In the same instant, I felt both disappointment and inspiration. Does that seem contradictory? It didn’t at the time. In fact, I was thankful for both. My wife and I had been strolling joyfully on a walking tour through Arles, France. As a part of an “In the footsteps of Van Gogh” tour, we arrived at the spot where Vincent painted his “Café Terrace at Night” in 1888. The round-top tables outside the café sat in the exact same placements as in the artwork. The unfurled yellow awning had similar dimensions as in the painting and the cobblestones formed the same symmetrical pattern.
But the real-life location lacked the dazzling color of the canvas that now hangs in the Kröller-Müller museum in Otterlo, Netherlands. Even though I’ve never seen the original, it is my favorite painting by my favorite artist. I no longer try to understand why that particular work prompts such joy in me. I just delight in it.
On that day in Arles, having completed my long-anticipated pilgrimage to that café, I sensed the chasm between the real-life scene and the artist’s expression of it. In a flash, I understood what Vincent meant when he wrote, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully.”[i] No sentence encapsulates for me the distinction between Impressionism and Expressionism as clearly as that one. Impressionists, such as Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, felt little need to reproduce precisely what they saw before them. Instead, they portrayed “impressions” of the scenes, emotions they wanted their viewers to feel or flavors they wanted to emphasize more than visual accuracy. Van Gogh went further. He painted to express what he felt. The trajectory from mere narration (by pre-impressionists) to interpretive depictions (by impressionists) to personal expression accelerated through Van Gogh’s wonder-filled creations. Without apology, he wrote, “I don’t mind whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on the canvas.”[ii]
Does this expressionism explain Van Gogh’s popularity? Is this why millions of people stand in line for hours to view Vincent’s work at museums worldwide? Do we resonate with his desire to emote through artistic expression? I’ve long wondered what it is about Van Gogh’s sunflowers or lilies or starry skies or wheat fields or portraits that have captivated my own admiration. I travel to museums often and love many artists’ masterpieces. But there’s just something about Van Gogh’s canvases that never disappoint or stop me from returning. On one occasion, when I had a break between appointments in downtown Washington, DC, I stopped in at the National Gallery of Art, made a beeline to Van Gogh’s Roses, soaked it in for fifteen minutes, and then left – deliberately choosing to not look at any other work in that great collection.
Many people have suggested a variety of reasons for Vincent’s popularity: “We all have a touch of madness in us” or “We see ourselves – beautiful but tormented, colorful but sad, blending into the background but distinct from it – in his many self-portraits” or “We’re all rebels at heart and Van Gogh rebelled against the art world around him” or “We need freedom from the restrictions of religion the same way Van Gogh had to escape the dour Protestantism of his father” and on and on they go. None of these attempts has ever satisfied me.
Here’s another attempt to explain Van Gogh’s mass appeal. Or, at least, here is my offering to explain my reason for loving Vincent’s art.
Van Gogh was longing for another world and his paintings pointed to that other world. I, too, am longing for another world. I think a lot of people are – maybe all of us. This is what C. S. Lewis called sehnsucht. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More about that later.
One of the great blessings of exploring Van Gogh’s art is that his paintings are punctuated with commentary through his letters. That can’t be said for too many other artists. Thanks to his sister-in-law Joanna, we have almost 1000 letters exchanged between Vincent and his brother Theo. Taking years to find, sort, and translate this correspondence, she gave the world a rich backdrop to appreciate both the art and the artist.
One frequent theme in the letters was Vincent’s reflection on the nature of art. In particular, he explored the notion that art points us beyond itself. Here’s one expression of this observation: “…one of the functions of Art, [is] its ability to articulate a first sensuous expression of fleeting thoughts and convey – even if it is crudely, on canvas – what the envisaged utopia might be like.”[iii]
Or consider, “There is something infinite about painting—I can’t quite explain it to you—but particularly for the expression of moods it is so wonderful. In colors there are hidden aspects of harmony or contrasts that cooperate automatically and don’t take sides.”[iv]
He wasn’t always so upbeat about art’s power. On one occasion, he bemoaned, “Art is jealous and demands all our time and all our strength, and then when we dedicate these to it, it leaves rather a bitter taste to be taken for some kind of impractical person and I don’t know what else.”[v]
But don’t we find resonance with Van Gogh’s appreciation of both the good and the bad in art and elsewhere? He wrote of “all things in life where we find a je ne sais quoi of great good, and also an element of bad, from which we feel that there is something infinite above us, infinitely greater, mightier than we are.”[vi]
And can’t we allow art to be “inaccurate” because it points us to the way things ought to be, just as he said, “My great desire is to learn to make such inaccuracies, such deviations, revisions, changes to the reality, that they will become, yes, lies, if you will, but more valid than the literal truth.”[vii]
I said I felt inspiration as I stood outside that café in Arles because I remembered C. S. Lewis’s words about hope. In Mere Christianity he spoke about disappointments we all have in this life, whether it’s from an experience or a person or a pursuit. Even the very best of vacations or the most wonderful spouse or the most rewarding of occupations leave us with a sense of incompleteness.
Lewis counsels us that we can respond in one of three ways. We can choose the route of hedonism and keep chasing other experiences, other spouses, other careers. “Most of the bored, discontented, rich people in the world are of this type,”[viii] he wisely observed. Or we could give up the pursuit of the ideal and fall into cynicism. Lewis believed this attitude made some people feel “rather superior” toward others in harsh ways. More than a few people have found this disillusionment can leave a hole that requires a great deal of distraction (or alcohol) to cover over.
But Lewis proposed a third alternative that many of us have found to be joyful, even as it continues to disappoint. He said we could conclude, “if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[ix] I have to wonder if that wasn’t what Van Gogh was trying to find through nature, beauty, and his brilliant expressions on canvas.
Lewis wrote that joy was “the central story” of his life, defining it as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”[x] In another place, he observed, “We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light.”[xi]
Reading this insight of Lewis’s changed my life. I was able to let go of absurd, nihilistic disillusionment and latch onto the “other world” we can access through the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah. Jesus’ death on the cross destroyed the barrier between God and me, enabling me to become a citizen of that other world, even before I cross over into it at the end of my earthly life.
Lewis helped me realize there is another world. Jesus made it possible for me to enter it. Van Gogh points me there and stimulates my longing for it.
I bounce back and forth regarding Van Gogh’s faith. Did he know the Savior he tried to proclaim through his early days as a missionary? Did the gospel message ever get through to him from his father’s preaching? Did he read the Bible he sometimes included in his still life paintings? I’ve spoken to Christians who want to claim him as one of the elect. Others doubt his salvation because of his many failings through visits to prostitutes, drunken binges on alcohol and absinthe, or numerous other indications of idolatry. Fortunately, we are not the ones to determine his eternal destiny. God’s omniscience is not thwarted by any amount of sinful behavior or mental instability. Even if Vincent couldn’t think clearly at the end of his earthly life, God isn’t befuddled about Vincent’s eternal life.
I do wish there could have been a way for Van Gogh and C. S. Lewis to have met. (Lewis was born a full eight years after Vincent died). It’s a fantasy, I admit – but no more fantastic than any of Van Gogh’s paintings or Lewis’s images of Narnia. Lewis, I think, would have challenged Van Gogh’s notion that he could find what he was searching for without God. In a letter to his brother, Vincent admitted, “Sometimes, dear brother, I know so well what I want. I am quite able to do without God, both in my life and in my painting, but what I cannot do without, unwell as I am, is something greater than myself, which is my life, the power to create.”[xii]
Lewis would argue that the very power to create could only come as a gift from a creative God. He would push Vincent further: “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”[xiii]
When Vincent opined that “the best way to know God is to love many things,”[xiv] Lewis might have countered that those “many things” are mere “coruscations” (flashes of light, like that marvelous beam of sunlight in Vincent’s The Sower). He would have pushed Vincent to let his mind run “back up the sunbeam to the sun.”[xv] He would have urged Vincent to not just love the pointers but also latch on to the one to whom all good gifts point.
Vincent wrote about The Café Terrace, the one I stood outside during my tour. He had also painted a hopeless scene from inside that place. He revealed, “‘Night prowlers can take refuge here when they don’t have the money to pay for lodgings or are too drunk to be allowed in.” But then he added, “All these things—family, homeland—are perhaps more attractive in the imaginations of people like us, who manage reasonably well without a homeland or a family, than they are in any reality. I always feel like a traveler, going somewhere, toward some destination.”[xvi]
Lewis might have applauded and added, “Yes, you are right, Vincent. We are all travelers and we all have a destination.” But he might have also preached a bit of his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” where he concluded:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[xvii]
Some art historians believe Van Gogh added something to his “Starry Night” masterpiece that was not in the landscape of the village of St. Remy, the inspiration for the painting. There was no church, as we see taking center stage on the canvas that attracts millions to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Why did Vincent add such a significant symbol of Christian faith to his painting if it wasn’t there in the actual scene? Could this be his most dramatic expression of longing for the God who is worshipped in buildings like that church? Would Van Gogh have listened to C. S. Lewis if they could have met? Would the painter find that “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction,” as he listened to the storyteller? Imagine how many more breathtaking masterpieces we might have today if he had. Couldn’t we all use more works of manmade beauty to spark wonder, joy, and longing for that world where God makes everything new?
[iii] Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings by Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger, (TASCHEN, 2012, 696).
[iv] Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters edited by H. Anna Suh, (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2006, 56).
[v] Suh, 44.
[vi] Suh, 105.
[vii] Suh, 151.
[viii] Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, (Geoffrey Bles, 1952; this edition, HarperCollins, 1980, 136).
[ix] Mere Christianity, 137.
[x] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C. S. Lewis, (Geoffrey Bles, 1955; this edition, Mariner Books, 2012, 17-18).
[xi] The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses by C. S. Lewis, (Geoffrey Bles, 1949; this edition, HarperCollins, 1976, 39).
[xii] Suh, 223.
[xiii] Mere Christianity, 50.
[xiv] Quoted in Van Gogh: His Life and His Art by David Sweetman, (Crown, 1990, front matter).
[xv] Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C. S. Lewis, (Geoffrey Bles, 1964; this edition, Harvest/HBJ, 1973, 90).
[xvi] Suh, 216.
[xvii] The Weight of Glory, 30-31.