You can see the passion in Vincent’s stare. Is there a hint of malice or is it a touch of despair? He was certainly a tortured man, though such a talented one. I stood and stared at this self-portrait hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, for quite some time one summer afternoon—unable to take my eyes off the swirling atmosphere, the runnels of color streaming down his shoulders, the gnarled thumb crooking its way through the palette daubed sparingly with curlicues of paint. The hair and beard are leonine in this palette of van Gogh, one of many he would concoct to create the 900 paintings he left to the world. The brow is furrowed above the aquiline nose, the lips sensual, the eyes haunting.
Van Gogh’s Descriptive Powers
I fell in love with this intelligent, lost soul years ago after reading the letters he wrote to his brother Theo. It’s not the struggle leaking from his missives that drew me deeply in but the fact that they read like poetry: “This morning at a quarter to five there was a terrible thunderstorm here. I have been looking out over the whole yard and dock; the poplars and elderberry and other bushes were bowed down by the heavy storm, and the rain poured down on the piles of wood and on the decks of the ships. But very soon the sun broke through the clouds, the ground and the beams in the yard were drenched, in the pools the sky was reflected quite golden from the rising sun…”
This description of his surroundings was written twelve years before the above self-portrait was painted, his struggle at the time not yet dedicated to the quest of being a recognized painter. He was still trying to find his footing as a 24-year-old man who thought his calling was one of a preacher in order to follow in his father’s footsteps. As he tried to dutifully serve the church, he was constantly sketching as he wrote the expressive letters to his brother—as sign of the true calling to come.
He observed everything so acutely, walking for days at times to move from one destination to another because he had no funds for transport of any kind. He slept in fields or parks, under the protection of trees, or in abandoned wagons, taking the time to visit locations where he could see paintings along the way. During one jaunt from Ramsgate to London, he visited Hampton Court Palace: “Last week I was at Hampton Court to see the beautiful gardens and also the palace and the pictures. There are among others many portraits by Holbein which are very beautiful,” he wrote to Theo. I can just see him thoughtfully strolling through the galleries as he studied how the medieval master executed his compositions.
About his own desire to leave as solid a legacy as Holbein did, albeit with a more humble subject matter, he wrote, “The figure of a labourer—some furrows in a ploughed field—a bit of sand, sea and sky—are serious subjects, so difficult, but at the same time so beautiful, that it is indeed worth while to devote one’s life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them.”
And, even as a young, confused man, he wrote about the spectrum of human emotions so wisely: “…heart and soul rejoice as does the lark that cannot help but sing in the morning, even though the soul sometimes sinks within us and is full of fears. And the memories of all we have loved remain and come back to us in the evening of our life. They are not dead but they sleep, and it is well to gather treasure of them.”
The Palette of van Gogh in Yellow
His torment to find his place in the world became amplified once he identified the path of the painter, the anguish causing mental breaks that, though debilitating, never completely quashed his desire to create. During his institutionalization at Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, he created many paintings, the most famous being The Starry Night.
Just before the precipitous collapse that landed him in the facility, he experienced an extremely fruitful creative period in Arles, the focus of one series that radiates a vibrant buttery palette is the sunflower. He painted these still lifes for his Décoration for the Yellow House exhibition, which dominated his attention from August 1888 until the breakdown the day before Christmas that year. He was planning the interior installation to welcome Paul Gauguin to the home he had rented, the more boisterous painter’s visit and abrupt departure resulting in the infamous fit of anguish that ended with Vincent cutting off a piece of his own ear.
Soon after the incident, Vincent wrote to Theo from the asylum, “You know that the peony is Jeannin’s, the hollyhock belongs to Quost, but the sunflower is mine in a way.” He tells his brother that life is not easy, adding, “In every way it has been altogether lamentable. But what is to be done? It is unfortunately complicated.” I didn’t realize until I read his letters how much of his time was spent soul searching even before his mental state had became challenged enough to lead to hospitalization. He was always thoughtful, delving beyond what he was seeing with his astute eyes to try to get at the meaning of things—a way of being that I share with the sentimentalist.
The Passions of van Gogh
His passion is at times extreme, especially when he is measuring his worth: “How can I be of use in the world? Cannot I serve some purpose and be of any good? How can I learn more? You see, these things preoccupy me constantly, and then I feel myself imprisoned by poverty, excluded from participating in certain work, and certain necessary things are beyond my reach.”
He finally gives in to his intense desire to draw and there was no looking back. “If you have the book with the etchings after Michel,” he writes to Theo, “I should like to see those landscapes again, for now I look at things with other eyes than before I began to draw…I am in a rage of work.”
His stability falters when he falls in love for the second time, his heart beating wildly for a cousin. Even his description of the process of wooing makes it clear he thought of little beyond art: “With long straight charcoal strokes I have tried to indicate the proportions and planes: when the necessary auxiliary lines have been traced, then we brush off the charcoal with a handkerchief or a wing, and begin to draw the more intimate outlines.” Not a feather he would use but a bird’s wing!
It’s the passion behind the explosive palette of his later works that brought him to mind when I was working on my poem “Now Hiring Night Cooks”—an excellent example of it thrumming through this soliloquy on love: “Whoever feels so sure of himself that he rashly imagines ‘she is mine’ before he has fought the soul’s battle of love, I repeat, before he wavers between life and death, on a high sea, in a storm and thunder, he does not know what a real woman’s heart is, and that will be brought home to him by a real woman in a very special way.”
Anywhere But Here
This poem took root one evening as I passed a restaurant and noticed “Now Hiring Night Cooks” on a lit marquis, the phrase igniting a creative surge in my mind: “Is there anyone audacious enough to cook the night? If so, who could possibly manage it?” If anyone deserved to be included in such an esteemed group, it would be this man, this fearless creative who gulped life and chewed on every crumb of feeling to leave a tempestuous mark on the history of art.
“Now Hiring Night Cooks” is included in my first book of poetry, Anywhere But Here, which Sharktooth Press published last year. In celebration of the two-year anniversary of The Diary of an Improvateur, which is tomorrow, I’m holding a giveaway this week. See the details below.
Now Hiring Night Cooks
-Seen on a restaurant marquis
He would have to have
the passion of a troubadour,
the palette of Van Gogh,
the fire of Prometheus,
the courage of a god,
hands that could kneed wistful wonder
from the pulsing sex of dawn,
a mouth unafraid
to suck the color from evening’s dusky sky,
the audacity to marvel at what he’s doing
as he unflinchingly drops the heavens
into the dizzy heat
of a skillet as large as the moon.
Who has the nerve to braise the night;
to garnish it with a prayer moaned
between clinched teeth?
Tell me, who?
If you would like to know a bit more about the man and his art, I found this fascinating documentary about the painter’s life and works. And I feature a diary entry about the books he ways reading, taken from his letters to his brother Theo. Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to read this entry; details about the giveaway follow the video:
Anywhere But Here Book Giveaway
This giveaway is open to residents of the United States only. To enter, leave a comment on this post telling me what historical figure you believe would have the chops to braise the night. I will put your name “in the hat” and randomly draw the winner from those who comment. The deadline for making comments that qualify is Sunday, April 3, 2016, at 11:00 pm EST. Once the deadline has passed, comments will still be enabled but none will be considered as an entry in the giveaway.
All quotes taken from the book Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh, a compilation of van Gogh’s letters curated and edited by Irving Stone into an autobiographical narrative.
The Diary of an Improvateur and this entry, The Palette of Van Gogh, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and journalist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She is also a contributor to Architizer.by