How Van Gogh Found His Purpose: Heartfelt Letters to His Brother on How Relationships Refine Us
By Maria Popova
Long before Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) became a creative legend and attained such mastery of art that he explained nature better than science, he confronted the same existential challenge many young people and aspiring artists face as they set out to find their purpose and do what they love — something that often requires the discomfiting uncertainty of deviating from the beaten path.
In January of 1879, twenty-six-year-old Van Gogh, who had dropped out of high school, was given a six-month appointment as a preacher in a small village — a job that consisted of giving Bible readings, teaching schoolchildren, and caring for the sick and poor. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to the task and, in solidarity with the poor, gave away all of his possessions to live in a tiny hut, where he slept on the ground. But his commitment backfired — the church committee that had hired him saw this as extravagant posturing of humility and fired him. In August, Van Gogh moved to a nearby village and took up drawing and writing — which he had been doing recreationally for years, for his own pleasure — as a more serious endeavor. That summer, his beloved brother Theo visited to discuss Vincent’s future, making it clear that the family was concerned with his lack of direction. (Vincent was the eldest of six children, which only compounded the expectations.) The uncomfortable talk, which initially caused a rift between the brothers, affected Van Gogh profoundly and became a serious turning point in his life.
On August 14, 1879, he wrote an exquisite letter to Theo, found in the newly released 800-page treasure trove Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library). The letter endures as a piercing testament to the conviction that, as another famous young man wrote in his own defense of the unbeaten path, “it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it.”
Van Gogh begins by turning a wise eye to the silver lining of why the conversation had hurt and riled him so:
It’s better that we feel something for each other rather than behave like corpses toward one another, the more so because as long as one has no real right to be called a corpse by being legally dead, it smacks of hypocrisy or at least childishness to pose as such… The hours we spent together in this way have at least assured us that we’re both still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and took a walk with you, I had the same feeling I used to have more than I do now, as though life were something good and precious that one should cherish, and I felt more cheerful and alive than I had been for a long time, cause in spite of myself life has gradually become or has seemed much less precious to me, much more unimportant and indifferent. When one lives with others and is bound by a feeling of affection one is aware that one has a reason for being, that one might not be entirely worthless and superfluous but perhaps good for one thing or another, considering that we need one another and are making the same journey as traveling companions. Proper self-respect, however, is also very dependent on relations with others.
Noting the “salutary effect” his brother’s visit had on him, Van Gogh speaks to the soul-nurturing power of close relationships:
A prisoner who’s kept in isolation, who’s prevented from working &c., would in the long run, especially if this were to last too long, suffer the consequences just as surely as one who went hungry for too long. Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or lamp-post, whether of stone or iron, so that I can’t do without them without perceiving an emptiness and feeling their lack, like any other generally civilized and highly respectable man.
The letter, however, takes on the tone of an impassioned plea as Van Gogh seeks to convince his brother that he, Vincent, is not the failure the family believes him to be. Lamenting what “the damage, the sorrow, the heart’s regretfulness” inflected by his uncle’s most recent attempt to convince him to return to school and pursue a proper occupation, Van Gogh scoffs at the formulaic life-path laid before those who pursue traditional education:
I would rather die a natural death than be prepared for it by the academy, and have occasionally had a lesson from a grass-mower that seemed to me more useful than one in Greek.
Improvement in my life — should I not desire it or should I not be in need of improvement? I really want to improve. But it’s precisely because I yearn for it that I’m afraid of remedies that are worse than the disease. Can you blame a sick person if he looks the doctor straight in the eye and prefers not to be treated wrongly or by a quack?
In addressing his brother’s accusation of having “a taste for idling,” Van Gogh points out that there are degrees of doing nothing and speaks beautifully to the idea that what seems like boredom is an essential faculty of creativity:
Such idling is really a rather strange sort of idling. It’s rather difficult for me to defend myself on this score, but I would be sorry if you couldn’t eventually see this in a different light. I also don’t know if I would do well to counter such accusations by following the advice to become a baker, for example. That would really be a sufficient answer (supposing it were possible for us to assume the guise of a baker or hair-cutter or librarian with lightning speed) and yet actually a foolish response, rather like the way the man acted who, when accused of heartlessness because he was sitting on a donkey, immediately dismounted and continued on his way with the donkey on his shoulders.
Putting jest aside, Van Gogh professes being “overcome by a feeling of sorrow” and a constant “struggle against despair” in the knowledge that his family sees him as “annoying or burdensome,” “useful for neither one thing nor another,” for his lack of purpose and direction in life. Expressing a wish for the relationship between the brothers to be “more trusting on both sides,” he makes a passionate case for being afforded some space, support, and optimism as he finds his own course:
If it were indeed so, then I’d truly wish that it be granted me not to have to go on living too long. Yet whenever this depresses me beyond measure, all too deeply, after a long time the thought also occurs to me: It’s perhaps only a bad, terrible dream, and later we’ll perhaps learn to understand and comprehend it better. But is it not, after all, reality, and won’t it one day become better than worse? To many it would no doubt appear foolish and superstitious to believe in any improvement for the better. Sometimes in winter it’s so bitterly cold that one says, it’s simply too cold, what do I care whether summer comes, the bad outweighs the good. But whether we like it or not, an end finally comes to the hard frost, and one fine morning the wind has turned and we have a thaw. Comparing the natural state of the weather with our state of mind and our circumstances, subject to variables and change, I still have some hope that it can improve.
Nearly a year elapses until the brothers reconnect — the longest break in their lifetime of letters and loving support — during which time Van Gogh sinks into a state of destitution and despair. On June 24 of the next year, he finally reaches out to Theo upon receiving 50 francs from him — around $200 in today’s money — which the aspiring artist accepts “certainly reluctantly, certainly with a rather melancholy feeling.” Indeed, he attests to the creative value of melancholy and echoes Nietzsche’s belief in the spiritual benefits of suffering as he writes to Theo:
What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed, but it’s not to be done in public, however; it’s scarcely entertaining, it’s not cheerful, so it’s a matter of making oneself scarce.
Instead of giving way to despair, I took the way of active melancholy as long as I had strength for activity, or in other words, I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and searches to the one that despairs, mournful and stagnant.
Considering how he adapted to this state of “active melancholy” as he immersed himself in making art, Van Gogh makes a wonderfully self-aware remark about his notorious unkept appearance:
The man who is absorbed in all that is sometimes shocking, to others, and without wishing to, offends to a greater or lesser degree against certain forms and customs of social convention. It’s a pity, though, when people take that in bad part. For example, you well know that I’ve frequently neglected my appearance, I admit it, and I admit that it’s shocking. But look, money troubles and poverty have something to do with it, and then a profound discouragement also has something to do with it, and then it’s sometimes a good means of ensuring for oneself the solitude needed to be able to go somewhat more deeply into this or that field of study with which one is preoccupied.
Reflecting on having spent the past five years “more or less without a position, wandering hither and thither,” Van Gogh revisits the question of finding his purpose. In a sentiment reminiscent of Picasso’s remark that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” he offers a magnificent counterpoint to the myth that so frequently paralyzes people, especially young people, who set out to live a life of purpose — the idea that the path must reveal itself before you embark upon it, that you must “find yourself” before you begin your creative journey. Van Gogh writes:
On the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.
But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. The goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the first fugitive, passing thought, unless it becomes firm.
Echoing Kierkegaard’s admonition that most people succumb to conformity by seeking out “a solid position in life” — that is, a humdrum jobby job — Van Gogh adds wryly:
One of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.
Countering his brother’s accusation that he has changed a great deal since their youthful walks together, Van Gogh argues that merely his circumstances changed, while his innermost values only deepened as he immersed himself more fully in his two great loves, art and literature:
What has changed is that my life was less difficult then and my future less dark, but as far as my inner self, as far as my way of seeing and thinking are concerned, they haven’t changed. But if in fact there were a change, it’s that now I think and I believe and I love more seriously what then, too, I already thought, I believed and I loved.
If you now can forgive a man for going more deeply into paintings, admit also that the love of books is as holy as that of Rembrandt, and I even think that the two complement each other.
He returns to the heart of the matter — the anguish of not having settled into his sense of purpose:
In my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?
And yet as cut off from the capacity for affection as he may feel, Van Gogh nonetheless believes that love is the only conduit to connecting with one’s purpose, with divinity itself:
I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path to knowing more thoroughly, afterwards; that’s what I say to myself. But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.
Remarking on having benefited from “the free course at the great university of poverty,” Van Gogh envisions finding his purpose after a long period of floundering:
One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing, incapable of filling any position, any role, finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action, shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.
Once again, he appeals to his brother to see him as “something other than some sort of idler” and to learn to distinguish between the two types of idling, the destructive and the constructive:
There are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.
There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature… Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t’ always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler.
Bleeding from Van Gogh’s words is the hope that his brother would see him not as the first but as the second kind of “idler” — a hope he amplifies with a moving metaphor in closing the lengthy letter, one that speaks with harrowing elegance to the hastiness with which we tend to judge others and to mistake their circumstances for their capabilities:
In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember,and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!
An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.
You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…
He concludes by returning to the ennobling, liberating nature of close relationships:
You know, what makes the prison disappear is very deep, serious attachment. To be friends, to be brothers, to love; that opens the prison through sovereign power, through a most powerful spell. But he who doesn’t have that remains in death. But where sympathy springs up again, life springs up again.
That summer, Vincent resolved to pursue art as his lifelong endeavor. It was Theo who first urged him to turn art into a career, and he soon became Van Gogh’s greatest champion and most selfless supporter — one of creative history’s greatest unsung sidekicks. Despite his well-documented and ultimately fatal struggle with mental illness, Van Gogh wrote frequently of the sublime joy and immense fulfillment he found in art — a sense of purpose without which his life would have been undoubtedly grimmer and quite possibly even shorter, and creative culture vastly impoverished.
Ever Yours: The Essential Letters is a revelatory read in its hefty totality, brimming with insights into the rich and turbulent inner life of one of humanity’s greatest creative luminaries. Complement it with Vincent’s letters to Theo on art and the power of love, then marvel at how his greatest masterpiece explains the scientific mysteries of fluid dynamics.
Published December 1, 2014