I’ve always loved Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings and admired his mastery of color and texture, so was thrilled when my father took me to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was fabulous seeing so many of his paintings, drawings, and sketches, and I felt I gained a more intimate knowledge of him through studying his drawings and sketches.
When I read Vincent Van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art, by Carol Berry, I found much that inspired me about his art and his life. Early on Vincent became a pastor/evangelist because of his love of and compassion for the poorest people he could find—miners living in darkness and misery. He determined to live with them and as they did, in abject poverty and identifying with them as he ministered to their bodies and souls, caring for the sick and sharing the love of Christ with them, to the great consternation of his family and the religious establishment of the day. From his letters to his brother Theo:
I wish I could get a position there as an evangelist, just as we talked about it, preaching the Gospel to the poor—those who need it most and for whom it is so well meant (Laken, on or about November 13 and 15, or 16, 1878; Quoted in Berry, p. 41)
Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one. I tell you that I think it absolutely necessary to believe in God in order to be able to love. What I mean is, to believe in God is to feel that there is a God, not dead or on display, but a God who is alive, who with irresistible force urges us toward an “aimer encore.” (Etten, November 23, 1881; Quoted in Berry, p. 69)
Vincent’s drawings and paintings often feature poor miners and peasants, as he sought to serve them by emphasizing their worth and the value of their labor. He felt that by drawing the poor and destitute in the harsh reality of their existence, rather than by romanticizing their lives, those who were more fortunate would come to love and care for them, loving their neighbor as themselves.
Peasant life is something serious, and I, for one, would blame myself if I didn’t try to make paintings that would give serious things to think about to people who think seriously about art and about life… One must paint the peasants as being himself one of them, as feeling, thinking as they do themselves.
(Nuenen, April 30, 1885; Quoted in Berry, p. 119)
Another aspect of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters and paintings that strikes a chord with me are his thoughts about and depiction of nature.
But in the meantime I’m always fed by nature. I exaggerate, I sometimes make changes in the theme, but in the end I don’t invent the whole content of the painting; on the contrary, I find it all completely there in nature—but it has to be disentangled. (Arles, on or about October 5, 1888 ; Quoted in Berry, p. 151)
There is at times something indescribable in those aspects—it is as if the whole of nature is speaking—and when one goes home one has the feeling as if one has read a book by Victor Hugo, for example. As for me, I cannot understand that not everybody sees it and feels it. Doesn’t nature or God do it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand? It seems to me that a painter is happy, because he lives in harmony with nature, as soon as he can express, to some extent, what he sees. (The Hague, November 26 and 27, 1882; Quoted in Berry, p. 176)
An artist friend of mine who has copied well over 300 of Van Gogh’s paintings plans to paint replicas of all of Van Gogh’s almost 900 paintings, and he has given many as gifts to friends and coworkers. Seeing his work has inspired me to try copying some Van Gogh paintings in order to learn from his style. Here is my copy in gouache of Van Gogh’s “Old Yew Tree”
My goal in studying any artist’s style is not to change my style to be just like theirs, but to learn from them and incorporate into my own style what fits with who I am. This is similar to how I learn from and incorporate lessons from people I respect, whether in the realm of art, or their approach to daily life, or how they live out their faith. As the Apostle Paul said, “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” Philippians 3: 17
Here are a few paintings I have done as I try to figure out what I want to incorporate into my painting style from Van Gogh’s example:
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