Vincent van Gogh was a failure.
He failed as an art dealer. He failed as student of theology. He failed as a lay missionary. He failed in his plan to start an artist’s colony with Paul Gauguin. When he died at the age of 37 – an apparent suicide – few of his paintings had ever sold.
So why were the galleries filled in Houston, well over a century after his death, to see the paintings and drawings of a man dismissed by many of his contemporaries as a madman and a failure?
I think, in part, it was his deep vision into the energy of creation. Even plowed fields lying fallow (see illustration) are vibrant; white clouds pulse with energy. No one ever saw the stars quite the same way van Gogh did. And no one who has seen his “
” can ever see the stars quite the same way they did before.
The Houston exhibit helped me understand a second reason for van Gogh’s popularity. The “failure” painted powerful portraits of “nobodies.” Poor peasants, common laborers, the impoverished residents of a charitable “Home for the Elderly.” He saw their gnarled hands and wrinkled faces; he also saw, and revealed, their dignity and strength.
It was not van Gogh’s technical skills as a painter that set him apart. In fact, he struggled mightily to master some basic techniques. It is his vision and his insight that make his art so powerful. Through his eyes, our eyes are retrained to see the dynamic energy of the created world, to see the deep dignity of each person.