A rich account of the influence of religion on Vincent Van Gogh’s life and art.
Through a mix of academic research and poetic reflection, retired Presbyterian minister Davidson’s book explores Van Gogh’s passionate interest in God. Best known as the painter who severed his ear, the tormented artist suffered from anxiety and mental illness throughout his life, failing at several different careers before his eventual transition to painting. Initially intent upon becoming a cleric like his father, Van Gogh dropped out of theology school and briefly worked as an evangelist before being dismissed on the grounds that “he neglected himself so [that he] could not be an example to others.” While Van Gogh’s paintings are now considered groundbreaking contributions to modern art, the artist’s inability to work in the church plagued him, and he reported feeling “lonely and sad, especially when near a church or parsonage.” After studying 1,700 printed pages of Van Gogh’s letters (the majority of which were addressed to the artist’s brother Theo), the author recounts Van Gogh’s musings on God, nature and art, as well as his turbulent relationships with women, family and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. To the disappointment of those around him, Van Gogh consistently made poor decisions—through his letters, readers learn he repeatedly failed coursework, survived chiefly on alcohol and tobacco and began a domestic partnership with an alcoholic prostitute that immediately becomes problematic. Still, the book creates a detailed sketch of the Dutch post-impressionist painter, depicting him as a talented yet deeply troubled man who loved nature and feverishly yearned for a closer relationship with God. More interpretative segments of the book combine Davidson’s thoughts on Van Gogh’s work along with the writings of Christian scholars, suggesting that paintings such as ”The Night Café” were created in response to the artist’s experience of the divine.
Clearly written from a Christian viewpoint, the book nonetheless presents a comprehensive account of Van Gogh’s life and spiritual inclinations that need not be limited to a religious audience.