Vincent van Gogh

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Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives.

Vincent van Gogh (30 March 185329 July 1890) was a Dutch painter, generally considered one of the greatest painters in European art history.

Quotes[edit]

I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
A good picture is equivalent to a good deed.
The work is an absolute necessity for me. I can't put it off...
  • If only we try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow, and great disappointments, and also will probably commit great faults and do wrong things, but it certainly is true, that it is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.
    • The Letters of Vincent van Gogh to his Brother, 1872-1886 (1927) Constable & Co
    • Variant: Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.
      • As quoted in Wisdom for the Soul : Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing (2006) by Larry Chang, p. 483
  • Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.
    • As quoted in The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Vol. 2 (1958) New York Graphic Society, p. 12
  • Gauguin, that curious artist, that alien whose mien and the look in whose eyes vaguely remind one of Rembrandt's "Portrait of a Man" in the Galerie Lacaze — this friend of mine likes to make one feel that a good picture is equivalent to a good deed; not that he says so, but it is difficult to be on intimate terms with him without being aware of a certain moral responsibility.
    • Letter no. 626a (1890), published in The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Vol. 3 (1958) New York Graphic Society, p. 256
  • The thing has already taken form in my mind before I start it. The first attempts are absolutely unbearable. I say this because I want you to know that if you see something worthwhile in what I am doing, it is not by accident but because of real direction and purpose.
    • As quoted in The Path of Least Resistance : Principles for Creating What You Want to Create (1984) by Robert Fritz, p. 181
  • The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
    • As quoted in Van Gogh : The Self-portraits (1969) by Fritz Erpel, p. 17
    • Variant translations: The more I think about it, the more I realize there is nothing more artistic than to love others.
      • As quoted in Mary Engelbreit's Words To Live By (1999) by Mary Engelbreit
    • I tell you the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
  • When I have a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.
    • As quoted in An Examined Faith : Social Context and Religious Commitment (1991) by James Luther Adams and George K. Beach, p. 259
  • The work is an absolute necessity for me. I can't put it off, I don't care for anything but the work; that is to say, the pleasure in something else ceases at once and I become melancholy when I can't go on with my work. Then I feel like a weaver who sees that his threads are tangled, and the pattern he had on the loom is gone to hell, and all his thought and exertion is lost.
    • As quoted in Stranger on the Earth : A Psychological Biography of Vincent Van Gogh (1996) by Albert J. Lubin, p. 22
    • Variant translation: For me, the work is an absolute necessity. I cannot put it off; I don't care for anything else; that is to say, the pleasure in something else ceases at once, and I become melancholy when I cannot go on with my work. I feel then as the weaver does when he sees that his threads have got tangled, the pattern he had on the loom has gone to the deuce, and his exertion and deliberation are lost.
    • As quoted in Dear Theo: the Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh (1995) edited by Irving Stone and Jean Stone, p. 204
  • I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream.
    • As quoted in Marry Your Muse: Making a Lasting Commitment to Your Creativity (1997) by Jan Phillips, p. 176
  • Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way.
    • Letter no. 155 (June 1880), published in the online version of "Vincent van Gogh – The Letters; The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition". Retrieved 29 July 2014
    • Variants: One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way.
    • There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke.

Letter to Theo (July 1880)[edit]

I have often neglected my appearance. I admit it, and I also admit that it is "shocking."
Letter to Theo van Gogh (July 1880) as translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger
I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost.
I am good for something! My existence is not without reason! I know that I could be a quite a different person! How can I be of use, how can I be of service?
It is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all!
I think that everything that is really good and beautiful, the inner, moral, spiritual and sublime beauty in men and their works, comes from God, and everything that is bad and evil in the works of men and in men is not from God, and God does not approve of it.
  • I have often neglected my appearance. I admit it, and I also admit that it is "shocking." But look here, lack of money and poverty have something to do with it too, as well as a profound disillusionment, and besides, it is sometimes a good way of ensuring the solitude you need, of concentrating more or less on whatever study you are immersed in.
  • Now for the past five years or so, I don't know how long exactly, I have been more or less without permanent employment, wandering from pillar to post. You will say, ever since such and such a time you have been going downhill, you have been feeble, you have done nothing. Is that entirely true?
  • What is true is that I have at times earned my own crust of bread, and at other times a friend has given it to me out of the goodness of his heart. I have lived whatever way I could, for better or for worse, taking things just as they came. It is true that I have forfeited the trust of various people, it is true that my financial affairs are in a sorry state, it is true that the future looks rather bleak, it is true that I might have done better, it is true that I have wasted time when it comes to earning a living, it is true that my studies are in a fairly lamentable and appalling state, and that my needs are greater, infinitely greater than my resources. But does that mean going downhill and doing nothing?
  • I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it — keep going, keep going come what may.
    But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely, much as the rough draught turns into a sketch, and the sketch into a painting through the serious work done on it, through the elaboration of the original vague idea and through the consolidation of the first fleeting and passing thought.
  • What has changed is that my life then was less difficult and my future seemingly less gloomy, but as far as my inner self, my way of looking at things and of thinking is concerned, that has not changed. But if there has indeed been a change, then it is that I think, believe and love more seriously now what I thought, believed and loved even then.
  • Let me stop there, but my God, how beautiful Shakespeare is, who else is as mysterious as he is; his language and method are like a brush trembling with excitement and ecstasy. But one must learn to read, just as one must learn to see and learn to live.
  • So please don't think that I am renouncing anything, I am reasonably faithful in my unfaithfulness and though I have changed, I am the same, and what preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service or use in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth? That is what keeps preying on my mind, you see, and then one feels imprisoned by poverty, barred from taking part in this or that project and all sorts of necessities are out of one's reach. As a result one cannot rid oneself of melancholy, one feels emptiness where there might have been friendship and sublime and genuine affection, and one feels dreadful disappointment gnawing at one's spiritual energy, fate seems to stand in the way of affection or one feels a wave of disgust welling up inside. And then one says “How long, my God!”
  • Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all!
  • I think that everything that is really good and beautiful, the inner, moral, spiritual and sublime beauty in men and their works, comes from God, and everything that is bad and evil in the works of men and in men is not from God, and God does not approve of it.
    But I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself. But you must love with a sublime, genuine, profound sympathy, with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time to understand Him more, better and yet more. That will lead to God, that will lead to an unshakeable faith.
  • Try to grasp the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will again find God in them. One man has written or said it in a book, another in a painting.
  • The dreamer sometimes falls into the doldrums, but is said to emerge from them again. And the absent-minded person also makes up for it with bouts of perspicacity. Sometimes he is a person whose right to exist has a justification that is not always immediately obvious to you, or more usually, you may absent-mindedly allow it to slip from your mind. Someone who has been wandering about for a long time, tossed to and fro on a stormy sea, will in the end reach his destination. Someone who has seemed to be good for nothing, unable to fill any job, any appointment, will find one in the end and, energetic and capable, will prove himself quite different from what he seemed at first.
  • There is a great difference between one idler and another idler. There is someone who is an idler out of laziness and lack of character, owing to the baseness of his nature. If you like, you may take me for one of those. Then there is the other kind of idler, the idler despite himself, who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for action who does nothing because his hands are tied, because he is, so to speak, imprisoned somewhere, because he lacks what he needs to be productive, because disastrous circumstances have brought him forcibly to this end. Such a one does not always know what he can do, but he nevertheless instinctively feels, I am good for something! My existence is not without reason! I know that I could be a quite a different person! How can I be of use, how can I be of service? There is something inside me, but what can it be? He is quite another idler. If you like you may take me for one of those.
  • People are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don't know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage.
    I do know that there is a release, the belated release.
    A justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, disastrous circumstances, misfortune, they all turn you into a prisoner. You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive bars, railings, walls. Is all this illusion, imagination? I don't think so. And then one asks: My God! will it be for long, will it be for ever, will it be for eternity?
  • Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives.

Letter to Theo (July 1882)[edit]

Letter to Theo van Gogh from The Hague (21 July 1882)
  • What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — 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 in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.
    Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.

Letter to Theo (October 1882)[edit]

Letter to Theo van Gogh from The Hague (22 October 1882)
  • For great things do not done (sic) just happen by impulse but are a succession of small things linked together.

Letter to Theo (March 1883)[edit]

A weaver who has to direct and to interweave a great many little threads has no time to philosophize about it, but rather he is so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t think but acts, and he feels how things must go more than he can explain it.
Letter to Theo van Gogh from The Hague (11 March 1883) as translated by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh (1991)
  • It constantly remains a source of disappointment to me that my drawings are not yet what I want them to be. The difficulties are indeed numerous and great, and cannot be overcome at once. To make progress is a kind of miner’s work; it doesn’t advance as quickly as one would like, and as others also expect, but as one stands before such a task, the basic necessities are patience and faithfulness. In fact, I do not think much about the difficulties, because if one thought of them too much one would get stunned or disturbed.
    A weaver who has to direct and to interweave a great many little threads has no time to philosophize about it, but rather he is so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t think but acts, and he feels how things must go more than he can explain it. Even though neither you nor I, in talking together, would come to any definite plans, etc., perhaps we might mutually strengthen that feeling that something is ripening within us. And that is what I should like.

Letter to Theo (March 1884)[edit]

I have grief enough and trouble enough, but as for regrets — neither of us have any. Look here — I believe without question, or have the certain knowledge, that she loves me. I believe without question, or have the certain knowledge, that I love her. It has been sincerely meant.
Letter to Theo van Gogh from Nuenen, (c. 9 March 1884)
  • Love always brings difficulties, that is true, but the good side of it is that it gives energy.
  • I have not yet had enough experience with women. What we were taught about them in our youth is quite wrong, that is sure, it was quite contrary to nature, and one must try to learn from experience. It would be very pleasant if everybody were good, and the world were good, etc. — yes — but it seems to me that we see more and more that we are not good, no more than the world in general, of which we are an atom — and the world no more good than we are. One may try one’s best, or act carelessly, the result is always different from what one really wanted. But whether the result be better or worse, fortunate or unfortunate, it is better to do something than to do nothing. If only one is wary of becoming a prim, self-righteous prig — as Uncle Vincent calls it — one may be even as good as one likes.

Letter to Theo (October 1884)[edit]

To some, woman is heresy and diabolical. To me she is just the opposite.
Letter to Theo van Gogh, from Nuenen (October 1884) as translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger
No matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily.
There is safety in the midst of danger. What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?
  • Now, there are people who say to me “Why did you have anything to do with her,” — that's one fact. And there are people who say to her, “Why did you have anything to do with him,” — that's another fact.
    Apart from that, both she and I have grief enough and trouble enough, but as for regrets — neither of us have any. Look here — I believe without question, or have the certain knowledge, that she loves me. I believe without question, or have the certain knowledge, that I love her. It has been sincerely meant. But has it also been foolish, etc?
    Perhaps, if you like — but aren't the wise ones, those who never do anything foolish, even more foolish in my eyes than I am in theirs?
  • You will say that I am not a success — vaincre or être vaincu, [to conquer or to be conquered], it doesn't matter to me, one has feeling and movement in any event, and they are more akin than they may seem to be or than can be put into words.
  • Oh, I am no friend of present-day Christianity, though its Founder was sublime — I have seen through present-day Christianity only too well. That icy coldness hypnotized even me, in my youth — but I have taken my revenge since then. How? By worshipping the love which they, the theologians, call sin, by respecting a whore, etc., and not too many would-be respectable, pious ladies. To some, woman is heresy and diabolical. To me she is just the opposite.
  • Oh, Theo, why should I change — I used to be very passive and very gentle and quiet — I'm that no longer, but then I'm no longer a child either now — sometimes I feel my own man.
  • I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that's a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.
    Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don't know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, You can't do a thing. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerises some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of 'you can't' once and for all.
    Life itself, too, is forever turning an infinitely vacant, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears, any more than it does on a blank canvas. But no matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily. He wades in and does something and stays with it, in short, he violates, “defiles” — they say. Let them talk, those cold theologians.

Letter to Theo (September 1885)[edit]

  • I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.'
    • Van Gogh Letters [1]

Letter to Theo (July 1888)[edit]

  • For myself, I declare I don’t know anything about it. But the sight of the stars always makes me dream (usually paraphrased as For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream).
    • Van Gogh Letters [2]

Letter to Theo (July 1889)[edit]

  • Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.
    • Van Gogh Gallery [3]

Dear Theo (1995)[edit]

Dear Theo: the Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh (1995) edited by Irving Stone and Jean Stone ISBN 0452275040
Conscience is a man's compass.
What can we say if once the hidden forces of sympathy and love have been roused in us?
  • When we are working at a difficult task and strive after a good thing, we are fighting a righteous battle, the direct reward of which is that we are kept from much evil. As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.
    • p. 26
  • I feel a certain calm. There is safety in the midst of danger. What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? It will be a hard pull for me; the tide rises high, almost to the lips and perhaps higher still, how can I know? But I shall fight my battle, and sell my life dearly, and try to win and get the best of it.
    • p. 83
  • Some good must come by clinging to the right. Conscience is a man's compass, and though the needle sometimes deviates, though one often perceives irregularities in directing one's course by it, still one must try to follow its direction.
    • p. 181
  • There are things which we feel to be good and true, though in the cold light of reason and calculation many things remain incomprehensible and dark. And though the society in which we live considers such actions thoughtless, or reckless, or I don't know what else, what can we say if once the hidden forces of sympathy and love have been roused in us? And though it may be that we cannot argue against the reasoning sentiment and to act from impulse, one would almost conclude that some people have cauterized certain sensitive nerves within them, especially those which, combined, are called conscience. Well, I pity those people; they travel through life without compass, in my opinion.
    • p. 181

Quotes about van Gogh[edit]

Everywhere we look, complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes. ~ Richard Curtis
To my mind that strange wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived. ~ Richard Curtis
I am whole in spirit. I am the Holy Spirit.
  • Vincent: Hold my hand, Doctor. Try to see what I see. We're so lucky we're still alive to see this beautiful world. Look at the sky. It's not dark and black and without character. The black is in fact deep blue. And over there! Lighter blue. [the starscape slowly transforms into The Starry Night] And blowing through the blueness and the blackness, the winds swirling through the air. And there shining, burning, bursting through, the stars! Can you see how they roar their light? Everywhere we look, complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes.
    Doctor: I’ve seen many things, my friend, but you’re right: nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see.
  • To me, van Gogh is the finest painter of them all Certainly the most popular great painter of all time: The most beloved. His command of colour, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world...no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.
  • In my yellow room, sunflowers with purple eyes stand out against a yellow background; the ends of their stalks bathe in a yellow pot on a yellow table. In one corner of the painting, the painter's signature: Vincent. And the yellow sun, coming through the yellow curtains of my room, floods all this flowering with gold, and in the morning, when I wake up in my bed, I have the impression that it all smells very good.
    Oh yes! he loved yellow, did good Vincent, the painter from Holland, gleams of sunlight warming his soul, which detested fog. A craving for warmth.
    When the two of us were together in Arles, both of us insane, and constantly at war over beautiful colors, I adored red; where could I find a perfect vermilion? He, taking his yellowest brush, wrote on the suddenly purple wall:
    I am of sound mind,
    I am the Holy Ghost.
    • Paul Gauguin, article published in Essais d'Art Libre, (January 1894)
    • The words written by van Gogh on the wall were: "Je suis sain d'Esprit, Je suis Saint-Esprit." This play on words was given an equivalent in English in the Robert Altman movie "Vincent and Theo" with: "I am whole in spirit. I am the Holy Spirit."
  • The accepted understanding of what happened in Auvers among the people who knew him was that he was killed accidentally by a couple of boys and he decided to protect them by accepting the blame. … These two boys, one of whom was wearing a cowboy outfit and had a malfunctioning gun that he played cowboy with, were known to go drinking at that hour of day with Vincent. … So you have a couple of teenagers who have a malfunctioning gun, you have a boy who likes to play cowboy, you have three people probably all of whom had too much to drink. … It's really hard to imagine that if either of these two boys was the one holding the gun — which is probably more likely than not — it's very hard to imagine that they really intended to kill this painter.

Vincent (1971)[edit]

Now I understand what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for you sanity How you tried to set them free
They would not listen they did not know how, perhaps they'll listen now...
Song tribute by Don McLean; also often referred to as "Starry Starry Night" - Full lyrics at Don McLean's official site
  • Starry starry night, paint your palette blue and grey
    Look out on a summer's day with eyes that know the darkness in my soul

    Shadows on the hills, sketch the trees and the daffodils
    Catch the breeze and the winter chills, in colors on the snowy linen land.
  • Now I understand what you tried to say to me
    How you suffered for your sanity How you tried to set them free
    They would not listen they did not know how, perhaps they'll listen now.
  • Weathered faces lined in pain are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand.
  • For they could not love you, but still your love was true
    And when no hope was left in sight, on that starry starry night
    You took your life as lovers often do,
    But I could have told you, Vincent,
    This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.
  • Starry, starry night, portraits hung in empty halls
    Frameless heads on nameless walls with eyes that watch the world and can't forget.
    Like the stranger that you've met, the ragged man in ragged clothes
    The silver thorn of bloody rose, lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow.
  • Now I think I know what you tried to say to me
    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 Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh (2011)[edit]

Interviews relating to Van Gogh: The Life (2011) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, and evidence that Van Gogh had not committed suicide. "The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh" on 60 Minutes (16 October 2011)
Steven Naifeh: What the evidence points to is that this incident took place not in the wheat fields, but in a farmyard on the Rue Boucher. That it involved these two boys. And that it was either an accident or a deliberate act. Was it playing cowboy in some way that went awry? Was it teasing with the gun with Vincent lunging out? It's hard to know what went on at that moment.
Morley Safer: But the theory could explain Vincent's remark to the police before he died: "Don't accuse anyone else," he said. And it fits the rumors John Rewald heard long ago.
Naifeh: That a couple of kids had shot Vincent van Gogh and he decided to basically protect them and accept this as the way to die. These kids had basically done him the favor of, of shooting him.
Safer: So he was covering up his own murder?
Naifeh: Covering up his own murder.
Safer: However he died, Vincent may have welcomed death. He felt guilty over his dependence on his younger brother Theo, who was in failing health himself.
Naifeh: He knew that he was a burden to Theo. So there's something wonderfully sweet and touching about the fact that Vincent would accept death partly to end his own misery. But even more so to take this terrible burden off of his beloved ill brother's shoulders

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