Friday, August 15, 2008

"God is Using the Things of Everyday Life," Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters

And now, when each one of us returns to everyday life. to everyday duties, let us not forget that things are not what they seem to be, that God is using the things of everyday life to instruct us in higher things, that our life is a pilgrimage and we are strangers on this earth, but we also have a God, a Father, who offers shelter and protection to strangers.

Thus concludes Vincent Van Gogh's only recorded sermon, delivered to a congregation in Iselington, England in 1876 when he was only 23 years old. He was born into a large family, the first of 7 children (he had a stillborn older brother also named Vincent), eldest son of Theodorus Van Gogh who was a pastor of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church, from the more liberal Arminian branch, from the very liberal Groningen party. His father before him was a minister too and so on back many generations. Vincent had 10 aunts and uncles, many of whom were also in the ministry (one was an admiral in the Dutch Navy). The young Vincent felt very torn between going into the ministry and into art, where the family also had a long history. His family dealt pictures for generations. One of his uncles worked for Goupil, a major gallery with branches in most of the large cities of Europe. Young Vincent was sent to London to apprentice with his uncle who ran Goupil's branch there. It was while in London that Vincent decided that his calling was in the Church, so he returned home and was sent to seminary where he did very poorly in the required subjects of Latin and Greek.
After some conversations between his father and church authorities, it was decided to make Vincent a lay preacher and missionary. He was sent to the Borinage region of Belgium, then a very poor area of coal miners and tenant farmers. He was assigned to a congregation in the village of Nuenen.
Vincent threw himself into this work with a zeal and a passion that disturbed everyone around him. One of his favorite books throughout his life was Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ. Like another who sought to imitate Christ very directly and literally, St. Francis of Assisi, Vincent saw that Christ and the Apostles were the poorest of men, possessing nothing and dependent upon the charity of others. Like the young St, Francis, Vincent began giving away his possessions and his money. He was determined to share as fully as possible in the sufferings of the miners and sharecroppers under his charge. He ended up spending a winter sleeping in a small hut on a stone floor wearing only a thin overcoat.
Vincent Van Gogh was not the miners' idea of a respectable Calvinist parson. They sent complaints about him to church authorities who dismissed Van Gogh from his position. He refused to leave the village even after his brother Theo and his father implored him to return home. Vincent finally decided to leave when he accepted a money order from his brother Theo.
He decided to leave the ministry entirely and to become an artist.

After studying at the Academy in the Hague, where he struggled through figure drawing classes and never became proficient in classical drawing, Vincent Van Gogh returned to Nuenen, not to preach to the miners and farmers, but to paint them. At first, they gave Vincent a chilly reception. They were not happy to see him again. Gradually, they warmed to him since it was easier to accept him as an eccentric artist in their midst than as their pastor. Apparently, they were very patient with him since they sat for scores and scores of studies and paintings culminating in The Potato Eaters, Vincent Van Gogh's first masterpiece.
The Potato Eaters shows a family of miners sitting down to a very spare meal of boiled potatoes and coffee, the diet of the very poor throughout Europe at the time. An oil lamp casts the only light in the dark interior. The painting is done in the dark earthy tones of the most famous of all the Dutch masters, Rembrandt (as filtered through the paintings of Jozef Israels, who Vincent much admired). This painting has all the sacramental mystery of a Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt. There is indeed a palpable sense in this picture of God using the things of everyday life to instruct us in higher things. And yet, there is no figure of Christ anywhere as there is in Von Uhde's picture below. These people are not even praying. They are simply talking and eating. The labored and awkward technique of this painting only enhances its sincerity.
Though there is no overt literal religious content in this picture, it is profoundly religious, one of the great religious pictures of the 19th century. Van Gogh never felt the need to illustrate the Bible, to paint traditional religious subject matter. Raised in a family of Calvinist ministers, Vincent was steeped in the Bible since early childhood. He wanted to use art to discern the meaning of the Bible, to divine the presence of the spirit, in the world around him, in the things of everyday life, and reveal them to others. This remained true even after he abandoned the institutional religious orthodoxies of his boyhood.

It is likely that Vincent Van Gogh sent his father to an early grave. Theodorus Van Gogh died suddenly of a stroke the year The Potato Eaters was painted, 1885. The painting in the post below, The Open Bible was made to mark his father's death.

In 1886, Theo Van Gogh was hired by Goupil's main office in Paris, and he invited Vincent to come join him there.  Vincent arrived in Paris to see the works of the Impressionist painters.  Shortly after, the sun rose on Vincent's palette.


it's margaret said...

Van Gogh as a religious painter --but of course! Thank you. I knew he was deeply religious, but I never connected the dots.

Thank you for all you posts.

Anonymous said...


I'm am so resonating with VVG's story (including the sleeping on the floor part) that I have decided not to post the details.

Except for this bit:

"He decided to leave the ministry entirely and to become an artist."

I have neither the talent nor the courage.

But, as I identify with the marginalized - for obvious reasons - I am just completely blown away by this good news.

Thank you!

susan s. said...

Oh, I posted my reaction to _this_ entry down at the entry below. Too late at night again! :-)

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

“This painting has all the sacramental mystery of a Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt. There is indeed a palpable sense in this picture of God using the things of everyday life to instruct us in higher things. And yet, there is no figure of Christ anywhere as there is in von Uhde's picture below.”

First von Uhde, no Capital! Only a Dutch “van” m a y be written with a V. “von” and “de” never (there are 2 exceptions, of course ;=)

Then I think of my time at Aix en Provence in 1973, when I first encountered Art (and art classes). We had a teacher who painted; he was a pupil of Picasso (who died at Chateau de Vauvenargues in April. Vauvenargues being the name of a very Gay “philosophe chrétien”, a contemporary of Voltaire and a close friend of Mr le Marquis de Mirabeau, the politician‘s grandfather, and of a Président of the Provence Parliament who was an early Archaeologist).

Anyway, those days God wasn’t mentioned. The Potato eaters were not a parable of everyday life to instruct us in higher things… And the word “philosophe chrétien” for Luc de Clapier de Clap, Marquis de Vauvenargues was explained “too much for both” ;=) Things change…

The mention of the word Goupil makes me dream a litle… The famous Medieval fable of Renard le Goupil changed the name for ever of the species Fox, from Goupil to Renard, the name of the Fox in the fable. It has so remained. Today every Goupil is Renard. I doubt anyone knows about the change.

The Arminians may have been comparatively “librul” within Calvinism, but are the Sect to blame for Modern anti Modern American Fundamentalism through their “Inerrantism”, even the word “Inerrantism” is un-known here…