We are all familiar with the tragic story: Vincent Van Gogh killed himself, penniless, as he struggled with the lack of appreciation for his art. The power of this narrative lives on as it lends a deeper emotive connection to his swirling oils, and it neatly simplifies for us the story of a complex man. However, it is almost certainly false.
Vincent most likely did not commit suicide but was shot by local boys, perhaps by accident. What's more, he had started selling and exhibiting his work. And a few months before his death one critic declared that in Vincent he had found a genius, an 'exciting and powerful' artist producing work that was 'unbelievably dazzling'. He was on the verge of greatness. The myth no doubt helped elevate his renown but it has also obscured a richer truth.
One of the most pertinent lines in the film Loving Vincent - the first ever oil painted feature film - asked us to explore that truth. It goes, "You want to know so much about his death, but what do you know of his life?" Look beyond the myth and there is much to discover. Because just as there are certain universal truths of beauty in his paintings, the man who created them understood there is something timeless in what it took to achieve that success.
As lockdown life goes on, as the world churns around me in sometimes chaotic strokes, like thick oils finding their form, I turn back to his art. And having now read the 950-page epic biography Van Gogh: The Life, I have managed to distill a few of the secrets that Vincent understood, and that we can learn from.
Have passion and believe in what you do
Forget the idea that Vincent was at one with the gentle nature he painted. He was stubborn and difficult, and the storms that raged inside him often exploded into real life. In his art his passion was most actively revealed - one friend said he 'became a fanatic as soon as he touched a paintbrush' and it was said he would attack his canvases with both paint and words. He had a passion, perhaps obsession, with what art can tell you about humanity, and he had a belief that his approach was right. His art dealer brother Theo often implored him to paint more commercial works. But Vincent held his course and was proved right. His legacy is so recognisable precisely because it is his.
Keep up your correspondence
Letter writing was of course common in his day but, by any count, Vincent was prolific. He might write and send more than one a day to the same person when ideas obsessed him. He exchanged thoughts, sketches, and passages from his favourite books to impress his ideas on life, art and the universe. It was his social network and it was this web that shared his art with the world, and these letters that explained and cemented his thinking.
Work damned hard
Another false narrative is that Vincent took up his easel late in life, and died following a short, prolific period. In truth, he demonstrated his talent from a young age. And whilst being an artist came as a later career, he never stopped his practice. It was a full time commitment for several years before his death in 1890. He would go out in all weathers, working all hours, walking miles with heavy packs to seek out his scenes. Fellow artists said he was almost torturing himself with the labour. But he never stopped trying. Success came because he earned it.
Never stop learning
Vincent had a fearsome intellect, and devoured books. From Dickens to Tolstoy, he liked books that explored day to day existence. He wanted to learn as much as he could about the world around him. He also never stopped studying the world of art, and he carried around with him an encyclopaedic knowledge. His art was not born child-like in a vacuum but contains the insights of all that had gone before and all that was emerging. If there is something universal and enduring in his work it is because it is built upon a profound understanding of both humanity and his craft.
There are other lessons of course. Find beauty in the small things (his paintings of tree roots have me as transfixed as his seascapes), and maintain your connection with nature (Vincent said he would have suffered more severely if he had not been able to cross fields and dykes every day). But mostly, we are reminded that by looking beyond the neat story of someone, and by understanding them better, we can properly learn from them.