Vincent van Gogh: Life and Art in the Face of Failure

23 Apr

“He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.”

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, October 1888

This post will be my final one (for now at least….) featuring wonderful passages from Irving Stone’s romanticised biography about the life and struggles of Vincent van Gogh: “Lust for Life”, originally published in 1934. I really love the book and I reread it this spring and I feel that it is truly too beautiful not to be shared! I already have a post about the sun, heat and vibrant colours of Arles, and posts about the art discussions that Vincent had with Gauguin while he stayed in Arles; part one and part two. Today I would like to share a passage which deals directly with the question: why? Why do I paint? What is it that drives me to persist with it, despite constant failure? Vincent is asking himself that and the answer is a very beautiful one and I think all artists should be inspired by it. Indeed, my artist friend loves the quote as well. I think inspiration for creating art should be intrinsic, it has to be the fire within that drives one to create, if one is doing it to please someone else, to gain admiration, approval, praise or popularity, then it’s just not going to work. And now here is the quote:

The hot sun built up his vitality, even though his stomach was getting little attention. In place of sane food he put absinthe, tobacco, and Daudet’s tales of Tartarin. His innumerable hours of concentration before the easel rubbed his nerves raw. He needed stimulants. The absinthe made him all the more excited for the following day, an excitement whipped by the mistral and baked into him by the sun.

As the summer advanced, everything became burnt up. He saw about him nothing but old gold, bronze and copper, covered by a greenish azure sky of blanched heat. There was sulphur-yellow on everything the sunlight hit. His canvases were masses of bright burning yellow. He knew that yellow had not been used in European painting since the Renaissance, but that did not deter him. The yellow pigment oozed out of the tubes onto the canvas, and there it stayed. His pictures were sun steeped, sun burnt, tanned with the burning sun and swept with air.

He was convinced that it was no more easy to make a good picture than it was to find a diamond or a pearl. He was dissatisfied with himself and what he was doing, but he had just a glimmer of hope that it was going to be better in the end. Sometimes even that hope seemed a Fata Morgana. Yet the only time he felt alive was when he was slogging at his work. Of personal life, he had none. He was just a mechanism, a blind painting automaton that had food, liquid, and paint poured into it each morning, and by nightfall turned out a finished canvas.

And for what purpose? For sale? Certainly not! He knew that nobody wanted to buy his pictures. Then what was the hurry? Why did he drive and spur himself to paint dozens and dozens of canvases when the space under his miserable, brass bed was already piled nearly solid with paintings?

The desire to succeed had left Vincent. He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.

7 Responses to “Vincent van Gogh: Life and Art in the Face of Failure”

  1. Upside-down Land 23rd Apr 2021 at 7:39 pm #

    Creating art is serving something greater than our self. Putting aside the success of sales, the artist is like the baseball batter or the 3-point basketball shooter – most of their efforts are at best mediocre. Perhaps 20% to 30% of an artist’s output is worth a second or third look or listen. They keep going because even the mediocre outcomes transported them during creation. Artists enter a different dimension and powers beyond their ken manifest around them. Only sex is comparable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rossettisgirlfriend 24th Apr 2021 at 8:22 am #

    I love your posts so much, they are always so full of inspiration and intuitive thoughts, thank you. Why are you not going to be doing any more for a while, if I may ask? J

    Liked by 2 people

    • Byron's Muse 24th Apr 2021 at 9:29 am #

      Thank you! It is so nice to hear that. Oh, no worries, I only meant I will not be doing any posts about Irving Stone’s book Lust for Life and Van Gogh for a while, I may return to that topic some other time but for now this is it. I will of course write my other posts! 🦋🌻

      Liked by 2 people

      • rossettisgirlfriend 24th Apr 2021 at 3:58 pm #

        Aw that’s wonderful , I would have missed you greatly!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. barryoca 24th Apr 2021 at 2:14 pm #

    Your last post? I hope not! I love reading the thoughts and seeing the images you choose for your blog. I hope you relent and keep going- maybe an interlude rather than a final curtain?

    Liked by 4 people

    • Byron's Muse 24th Apr 2021 at 3:00 pm #

      Oh my, it seems my sentence turned out different than I had intended. I only meant to say that this will be my last post in the series of posts dealing with Van Gogh and the quotes from the book Lust for Life. Of course I will keep writing posts! So no worries there. And thank you, I’m delighted to hear that my writing is appreciated.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. javier (@javiertamborrel) 28th Apr 2021 at 8:14 pm #

    dear brother,

    what am i in the eyes of most people? a nonentity, an eccentric, an unpleasant person – someone who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.
    ⠀⠀
    very well – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. that is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.


    ⠀⠀
    though i am often in the depths of misery, inside me there’s still calm, pure harmony and music. i see paintings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners… and my mind is driven towards them with an irresistible momentum.⠀⠀

    i just wanted to tell you that regular work will and must be resumed, come what may – and i want to add that i’m longing so much for a letter from you, and also to wish you good-night.⠀⠀⠀
    ⠀⠀
    adieu, with a handshake.⠀⠀
    ⠀⠀
    ✉️: letter to theo, 21 july 1882⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

    @foryou.from

    Liked by 2 people

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