I told Father that in the Bible itself, maxims can be found by which we may test our convictions to see whether they are reasonable and just." His interest was in the Bible’s application to modern life: "Now take (historian Jules) Michelet and Beecher Stowe; they don’t tell you the Gospel is no longer of any value, but they show how it may be applied in our time, in this our life, by you and me, for instance." Van Gogh said that, to him, the Zola novel represented a modern version of Isaiah’s story of suffering and healing. He did not mean it to supplant the Bible but to serve as a reminder of its relevance.

The church that had rejected Vincent Van Gogh had the perfect time for intervening at this point, and could have brought him back to Christianity to make him a mighty man of God. But instead the church was silent about this man, who probably intimidated the higher-ups because of his artistic eccentricities. It was fine with them if a person was passionate about God, but only if that passion fit the proper mold.

After attending the art academy in Antwerp, Vincent moved to Paris where he met and befriended Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Emile Bernard. Gauguin and Van Gogh formed a close friendship and moved together to Arles in 1888. Van Gogh had a vision to create an artistic commune of sorts, and he felt that he and Gauguin would be the perfect people to get the idea off the ground. It was at this time that Vincent's "mental instability" seemed to grow into an illness. He suffered from seizures, psychotic attacks, and delusions. Although it is not proper to diagnose a person who has been dead for more than 100 years, after studying his letters and what contemporaries said about him, many psychologists believe that Van Gogh suffered from bipolar disorder (others believe he had a lesion in the limbic area of his brain). In one famous episode, Vincent threatened Gauguin with a knife and left the house. He returned later that day and mutilated his ear, offering it to a prostitute as a gift. While Vincent was hospitalized Gauguin left Arles quickly, shattering his friend's future plans for an artistic commune. Despite his mental instability, Van Gogh was still interested in the teachings of the Bible. Gauguin said of Vincent, "His Dutch brain was afire with the Bible." Again, the church was very “hands-off” in Vincent’s time of torment. While most churches back then and today are ill-equipped to deal with full-fledged mental illness, the cold shoulder from the church is not usually something that makes a person love Christ more.

Vincent Van Gogh then committed himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. There he created a vast amount of paintings, although he could not paint or draw for long periods of time without suffering an attack. It was at this asylum that Van Gogh painted one of his most famous and popular works, Starry Night. He wrote to his brother that he was in "terrible need of -- shall I say the word, religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars." Pastors and priests (Van Gogh was in heavily Catholic France at this time) would frequently visit hospitals and even prisons, but most pastors or priests wouldn’t set foot in an asylum.

Despite his obvious turmoil, Vincent remained interested in Jesus. He wrote to his brother, "Oh, I am no friend of the present Christianity, though its founder was sublime." He described Jesus as "the supreme artist, more of an artist than all others, disdaining marble and clay and color, working in the living flesh." In Van Gogh’s version of the Pieta, he depicted Mary holding the languishing adult Christ, but he depicted Jesus with his own face and red beard in Mary's arms. Van Gogh had no Messiah complex, however; he was simply acknowledging that his own sins had a hand in Jesus' death.

Two years later, Vincent left the asylum. He continued painting at an astonishing rate, finishing almost one painting each day; however, in his entire artistic career he sold only one painting, The Red Vineyard, just four months before he died. On July 27, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, depressed, spiritually confused, and seeing his life as a horribly wasted mess, attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He survived the immediate wound, but two days later he died from the results of that gunshot. Van Gogh had spent ten years seriously pursuing art as a career, and although he was unappreciated in his lifetime, he left the world with inarguably great paintings.

Vincent Van Gogh was an artist who was obviously mentally ill and unstable. His paintings have been appreciated by many in both the Christian and secular community. Van Gogh as a person, however, is a very telling example of the church's failure to connect with and use the talents of artists. Even the secular world didn’t understand Van Gogh at the time, as evidenced by the single painting he sold before his death. But the world later embraced this man’s artistry to the point that five of his paintings are placed in the top thirty most expensive paintings ever sold at auction*. Despite his obvious upbringing and his zeal as a missionary, the church of his time refused to help him as a man. The church’s idea that pastors, missionaries, and ministers needed to fit into a certain ideal eventually drove Vincent Van Gogh away from his First Love. He was quite passionate about Jesus Christ, even after he had been fired from his church and after he rejected Christianity as an organized religion.

Had the church intervened in this man's life, the tragedy of Van Gogh's end could have been re-written as a victory, and his art could be celebrated in church history as a shining example of how Christians can view the arts and deal with artists who have "difficult" temperaments. Instead, he became a tortured soul who rejected Christianity and ended up committing suicide at the age of 37. God sent an artist, and his church failed him.

How often do we see this same pattern today, the church disenfranchising or ignoring members whose creativity does not suit someone in power? In one of Van Gogh's most enduring works, Irises (at the top of this page), we see one lone white iris standing out amidst a sea of look-alike purple irises. Perhaps this is how Van Gogh saw himself among those he knew, similar yet glaringly different, as are many of the artists within our church congregations. The question is, do our churches weed out and discard the non-conformists in their gardens, or embrace their different beauty and use them to God's glory?

*How Van Gogh’s paintings place on the list of the 30 most expensive paintings, and their prices (all in American dollars and adjusted for inflation):

Portrait of Dr. Gachet (above), 4th most expensive, selling for $136.1 million
Irises, 7th most expensive, selling for $102.3 million
A Wheatfield with Cypresses, 15th most expensive, $85.1 million
Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, 20th most expensive, $75.4 million
Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat, 29th most expensive, selling for 63.8 million

To read about John Newton, another important historical figure in Christian arts, click here.

To read about Christian artists who are contemporary, click on the names below.

Chris Schlarb

John French

Nick Metcalf

Lynn Yoder


Anonymous said...

i want my pastor and church staff to read this article. i think it hits the nail on the head. do you think they will understand it if they read it?

Anonymous said...

i think a LOT of pastors and board members and other people should read this to see what kind of bad affect they have on creative people who are ignored or treated badly.It happens all the time in our church and we have had a lot of friends quit ministery because no one listened to them or cared about what God had given them to share.

Unknown said...

"Had the church intervened in this man's life, the tragedy of Van Gogh's end could have been re-written as a victory, and his art could be celebrated in church history as a shining example of how Christians can view the arts and deal with artists who have "difficult" temperaments…God sent an artist, and his church failed him."

I am no historian so I can't offer proof from other sources, but I don't see enough evidence in this blog post to prove that the church didn't try to "intervene". Not sure that is even the right word. You can try to step in front of someone to attempt to help/protect them often and be pushed out of the way with a refusal. You can step back up again and try… and we do.

I can cite similar cases from my own experiences as a church leader where people with mental illnesses have been shown much genuine kindness and have refused it time and again. So what do we do? We keep trying. We offer food, counsel, prayer, shelter… Short of coercing someone to accept these kindnesses (which obviously we will not do) what else can be done?

Can we do better? Of course. But I tire of the prevalent mentality that assumes that every ill of society is a result of the failures of the church.

Did the church fail Vincent van Gogh? It is entirely possible. Did the church cause his mental illness? Likely not. Did other Christians try to minister to him during his time of mental illness? As far as I can tell, we don't know.

Many quotes are provided in the post, for which I am thankful, but not much in the way of supporting the main thesis. For example: "Again, the church was very “hands-off” in Vincent’s time of torment." I'm not saying it ISN'T true, but can you give me some evidence? From a letter of his? From an historian?

This is actually the kind of thing I prefer to stand behind and would gladly relay it to my own church if it were more convincing.

Thanks for the opportunity to reflect on an important issue on this day of blatant (and unimportant) consumerism. :-)

Anonymous said...

Well, as a former Catholic church member who was chastised for being creative all throughout my youth in Catholic schools, I can attest to my own evidence that this is true still today, as much as it was during the life of Van Gogh. I am still in recovery, trying to bring my creative mind back to life in order to fulfill my purpose to the world that the church tried to stifle in me.

http://banpreachergreed.tripod.com said...

The CHURCH is to blame for Vincent's terrible emotional problems. He gave his all to serve the poor, just like Jesus commanded. But he was rejected for not wearing a fancy suit and giving fancy sermons in a fancy church. I wonder what Bible that church read from, and how they would have treated John the Baptist, who ate bugs and wore a burlap blazer. Christian Pharisees have done far more harm to the cause of Christ than unbelievers. If the church took Jesus' teachings LITERALLY, there wouldn't have been so many sick, starving miners for Vincent to preach to (before the church put a stop to his charitable ministry). All the fancy fixtures and golden paraphernalia in churches could feed a lot of poor people. Shame on the church that drove Vincent to such despair!

stenote said...

Good blog... keep-up the good work... May I share an Interview with Vincent van Gogh(imaginary) in http://stenote.blogspot.com/2016/07/an-interview-with-vincent.html