I had always told myself that art was out of my grasp: that I would never be able to fully understand or even appreciate it. While I could easily list off countless digits of pi or recall the atomic number of every element on the periodic table, I could hardly name any of the many different artistic techniques or historical periods.
After reading Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s “Van Gogh: The Life,” I was amazed to learn my lack of formal art education was a distress I shared with Vincent Van Gogh himself. The beloved artist of classics such as “Sunflowers” and “Starry Night” not only despaired over his lack of knowledge, but he too was troubled by a lack of self confidence. Rejected from galleries, unable to sell his paintings and even expelled from drawing class, Van Gogh’s self-doubt only intensified throughout his frenzied, tumultuous career.
“When one has many things to think of and to do,” the distraught artist wrote, “one sometimes gets the feeling, ‘Where am I? What am I doing? Where am I going?’ And one’s brain reels.” While the contemporary Impressionist movement praised thin strokes and muted colors, and Holland’s Golden Age emphasized the technical and realistic Baroque style, Van Gogh painted in thick brush strokes, vivid colors and abstract renderings.
So different were his works, the artist could not relieve his troubled mind. This troubled mind — most notorious for inciting Van Gogh to sever his own ear — was the same mind that fought to find beauty in all that it beheld. At a time in which images of religious icons and portraits of nobility were championed, Van Gogh sought the divine and noble in his everyday life. Most paintings depicted the splendor of cathedrals or the opulence of the mercantile class. Van Gogh’s were filled with simple images of a sower planting his seed or with portraits of ordinary peasants laboring in the fields. Even an evening walk with his father by the heath was enough to captivate the artist’s eager eyes.
“The sun was setting red behind the pine trees, and the evening sky was reflected in the pools,” the artist wrote about his evening walk. “The heath and the yellow and white and grey sand were so full of harmony and sentiment — see, there are moments in life when everything, within us too, is so full of peace and sentiment, and our whole life seems to be a path through the heath.”
Just as the brain reels with troubles, so too do the winding and convoluted lanes of every heath reel with hesitation. Van Gogh assures us that these winding and convoluted lanes are nevertheless the same lanes in which a path of “peace and sentiment” can be found.
As I still struggle to overcome my self-imposed hesitations about art, I wonder about all of the many other pursuits — with all of their “peace and sentiment” — are still waiting to be found. How many endeavors do we tell ourselves we cannot grasp, despite these subjects being within our reach?
Even though I still cannot name more than a few of the many different artistic techniques or historical periods — nor can I begin to answer questions like those of “Where am I? What am I doing? Where am I going?” — works of art such as those of Naifeh, Smith and their beloved Van Gogh have captivated my eager eyes and shaped the way I approach the world. Despite any apprehension, works of art have taught me to find the divine and the noble in the everyday as well as the peace and sentiment waiting behind every bend in the heath.