The Rumor of Good News

The Potato Eaters – 1885, Vincent van Gogh

What is it about Vincent Van Gogh that continues to inspire artists? Painters mimic techniques he perfected. Scores of filmmakers, songwriters, and poets have created their own works of art with Van Gogh as their subject. What is it about this artist that so inspires other artists? A definitive answer to that question may not be possible, but as a songwriter who has himself written a song about Van Gogh, I can at least speak to what inspires me.

Van Gogh seems to have perceived the world in ways that the rest of us do not. In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear . . . as it is: infinite.”[1] For all of his faults, Van Gogh’s “doors of perception” were remarkably clean. He stood before starry nights and wheat fields and there glimpsed eternity. He admitted, “I prefer to see diggers digging and have found glory outside of Paradise.”[2] Going even further, he confessed, “I prefer to paint people’s eyes to cathedrals.”[3]  Van Gogh perceived the infinite in places the rest of us simply do not; and like a curious child who peaked behind a closed curtain, Van Gogh whispers back to the rest of us with each placement of his brush and tells of the beauty he has seen behind the veil. This is what inspires. We hear his whispering and like a game of telephone spanning the decades since his death, artists pass along as best as we can the rumor of good news we learned from Van Gogh: our generous God is at work everywhere, if only we had the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

One example of Van Gogh’s genius is his early work, The Potato Eaters (1885). In this painting, a family of farmers sit around a table sharing a meal of potatoes they had sown and harvested with their own hands. Those same hands, bent and calloused, now hold the fruit of their toil and of the earth. Each family members’ eyes look to another; their hands positioned to serve another. Above the table, a single oil lamp hangs. This, one would presume, would be the only light source in an otherwise dark room. However, light also seems to emanate from the meal itself. A young girl in the foreground, positioned between the viewer the table, hides the light’s source; but as steam rises toward the lamp above, light also is rising from the table – as can be seen in the play of shadows on the hard lines of the family members’ faces. This meal is made of more than potatoes; it is a Eucharist. God is present in the love and the labor of this family gathered round their dining table every bit as much as he is at the altar of Europe’s grandest cathedrals.

Wheatfield With Crows – 1890, Vincent Van Gogh

Such perception, however, should come with a warning label. Van Gogh not only saw God’s light where the rest of us miss it, he also dealt with untold darkness. In what many believe to be one of Van Gogh’s last paintings, he stood before a wheat field – a common subject for Van Gogh – and painted not only the yellows of the wheat and the blues of the sky, but also the black wings of crows flying overhead. While some of the black patterns are clearly birds, others mix with the blue in the sky and take an indiscernible shape – not clouds, not birds, only darkness. The haunting brush marks unraveling in Van Gogh’s sky reveal the haunting darkness that would ultimately unravel his mind, as Van Gogh soon after took his own life.

Van Gogh is a tragic character in every sense of the word. His gift – his ability to peer behind the curtain of reality and glimpse the divine – was more than one life could bear; but I thank the God of Abraham, Isaac, and those poor potato farmers that he tried. He wrote to his brother Theo, “I have a duty to leave this world a souvenir of gratitude through painting and drawing.”[4]  Van Gogh left more than a souvenir. He left us a whisper of the rumor of Good News. May we continue to pass it on.

[1] Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

[2] Letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh; The Hague, c. 21 May 1883.

[3] Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh; Antwerp, c. 19 December 1885.

[4] Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh; The Hague, c. 7 August 1883.

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