I’m reading Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life, and enjoying every page. A year ago I took an art class with Chad Hines, who has an infectious love of Van Gogh.
Naifeh and Smith detail Van Gogh’s religious influences. His father was a Dutch minister. His work in London as an art dealer brought him into contact with Charles Haddon Spurgeon and his Metropolitan Tabernacle. Van Gogh was a close reader of Thomas A’Kempis. His depictions of the sower were inspired by his experiences in the countryside, but also by his father’s favorite parable. Before he discovered his calling as an artist, Van Gogh wanted to be a minister. During a period which brought him back to Dordt, Naifeh and Smith write:
Vincent spent every Sunday going from church to church in a marathon of devotion, ignoring differences between Lutheran and Reforemd, Dutch and French, even between Catholic and Protestant, sometimes logging three or four sermons in a day. When Görlitz [his roommate at the time] expressed surprise at his ecumenism, Vincent replied, “I see God in each church . . . the dogma is not important, but the spirit of the Gospel is, and I find that spirit in all churches.” For Vincent, only the preaching mattered. In letters to Theo [his brother], he described how the Catholic priest lifted up the poor, cheerless peasants in his flock, while the Protestant preacher used “fire and enthusiasm” to sober the smug burghers in his.
Inevitably these Sunday tours rekindled Vincent’s ambition to preach. At home, he began studying the works of the most inspiring preacher he had ever heard, Charles Spurgeon, and drafting sermons during his late-night study sessions. He regaled his scornful fellow borders with impromptu inspirational readings, even as they laughed and made faces at him. He tested everyone’s patience, even Görlitz’s, with interminable dinnertime prayers. When Görlitz urged him not to waste his time on his housemates’ souls, Vincent snapped, “Let them laugh . . . someday they will learn to appreciate it.”
Van Gogh later abandons his pursuit of religion, of theology, and of ministry. Following a family conflict, he abandons belief in God. I knew of Van Gogh’s disagreeableness and his declared atheism. I did not know about his early religious pursuits and that they were informed by figures like A’Kempis and Spurgeon.
But now I know. And so do you.