The sermons of Vincent van Gogh

Editorial by Hannes Keller, publisher of
Draft version of 5 th January 2004

. . . I do not paint "Christ in the Garden of Olives"
but the olive harvest and I will be exactly keeping to human proportions,
so that people will see . . .

(Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Theo on 17th of november 1889 /transl. by Visipix)

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Vincent van Gogh was dreaming of the day, when people could see all his works together. Then they would understand him.
Vincent van Gogh wrote this in a letter to his brother Theo. Indeed, viewing his complete works clarifies a lot. I have now gone through it a dozen times. Each time new aspects come up. Vincent van Goghs works are sermons. It is a social tragedy, that poverty makes poor persons invisible for other people. Vincent van Gogh gives faces to the poor. I wonder if all the very rich owning early van Goghs recognise the faces on these pictures as those of real persons.

What do they feel when such a person crosses their way?

Few friendships were equal to that between Vincent van Gogh, his brother Theo and his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. But these three were the only persons in the lifetime of Vincent who knew that Vincent was one of the greatest artists in history. Theo: "The time will come, when he is equal to Beethoven". Nobody else without exception did recognise this. Paul Cezanne who painted to find "the inner truth of excellent painting" spread the infamous and misleading story that Vincent was lunatic as a person and in his works. This led to the stupid idea that genius and lunacy are two sides of the same coin. That idea got into many van Gogh biographies plus Minellis film. Paul Gauguin was "the wrong friend". Not a good person, that one. Vincent had good collegues in Paris - Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac, Seurat, Pissarro, Bernard and others. They accepted him as a good fellow, a passionate painter working day and night and eager to learn from them what he could. He admired them but they did not admire him. They took him as a not unpleasant excentric. They could not bridge the gap between impressionism and the outsider van Gogh. Claude Monet:said that the van Goghs were the best at an exposition of the independents. The "compliment" misfired. Van Gogh did not want to be the best in his little group.
During the 4 years from 1886 until his death in 1890 van Gogh created about 1000 of the worlds greatest masterpieces. They all saw many of them at Goupils, the leading art seller of his time, where Theo van Gogh worked and hoped to sell more than one genuine van Gogh per year for 500 $ up(in 2004 value). Vincent was desperate about the lack of echo and the lack of luck. He wrote: "I have a big fire in my soul, but nobody comes to get some warmth". Also no woman. Had I been there, I would have offered him a meticulously selected dog as a kind daily companion. Because that did not happen, his tobacco-pipe was his daily companion. In 1886 the academy put his studies to those of the 10-year old novices and destroyed them finally. In reverse, Vincent wrote that "the official art is as lame and rotten as religion". 20-40 years after his tragic death in 1890 the situation reversed into the second biggest success in the history of art. The biggest belongs to Picasso who got 8 times the years of artistic work compared to Vincent van Gogh. In 1901 Picasso saw some of his works. He instantly recognised the great genius and took his conclusions for his own paintings. In 1951 a visitor at the opening of a van Gogh exposition asked, if one would permit him to take a picture from the wall and hold it in his hands, as this was his habit to study paintings. They told him to come back when the exposition was over. He came, held the paintings in his lap and studied them one by one for a long time. It was Picasso.

We at believe that he would want his complete works to be accessible in the internet, the information center of the world. He would insist on the biggest and best reproductions. It would have made him happy that the access is unrestricted and free.
The stubborn, redhaired protestant Dutch preacher who became one of the greatest artists in history
In his younger years, Vincent van Gogh was a professional preacher like his father Theodorus. He wanted to devote his life to the deepest truth. He did not find it in Church. He found his God in nature, first in poor peoples worn faces then in trees, cornfields, flowers. Just by chance almost no animals. He became an artist, like his mother Anna Cornelia. Her painting are up to professional standards. She was teaching her son and helped him in every way. From his father, Vincent got the iron, stubborn persistency. From his mother the talent and the love for the world. The three gifts gave us the Vincent van Gogh we know. He was modest and down-to-earth. Worn shoes were as descriptive as faces. Once, he made a self portrait with just his chair and his pipe. His person was present without his physical appearance. I have no doubt whatsoever that he was a preacher all his life and that he was always concerned about the same theme. He teaches what he had learned in the New Testament and from his mother about love for the CREATION, the poor and the lilies in the fields.
The three periods of the artist Vincent van Gogh Early 1881-1886, Paris 1886-1888, late 1888-1890

Early 1881-86: The Rembrandt of the potato-eaters Vincent van Goghs paintings of the early period 1881-1886 are almost monchrome. To him, color was somehow frivolous. This has a lot to do with the protestants suspicion against pictures in general and especially the euphoric colorful ones. Only occasionally he permitted himself some little spots of strong colors showing e.g. a lamp or a fire.

The distinction between ugly and beautiful faces is uninteresting. Instead of nobles and saints van Gogh painted common people. He was dreaming of becoming "the Rembrandt of all poor potato-farmers, -harvesters, -peelers and -eaters".
His masterpiece "Potato eaters" (right side) is related to Rembrandts "Pilgrims at Emmaus" (left side). Van Goghs brushstrokes were dark like Rembrandts. The brownish shades are tending to greenish, with just some white-gray reflections mostly modelling the faces. From Rembrandt he learned that brushstrokes do not need to hide. A brushstroke can be both at the same time, an ear and a brushstroke of oil paint. Then he saw the paintings of Jean-François Millet (1814-75). This great master (underestimated today) showed scenes of peasants and hard labour. For van Gogh Millet was almost a saint. He copied many of his works. In the different periods of his life, van Gogh changed his way of expression. His message is the same in his dark pictures of old women and later in the colorful glory of the landscapes in the south of France. Also his mastership and full control over what he did remained always the same.
Social criticism
Vincent van Gogh never dramatised the picture of a poor person by adding a confrontation with a wealthy person. He was not an accuser of social injustice. "Profit" was not a theme for him. He and his idol Jean-Francois Millet are far away from Honoré Daumier, Kaethe Kollwitz, Georges Grosz and others. Poverty was the way of Christ himself.

In van Goghs potato-eaters, the potatoes taste good. Van Gogh just points out that these people do not eat the potatoes for that reason but because poverty does not leave them a choice. The scene does not describe "terrible misery" but "the other beauty of living souls". We - mostly in better circumstances - are reminded to recognise them as equals.
The late Francisco Goya was equally emotional as van Gogh. Different to him, Goya tells of people in dramatic situations. They are killed and exploited by others and tortured by demons. Van Gogh shows undramatic daily life, mostly hard work. He does not dream of an escape. His wishes were very modest, to earn his own money for paint and food instead of needing the lifelong support of his brother. His health suffered from occasional malnutrition. Well, sometimes he had to choose between a meal, a canvas, a pound of yellow paint or a visit to the brothel. There was no woman who considered a relationship with him. Maybe there is a reason why men like Beethoven, Schubert and van Gogh could no find their woman. Maybe for all three their mission and their very emotional approach had put them under excessive stress.
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