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Vincent Van Gogh and Family

Posted on 26 January 2012, 18:28

In a further extract from my book, Forsaking the Family, I consider the effect of family on the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh.

‘People sometimes imagine that parenting is equal in a home; that it is the same for one brother as another, but this is not the case. Each child is born into a different family setting, a different chemistry of relationships and different attitudes from the carers, for life is a moving river.

Perhaps the first child was born into her mother’s depression, which was not the case for the second. Or perhaps in another family, unlike the first three, the mother didn’t want the fourth child, but had been coerced by the father. In such circumstances, she resents the presence of this new arrival, and so this fourth child might have to do more to win her approval than the others; he will certainly feel the cold winds of frustration in the mother, should he be difficult. Families are not places of equality.

Take Vincent Van Gogh, for instance and Vincent Van Gogh. It isn’t a misprint. Vincent Van Gogh died tragically when young, and so in order to remember him, his religious parents decided to name their next boy after him, so when born, he too was called Vincent Van Gogh. This was the man who went on to paint pictures which were ridiculed and ignored during his life - he sold only two - but have achieved some fame since.

His childhood was deeply unhappy, for apart from the stern religiosity of his parents, they never forgave him for not being his dead elder brother. His dead elder brother - unreachable in the grave that Vincent was made to visit regularly - was the boy and man the younger Vincent never could be. Vincent even shared a birthday with his elder brother. The young Vincent was not an individual with an identity of his own, but a poor replica of someone else, someone better, someone untouchable in their perfection, someone who in death could never mess things up.

When in later life he moved to Arles in the South of France, Van Gogh discovered there a ‘kingdom of light’ and stunning colour. He was born again as an artist, with the ordinary becoming extraordinary to him in this new setting. He painted everything - cafes, children, streets, night, people, countryside, sunflowers, even his bedroom. The cold northern skies of childhood were no more, and a huge vitality overtook him, sending him into remarkable creativity.

But the child is the father of the adult, and the scars of inadequacy remained. He could throw off the religious shackles of his parents, but he could not throw off the cloak of despair which clung to his inner parts. If your parents did not celebrate your life as something wonderful and good, then it is hard in later years for you to do so. It is significant that Van Gogh never signed his paintings with that name. When he emerged as an artist, he was simply ‘Vincent’. Not a single painting or drawing from his adult years bears the family name. He rationalized it by claiming that foreigners could not pronounce ‘Van Gogh’, which may well have been true. But it was not the profoundest truth concerning this matter. By this simple act, Vincent was cutting himself off from both his father and the entire Van Gogh family culture and belief.

Instead, he was going to find his own way in life. ‘I am not a Van Gogh!’ he declared, after calling his father obstinate, unintelligent, icy cold and narrow-minded.

He tried to redeem the situation in his life, constantly falling and failing in love, trying to form a new family, a family of affinity. He attempted also to create a community of artists, an idea close to his heart. Paul Gauguin joined him in the ‘Yellow House’ and there was companionship of a sort until a furious row destroyed the fragile relationship and Gauguin left.

Van Gogh poured his feelings into his art. Perhaps there has never been a painter who painted more profoundly from his state of mind. As has been said, ‘He carried the sun in his head and a hurricane in his heart… he did not paint with his hands but with his naked senses… painting himself within those fiery clouds… in those twisting trees that seem to yell to heaven, in the frightening vastness of his plains.’ As he himself stated in his final letter to his brother Theo, he risked everything for his work, even madness and eventually his life.

It was a sort of madness, but there was no choice, for he had to pursue that which gave life to the moment, that which helped him touch the vibrancy of the now, which gave him a sense of self different from that imposed on him in his early years. For Van Gogh, this desperate bid for freedom was played out through the painting of feeling, both the torment and the hope. The hope he expressed in the colour yellow.

At Van Gogh’s funeral, some of his most recent canvases were hung around the room where his body lay, while on the coffin hung a single white drape and hundreds of flowers: sunflowers, which were his favourite, yellow dahlias and other yellow flowers. Yellow for him was the colour of the light he hoped to find in himself and in others. The individual who probably offered him most hope was his brother Theo - a blood relative and friend who was endlessly generous to Vincent financially, and in the encouragement he gave. He could not cure Vincent of his troubles, and often received little by way of thanks from him.

But he was a friend amid them in simple and practical ways. Vincent placed his own torment on the canvas, ever the stranger on earth, the stunted plant fighting for life.

Yet for someone who saw art as a record of ‘the universality of suffering’ and who is often seen as a tragic figure, he also painted much beauty along the way, and we need not be surprised. Those who visit the darkness have within them the capacity for discoveries of amazing light, painter or no painter. In this book, we do not avoid the bleak, or ease its impact with soft-coloured words. But we continue on, feeling all things, for we keep glimpsing the beauty which honesty creates. Van Gogh painted his despair but created light. To his parents, he was never as good as the brother who didn’t live; to his brother Theo, he was family, who needed help; and to the rest of the world, in time, he was a swirling and courageous gift from God.’

Forsaking the Family by Simon Parke is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and all good online book stores.Forsaking the Family by Simon Parke

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