Saturday, January 11, 2014


Vincent, Chicago Art Institute, IL
Vincent's Room, Chicago Art Institute, IL

Unappreciated Impressions of Life

Statisticians track groupings of data to plot trends by drawing lines through the epicenter of scattered data points. Any points that fall outside of the normal grouping are considered outliers. They don’t fit the data and are anomalies which are generally excluded. People exhibit these tendencies also. Many “outsiders” march to a different drummer. And we ostracize them for the most part instead of celebrating their diversity. Ironically, many of these people become recognized posthumously as the geniuses that we couldn’t recognize while they were living. We couldn’t see past our own filtered biases and narrowly focused concept of acceptable. We stayed inside the boundaries of our own comfort zones. Jesus was an outlier. Vincent van Gogh was an outlier. One suffered for his sanity; the other for all humanity. Both sought to free mankind from their view of the world but their impact wasn’t immediately appreciated until after their death.

                                                              Vincent's Pieta

Human nature seems to allow people to find self-worth in putting down others that don’t fit our template or threaten the status quo. It's been said that the only good reason to look down on someone is so that you can better help them up. Jesus cautioned us to take the log out of our own eye before focusing on the speck in our neighbor’s eye. The religious establishment in his time, the Sanhedrin, definitely saw Jesus as a threat to their established and profitable status quo when he began his ministry at the age of 30 for the last three years of his life. His radical message went against the grain of contemporary religion.

Every time I have the opportunity and pleasure of viewing some of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, I’m amazed that his talent and genius were never celebrated in his lifetime while he was creating over 2,000 artworks. He was never able to support himself through the vocation he had chosen for the last ten years of his life. Interestingly, Vincent’s father Theodorus was a country minister and his mother Anna Cornelia was an artist. At the age of 25 Vincent volunteered to move to an impoverished coal mining area in the south of Belgium where he preached, ministered to the sick and sketched the people who lovingly called him “Christ of the Coal Mines”.

But Vincent’s adult life was plagued by a progressive mental illness that could have had multiple causes. He died two days after he shot himself in the chest at the age of 37 in a wheat field he had been painting. He painted his stark room in Arles in expectation of having Gauguin partner with him in his dream of gathering a collective of creative artists to challenge the established Academie in Paris. The Academie’s annual juried art show was extremely profitable for the traditional establishment of artists and dealers. But they shunned the younger painters who were creating their unique and different impressions of life. After a crazed confrontation with Gauguin, Vincent fled to a local brothel where he severed the lobe off his right ear and handed it to Rachel--something many people remember him for as much as his artwork. All of his subsequent self-portraits were painted with a left profile. The ominous black crows hovering over the vibrant amber wheat field that he painted shortly before his suicide reveals much about his decaying, tormented mind. Yet he found solace in his work and continued to create unappreciated masterpieces.

Vincent’s brother Theo sold only one of his paintings for 400 francs and he was never recognized in his lifetime. His own mother destroyed crates full of his paintings after his death. However, one of the 37 self-portraits he painted in a three year period shortly before his death over one hundred years ago was sold at auction in 1998 for a near record $71.5 million in New York City. At least that one art lover understood what Vincent was trying to say to him. Vincent was semi-homeless until his death, as he moved frequently and never could afford a permanent home. And Jesus left nothing of material value upon his death at 33. But over two thousand years later, the world celebrates his priceless words of life and hope and gives billions of dollars to support His teachings for us to love our common Creator and one another. This in spite of all the burnings of the world’s best-selling book over the years which were intended to destroy the unappreciated legacy and language of His unique and different impressions of life.

Don McLean’s hit song Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) is a poignant overview of Van Gogh’s tragic and creative life. And the DVD, Josh Groban in Concert, produced by David Foster, has one of the most moving interpretations of the music that you will ever experience:

The lyrics capture the “eyes that know the darkness in my soul” and lament “how you suffered for your sanity, how you tried to set them free. They would not listen, they’re not listening still.
Perhaps they never will…”

The following link has an excellent video clip of Vincent’s paintings set to the song along with the lyrics:

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