DESOLATION & EMERGENCE
“Every human society has what is called in the theatres a third substage. The social soil is mined
everywhere, sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. These works are in strata; there are upper mines
and lower mines…The dark caverns, these gloomy protectors of primitive Christianity, were awaiting only
an opportunity to explode beneath the Caesars, and to flood the human race with light. For in these
sacred shades there is latent light. Volcanoes are full of blackness, capable of flashing flames.
All lava begins at midnight. The catacombs, where the first mass was said, were not merely
the cave of Rome; they were the cavern of the world.”
—Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, 1862
The Great Exhibition of 1851 was symbolic of man’s progress up to that time in the Industrial Revolution. The extraordinary Crystal Palace was constructed in London using prefabricated iron and glass modules. The colossal ice-like apparition embodied all the inventiveness, skill, engineering prowess, and romanticism of the period. Vincent was born in 1853, just two years after the opening of the Great Exhibition, and in many ways he was to become an archetype of those times with his combination of complicated and contradictory urges. He lived in a far more modern world than we might imagine.
There were many advances, for example, in the design and construction of ships which effectively brought the era of sail to a close. In 1836, the 703-ton steamer Sirius sailed with 100 passengers from London to New York, and within a few hours of her arrival, another steamer twice her size, the 1,440-ton Great Western, also arrived in New York after a crossing of only fifteen days from Bristol, England. The year of Vincent’s birth saw many impressive achievements in engineering includ- ing the first railroad tunnel cut right through the Alps—the Vienna-Trieste Line. In the following year, the first steel street pillars were erected in Berlin by Ernst Litfass. Then, in 1855, the first iron Cunard steamer crossed the Atlantic in just nine-and-a-half days. In 1856, the Black Forest rail- road opened with forty tunnels. By 1859, the construction of the awe- some Suez Canel got underway. And by 1865, the first railroad sleeper-cars, designed by George M. Pullman, were in use in the United States. Fifty thousand new miles of railway were laid in Europe alone between 1850 and 1870 to augment over 15,000 miles already built prior to that time.
As a consequence of these great achievements, there was an explosion in coal extraction and steel manufacturing, with its resultant wide-spread pollution. Coal production was to rise sharply, particularly in the Ruhr area, continental Europe’s first great industrial zone. But the extraction of coal from the earth was hazardous to the health of the miners who toiled in dreadful conditions, breathing the treacherous black dust. Charles Dickens was among those who questioned the price in human lives for each ton of coal. And the dire conditions of people in the mining communities were to be the subject of some of Vincent’s first drawings in which he attempted to capture the lives he saw destroyed in the coal mining camps.
When he had first arrived in the Borinage to minister to its people, the youthful and idealistic Vincent tried sharing the glowing words of the Gospel with the coal miners, hoping they would find solace in the light of revelation through Christ’s example, in particular His self-sacrificing nature. Vincent’s hopes were soon to be crushed, however, when he discovered that the sick and starving folk were not interested in light and revelation—they first needed food, water, and warm clothing. He quickly responded to this in a way that was to become the hallmark of his ethos; he gave away everything he had (including his own clothing), ripped up his bedsheets for bandages, and slept on straw. And by such actions, he won the admiration and respect of the workers, and was able to convert some of them. Writing in 1878, Vincent tells us:
“When I was in England, I applied for a position as evangelist among the coal miners, but they put me off, saying I had to be at least twenty-five years old. You know the roots or foundations, not only of the Gospel, but of the whole Bible is “Light that rises in the darkness,” from darkness to light. Well, who needs this most, who will be receptive to it? Experience has shown that the people who walk in darkness, in the center of the earth, like the miners in the black coal mines, for instance, are very much impressed by the words of the Gospel, and believe them, too. Now in the south of Belgium, in Hainaut, near Mons, up to the French frontiers—aye, even far across it—there is a district called the Borinage, which has a unique population of laborers who work in the numerous coal mines. I found the following about them in a little geography: ‘The Borins (inhabitants of the Borinage, situated west of Mons) find their employment exclusively in the coal mines…groups of working men, worthy of our respect and sympathy, daily descend into them. The miner is a type peculiar to the Borinage; for him daylight does not exist, and he sees the sunshine only on Sunday. He works laboriously by the pale, dim light of the lamp, in a narrow tunnel, his body bent double, and sometimes he is obliged to crawl. He works to extract from the bowel of the earth that mineral substance of which we know the great utility; he works in the midst of thousands of ever-recurring dangers; but the Belgian miner has a happy disposition, he is used to the life, and when he goes down into the shaft, wearing on his hat a little lamp to guide him in the darkness, he entrusts himself to God, Who sees his labor and protects him, his wife and children.’”
Some of Vincent’s traits were remembered vividly. When the miners of Wasmes went to the pits, they pulled vests made of old sacking over their linen work clothes, using them like pea-jackets to protect themselves from the freezing water that spurted from the cracked walls of the mine shafts as they descended in the clanking cages of the elevators. On one occasion, Vincent saw the word “fragile” stenciled on the sack-cloth on a miner’s back. This touched him deeply.
An eyewitness to Vincent’s life in the Borinage, later wrote to Johanna:
“An epidemic of typhoid fever broke out in the district. Vincent was destitute himself, having given everything he owned, including money and clothes, to the poor. An inspector of the “Evangelization Council” came to the conclusion that Vincent’s “exces de zele” bordered on the scandalous, and shared his opin- ion the church council in Wasmes. On learning of this, Vincent’s father went from Nuenen to Wasmes, only to find his son lying on a sack filled with straw, exhausted, and emaciated. In the room where he lay, lit dimly by a single hang- ing lamp, some miners—their faces pinched with starvation and suffering, were crowded around Vincent.
Vincent had made a significant number of converts among the Protestants of Wasmes. His deeds were legion. People talked of the miner whom he went to see after an accident in the Marcasse mine…the man was a habitual drinker, “an unbeliever and blasphemer,” according to the people who told the story. When Vincent entered his house to help and comfort him, he was received with a volley of abuse. He was called a ‘macheux d’capelets’ [a rosary chewer], being mistaken for a Roman Catholic Priest. But Vincent’s evangelical tender- ness won the man over.”
However, one of the hardest lessons Vincent was to learn from his time in the Borinage was that humankind can be capable of blind indifference to, or at least apathy toward, the suffering of others. He would fall victim to this mentality himself when he was abandoned by the organized church—by a synod committee of tradition-bound clergymen who fired him as a missionary because he did not dress and preach eloquently. It did not seem to matter to them that he literally poured out his life in sacrifice and service on behalf of the diseased and destitute. In one case, he spent over forty days devoting himself to saving the life of a horribly burned, disfigured miner who had been given up for dead.
His greatest acts of mercy were to be rejected by those he firmly believed would value them the most. He revered his pious parents, wanting to emulate their example, but he never once imagined that his hard-earned efforts would be dismissed because of non-conformity with traditional religious mores and methods. This crushing rejection caused him to become disoriented, and even undergo a temporary loss of faith. But in the long term it would prepare him to withstand further rejection in his strenuous efforts to become a painter.
The Church, however, saw things differently. In its 1879-80 report of the Union of Protestant Churches in Belgium, chapter “Wasmes” [twenty-third report of the Synodal Board of Evangelization (1879-80)] it stated:
“The experiment of accepting the services of a young Dutchman, Mr. Vincent Van Gogh, who felt himself called to be an evangelist in the Borinage, has not produced the anticipated results. If a talent for speaking, indispensable to any- one placed at the head of a congregation, had been added to the admirable qualities he displayed in aiding the sick and wounded, to his devotion to the spirit of self-sacrifice, of which he gave many proofs by consecrating his night’s rest to them, and by stripping himself of most of his clothes and linen in their behalf, Mr. Vincent would certainly have been an accomplished evangelist. Undoubtedly it would be unreasonable to demand extraordinary talents. But it is evident that the absence of certain qualities may render the exercise of an evangelist’s principal function wholly impossible. Unfortunately this is the case with Mr. Vincent. Therefore, the probationary period—some months—having expired, it has been necessary to abandon the idea of retaining him any longer.
The evangelist, M. Hutton (sic), who is now installed, took over his charge on October 1, 1879.”
The irony of the phrase which Vincent loved to associate with aiding miners—“light that rises in the darkness”—is that his ardent effort to spread light plunged him into a darkness of anger and despair. He used his letters to rage, revile, and to dig himself out of the pit of disillusion and disappointment he felt over his dismissal, and was forced to re-examine his views of God, finding some comfort in Christ’s parables about blindness: “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but since you say, ‘we see’, your sin remains.” John 9:41.
In 1880, he was to write:
“I must tell you that with evangelists it is the same as with artists. There is an old academic school, often detestable, tyrannical, the accumulation of horrors, men who wear a cuirass, a steel armor, of prejudices and conventions; when these people are in charge of affairs, they dispose of positions, and by a system of red tape they try to keep their protégés in their places and to exclude the other man. Their God is like the God of Shakespeare’s drunken Falstaff … these evangelical gentlemen find themselves with the same point of view on spiritual things as that drunken character (perhaps they would be somewhat surprised to discover this if they were capable of human emotions). But there is little fear of their blindness ever changing to clear-sightedness in such matters.
“A caged bird in spring knows quite well that he might serve some end; he is well aware that there is something for him to do, but he cannot do it. What is it? He does not quite remember. Then some vague ideas occur to him, and he says to himself, ‘the others build their nests and lay their eggs and bring up their little ones’; and he knocks his head against the bars of the cage. But the cage remains, and the bird is maddened by anguish. ‘Look at that lazy animal,’ says another bird in passing, ‘he seems to be living at ease.’
“Yes the prisoner lives, he does not die; there are no outward signs of what passes within him…But then the season of migration comes, and attacks of melancholia…’But he has everything he wants,’ say the children that tend him in his cage. He looks through the bars at the overcast sky where a thunderstorm is gathering, and inwardly rebels at his fate. ‘I am caged, I am caged, and you tell me I do not want anything, fools! You think I have everything I need! Oh! I beseech you liberty, that I may be a bird like other birds!’
“A certain man resembles this idle bird. And circumstances often prevent men from doing things, prisoners in I do not know what horrible, horrible, most horrible cage. There is also—I know it—the deliverance, the tardy deliverance. A justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, unavoidable circum- stances, adversity—that is what makes men prisoners … Do you know what frees one from this captivity? It is every deep, serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, that is what opens the prison by some supreme power, by some magic force. Without this, one remains in prison. Where sympathy is renewed, life is restored.”
The caged bird of the 1880 letter stands in sharp contrast with his 1878 letter, with its image of descending light. Now it was Vincent who was caged, a prisoner, a man with an “unjustly ruined reputation.” He compared the prejudices of the evangelical brotherhood that dismissed him to a cage, metal bars, steel armor, and tradition-bound blindness, and compares himself to the canary victim.
He now knew that the Gospel was not always easy to share especially if those in authority did not heed its message. When, in addition to starvation, disease and the diabolical explosions of the mines, an evangelist had to deal with compromised union officials, red tape, rule-bound committees, and indifference, the light was not only eclipsed but contradicted and discredited by the very men one would hope heeded it the most.
However strong his condemnation of the Synod of Elders, Vincent did not believe that all professional clergy were corrupt: “I must tell you that with evangelists it is the same as with artists. There is an old academic school, often detestable…”. He did not class the good Reverend Pietersen, who helped and encouraged him, as detestable. In fact, throughout his later life he will be shown kindness, concern and be aided by several pastors. This is important to bear in mind because it has been suggested by some historians that, after the Borinage, Vincent no longer believed in God which was not the case. From that time forward, Vincent was to acknowledge his belief in God but harbor strong misgivings about power-blinded institutions, religious, artistic or otherwise. And from Vincent’s angry response, it is clear that he had not fully absorbed all of the lessons he should, especially lessons about humility and correction. Perhaps his wrath was not entirely misplaced when we consider how the miners themselves admired and trusted him because of his acts of true compassion.
Despite the disappointments arising from his dismissal, and just at the moment of his greatest need, there came a guide to help him find his way. The Reverend Pietersen, a kind pastor and painter, stood up for Vincent, and took a fatherly interest in him, patiently encouraging him. Reverend Pietersen had good reason to be impressed by the intensity and empathy he felt for Vincent’s efforts, and asked him for a sketch. It would be more than a year before Vincent transformed himself from pastor to serious painter, but the seed had been sewn by the kindly Pietersen in those bleak days in the Borinage. Vincent recorded his thoughts at the time:
“Lately I have been at a studio again, namely at the Reverend Mr. Pietersen’s who paints in the manner of Schelfhout or Hoppenbrowers and has good ideas about art. He asked me for one of my sketches, a miner type. Often I draw far into the night, to keep some souvenir and to strengthen the thoughts raised involuntarily by the aspect of things here.”
Pietersen was a living bridge linking religion and art, embodying art as a sacred calling. Before Vincent could clamber over this bridge, however, he had to exhaust his role as the epitome of a 19th century missionary. What he did not realize, as he moved along the narrow tunnels of the mines amid the stench of misery, was how similar in many ways his mission as a sacred artist would become. Artists venture into lesser known places and, like missionaries, are often harassed by those closest to them who view their career choice as vapid, and discourage them on the basis of financial uncertainty.
For Vincent, the choice of art as a career was far more complicated. His personal expectation had been to emulate his pastor father. But his failure in the eyes of the Church had shattered that cherished dream. The descent into the mines was equally a descent into his own naked humanity. Forced to surrender his identity as a provider to the unfortunate, he saw in art a way to emerge from all the confusion and darkness. His drawings and paintings would come to portray human suffering with a radiant glow of authenticity gleaned from real, empirical experience—its simple truth engraving the hearts of those who came in sight of it. His life in itself would become an honest journey, stripped of pretense and false expectations, and forged from a deep understanding of humankind.
The Borinage mining episode was also, for Vincent, a transition into adulthood—an important step for his innately dependent personal- ity, even though it took a significant physical toll on him. For some months after his work ended in the Borinage, he suffered from what seemed to have been a nervous breakdown. But from then on, he began to think and act out of inner conviction rather than on the expectations of others. A transformed and enlightened Vincent emerged with a more worldly view, yet no less Gospel-minded. His vocation had evolved from preacher to painter, but his motivation to serve humankind remained intact.
A Spiritual Renaissance
“…I often read in Uncle Tom’s Cabin these days. There is so much slavery
in the world, and in this remarkably wonderful book that important question
is treated with so much wisdom, so much love, and such zeal and interest in the
true welfare of the poor oppressed that one comes back to it again and again, always
finding something new…I still can find no better definition of the word art than this,
“L’art c’est l’homme ajoute a la nature” [art is man added to nature]—nature, reality,
truth, but with a significance, a conception, a character, which the artist brings out
in it, and which he gives expression, “qu’il degage,” which he disentangles, sets
free and interprets…in Uncle Tom’s Cabin especially, the artist has put things
in a new light; in this book, though it is becoming an old book already–
that is, written years ago—all things have become new…”
—Vincent van Gogh
The abject misery of the time he spent in the Borinage had a profound impact on Vincent’s approach to his life and art. He underwent a spiritual renascence. He had been so sure of his purpose when he first had arrived in the Borinage. But reality had not lived up to his expectations which were largely constructed from the moral underpinnings of his family and their religious premises. Vincent’s state of mind at that moment in his life was described in his own words:
“Not long ago I made a very interesting expedition, spending six hours in a mine. It was Marcasse, one of the oldest and most dangerous mines in the neighborhood. It has a bad reputation because many perish in it, either going down or coming up, or through poisoned air, firedamp explosion, water seepage, cave-ins, etc. It is a gloomy spot, and at first everything around looks dreary and desolate. Most of the miners are thin and pale from fever; they look tired and emaciated, weather-beaten and aged before their time. On the whole the women are faded and worn. Around the mine are poor miners’ huts, a few dead trees black from smoke, thorn hedges, dunghills, ash dumps, heaps of useless coal, etc….
“…The mine has five levels, but the three upper ones have been exhausted and abandoned; they are no longer worked because there is no more coal. A picture of the maintenages would be something new and unheard of—or rather, never before seen. Imagine a row of cells in a rather narrow, low passage, shored up with rough timber. In each of those cells a miner in a coarse linen suit, filthy and black as a chimney sweep, is busy hewing coal by the pale light of a small lamp. The miner can stand erect in some cells; in others, he lies on the ground …The arrangement is more or less like the cells in a beehive, or like a dark, gloomy passage in an underground prison, or like a row of small weaving looms, or rather more like a row of baking ovens such as the peasants have, or like the partitions in a crypt. The tunnels themselves are like the big chimneys of the Brabant farms.
“The water leaks through in some, and the light of the miner’s lamp makes a curious effect, reflected as in a stalactite cave. Some of the miners work in the maintenages, others load the cut coal into small carts that run on rails, like a streetcar. This is mostly done by children, boys as well as girls. There is also a stable yard down there, 700 meters underground, with about seven old horses which pull a great many of those carts to the so-called accrochage, the place from which they are pulled up to the surface…The villages here look des- olate and dead and forsaken; life goes on underground instead of above. One might live here for years and never know the real state of things unless one went down in the mines.
“People here are very ignorant and untaught—most of them cannot read—but at the same time they are intelligent and quick at their difficult work; brave and frank, they are short but square shouldered, with melancholy deep- set eyes. They are skillful at many things, and work terribly hard. They have a nervous temperament—I do not mean weak, but very sensitive. They have an innate, deep-rooted hatred and a strong mistrust of anyone who is domineering. With miners one must have a miner’s character and temperament, and no pretentious pride or mastery, or one will never get along with them or gain their confidence.
“Did I tell you at the time about the miner who was so badly hurt by a firedamp explosion? Thank God, he has recovered and is going out again, and is beginning to walk some distance just for exercise; his hands are still weak and it will be some time before he can use them for his work, but he is out of danger. Since that time there have been many cases of typhoid and malignant fever, of what they call la sotte fievre, which gives them bad dreams like night- mares and makes them delirious. So again there are many sickly and bedridden people—emaciated, weak, and miserable.
“In one house they are all ill with fever and little or no help, so that the patients have to nurse the patients. “Ici c’est les maladies qui soignent les maladies” [here the sick tend the sick], said a woman, like, “Le pauvre est l’ami du pauvre” [the poor man is the poor man’s friend]…
“…Going down into a mine is a very unpleasant sensation. One goes in a kind of basket or cage like a bucket in a well, but in a well from 500-700 meters deep, so that when looking upward from the bottom, the daylight is about the size of a star in the sky.
“It feels like being on a ship at sea for the first time, but it is worse; fortunately it does not last long. The miners get used to it, yet they keep an unconquerable feeling of horror and fear which reasonably and justifiably stays with them. But once down, the worst is over, and one is richly rewarded for the trouble by what one sees.”
Vincent noted that the miners were prematurely aged, tired and ill, and he was horrified by the plight of the children, both boys and girls, many of whom were abused in the unsupervised isolation of their dismal underground world. He experienced firsthand the very settings depicted by Dickens. The miners, child-like themselves, were victims of greed and indifference, ignored and unprotected like “Little Nell” in The Old Curiosity Shop.
Vincent’s moral emergence—his spiritual revival—fused lessons learned from literature with those gleaned from his experiences in the Borinage. He came to integrate the inspiring messages of Dickens’s writing into his thought process. And he was to draw similar meaning from the writings of many other poets and essayists.
This state of suffocating darkness and despair so prevalent in those times was captured perfectly by Dickens in the following passage from The Old Curiosity Shop:
“There’s an old well there,” said the sexton, [to Little Nell] “right underneath the belfry; a deep, dark, echoing well…if you lower the bucket till your arms are tired and let out nearly all the cord, you’ll hear it of a sudden clanking and rattling on the ground below, with a sound of being so deep and so far down, that your heart leaps into your mouth, and you start away as if you were falling in.”
“A dreadful place to come on in the dark!” exclaimed the child, who had followed the old man’s looks and words until she seemed to stand upon its brink. ”What is it but a grave!” said the sexton. “What else! And which of our old folks, knowing all this, thought, as the spring subsided, of their own failing strength, and lessening of life? Not one!”
The dry well the sexton showed Little Nell was like the mine shaft Vincent described so powerfully. Wells, graves, or mines were used by Dickens to symbolize death. Little Nell, in the above passage, and later Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times, were both innocent victims whose fate was death. Little Nell was forewarned of her imminent and untimely death by looking into a well, while Blackpool died after falling into an abandoned mine shaft. The miners with whom Vincent identified were, in his estimation, doomed in just the same way as were Nell and Blackpool.
The workers in the Borinage were constantly reassured by their overseers that the mines were safe. But this was far from the truth. Vincent told of an explosion underground where a man was badly injured, suffer- ing terrible burns, and Vincent was compelled to nurse him back to life. The mines were in fact a living nightmare for the workers, where life was regularly snuffed out like a candle by explosions, or by the collapse of tunnels and shafts.
The image of the shining star—hope eternal—was to appear often in Vincent’s letters and art : “…when looking upward from the bottom, the daylight is about the size of a star in the sky.” His early letters described stars shimmering in black skies, eternity embodied in glowing points. This glimmering vision and its heavenly message was to reappear at the end of his life in one of his best-loved paintings The Starry Night of 1889. A star, too, transfigured the tragic Stephen Blackpool who, crushed and broken at the bottom of a mine shaft, was consoled by its glowing light above. Dickens likened it to the star of Bethlehem announcing the birth of Christ, the Light of the World.
Vincent’s image of the cage was to become a symbol of impo- tence and rage in his later letters: “And circumstances often prevent men from doing things, prisoners in I do not know what horrible, horrible, most horrible cage.”
Canaries were kept in small cages throughout the mines. They were highly susceptible to the toxic and volatile fumes that were the harbinger of regular explosions and the resultant human carnage. The tiny yellow birds quivering in the gloomy underworld were a surreal comfort to the tottering ghosts who toiled within the dripping caverns.
Wraith-like horses, crumpled, dejected miners in damp, sack-cloth jackets, thorns, the frozen earth, snow, ashes, black dust, and ever- ominous shadows, were the potent images Vincent assimilated into the core of his being. Shared vicariously with Dickens, Vincent would, in some ways unwittingly, merge these somber yet powerful impressions into a personal epic that, through art, would rival the words of Charles Dickens who wrote:
“Everything in our lives, whether of good or evil, affects us most by contrast. If the peace of a simple village had moved the child [Little Nell] more strongly, because of the dark and troubled ways that lay beyond and through which she had journeyed with such failing feet, what was the deep impression of finding herself alone in that solemn building; where the very light, coming through sunken windows, seemed old and grey; and the air, redolent of earth and mould, seemed laden with decay purified by time of all its grosser particles, and sighed through arch and aisle and clustered pillars, like the breath of ages gone! Here was the broken pavement, worn so long ago by pious feet, that Time, stealing on the pilgrims’ steps, had trodden out their track, and left but crumbing stones.”
Of this mysterious play of shadows and human destiny Dickens described, David Levin (1999) offers these reflections:
“There is a certain affinity between shadows and ashes. Like ashes, shadows are traces that can speak of evil—but also of the precariousness, the contingency, the fatal hidden doubt, of all our hopes. Philosophers with total visions of hope must be careful: those who avoid or deny the tracework presence tracery of shad- ows are likely to end up in Benjamin’s words, as “seers whose visions appear over dead bodies,” forever haunted by shadows that will relentlessly pursue them—shadows cast in ghostly forms from the realm of death. On friendly terms with death, indeed its messengers, shadows silently move through the world, touching things lightly and without violence—as if to remind us that accounts are due in the time of justice.”
In describing the miners, Vincent described himself and his sympathy for their suffering:
“They are skillful at many things, and work terribly hard. They have a nervous temperament—I do not mean weak, but very sensitive. They have an innate, deep-rooted hatred and a strong mistrust of anyone who is domineering.”
The passionate way that Vincent applied the ideology of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to his own experience proved his link to the wisdom, faithfulness, love, humility, and simplicity he found in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book. It was words like these that helped Vincent to symbolically resurrect his missionary zeal through his art.
“A few days ago we had a very heavy thunderstorm at about eleven o’clock in the evening. Quite near our house there is a spot from which one can see, far below, a large part of the Borinage, with the chimneys, the mounds of coal, the little miners’ cottages, the scurrying little black figures by day, like ants in a nest; and farther on, dark pine woods with little white cottages silhouetted against them, a few church spires a way off, an old mill, etc. Generally there is a kind of haze hanging over it all, or a fantastic chiaroscuro effect formed by the shadows of the clouds, reminding one of pictures by Rembrandt or Michel or Ruysdael…I often read in Uncle Tom’s Cabin these days. There is so much slavery in the world, and in this remarkably wonderful book that important question is treated with so much wisdom, so much love, and such zeal and interest in the true welfare of the poor oppressed that one comes back to it again and again, always finding something new.
“I still can find no better definition of the word art than this, “L’art c’est l’homme ajoute a la nature” [art is man added to nature]—nature, reality, truth, but with a significance, a conception, a character, which the artist brings out in it, and which he gives expression, “qu’il degage,” which he disentangles, sets free and interprets…in Uncle Tom’s Cabin especially, the artist has put things in a new light; in this book, though it is becoming an old book already— that is, written years ago—all things have become new.”
—Vincent van Gogh
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, as Vincent said, an explanation of slav- ery, exploitation and death through the voice of a woman whose writing depicted the sordid practice in all of its vicious extremes. Harriet Beecher Stowe examined the ceaseless brutality of slavery with heart-rending compassion, trying to humanize what to many was perfectly accept- able. In telling the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin through the eyes of a slave rather than a slave owner, Stowe’s message played a significant part in stemming the growth of slavery in America and positioned her among the greatest writers of all time, proving that art—in its many forms— could accomplish extraordinary things. She had with her pen achieved far more than did legions of politicians and pundits.
Stowe was not alone. The slavery issue was to a very large degree fought through literature. Charles Dickens was universally read. His books sold extremely well in America, although much to his dismay they were often sold without his royalties being paid. Nevertheless, Dickens made several trips to the United States, and was met by surging crowds in Boston and New York. The messages in his novels were clear: it was time for more humane treatment of one’s fellow man. While Dickens’s writing predated the Civil War in America, Harriet Stowe effectively emulated and amplified the same message which embraced so much of what civilized society needed to reform: pollution of the environment, political corruption, greed, the abuse of animals, and above all inhumanity and moral blindness, especially with regard to children. Dickens and Hugo had both been eminently vociferous as champions of the destitute and the disavowed. So many had become mere phantoms, lost forever in the cultural quagmire left by the Industrial Revolution. Harriet Beecher Stowe, using the impetus of Dickens and Hugo, would propagate the same powerful message.
Perhaps this emergence—this connection between spiritual revival, religion, and art—prompted Vincent when he wrote:
“In our Brabant we have the underbrush of oak and in Holland, the pollard willows; here [in the Borinage] the blackthorn hedges surround the gardens, fields and meadows. Now, with the snow, the effect is like black characters on white paper—like pages of the Gospel.”
Vincent wrote of his favorite author, “There is no writer, in my opinion, who is so much a painter and a black-and-white artist as Dickens. His figures are resurrections”. Greatly influenced by Dickens, Vincent’s notebooks and letters overflow with Gospel words, many of which will be transformed into paintings. Some images were taken directly out of the pages of the Gospel, as in The Good Samaritan, but in the early stages, his ideals were rooted in local hovels, fields, and hedgerows. We read of his early efforts:
“Though every day difficulties crop up and new ones will present themselves, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have taken up drawing again. I had been thinking of it for a long time, but I always considered the thing impossible and beyond my reach. But now, though I feel my weakness and my painful dependence in many things, I have recovered my mental balance, and day by day my energy increases.”
He pictured lean miners and the forbidding mines they inhabited like so many ants in an anthill. In the early 1880s, the pages of his sketchbooks overflowed with passionate depictions of miners who were, as John K. Roth would say, “concrete universals”, real people who em- body real messages. They would soon be joined by other workers: reapers, diggers, field-hands, peasants, and an army of impoverished beings all in need of Vincent’s graphic resurrection:
“I have sketched a drawing representing miners, men and women, going to the shaft in the morning through the snow, by a path along a thorn hedge: passing shadows, dimly visible in the twilight. In the background the large mine buildings and heaps of clinkers stand out vaguely against the sky…”
And if the identification with the Gospel in snow and thorns was not complete enough, he now used the image of childbirth:
“ So you see I am in a rage of work, though for the moment it does not produce very brilliant results. But I hope these thorns will bear their white blossoms in due time, and that this apparently sterile struggle is no other than the labor of childbirth. First the pain, then the joy.”
Vincent knew that the novels of Dickens and Hugo helped to force reforms for the poor. But the fact that Van Gogh actually assisted suffering people was to make his art all the more potent. His depictions of laborers have often been called the most convincing in the history of art. It was not reproductive skill that made his figures resonate with life; it was his passionate identification as a fellow being that would animate the bent bodies of fragile humankind, drawn in charcoal. As previously noted, the psychological parallels of Van Gogh and Dickens during their childhoods are unmistakable. They deepen graphically when we read from Peter Ackroyd’s seminal biography of Charles Dickens:
“He had a surplus of energy, to be sure, more energy than most human beings possess, but he was employing it all the time. He seemed, through unhappiness or uncertainty (both of which qualities, to judge from his letters, he possessed extensively), to wish to tire himself, to occupy himself so much that he did not have time to think or contemplate the course of his life; there was almost a need to punish himself. As his fictional hero, David Copperfield, puts it at a similar point in his own life: “I made it a rule to take as much out of myself as I possibly could, in my way of doing everything to which I applied my energies. I made a perfect victim of myself.” And then again, in the same narrative, “I fa- tigued myself as much as I possibly could…”.
Dickens, too, could not bear to relax.
All of this was true, too, of Vincent, as his own words would confirm time and again. This overwhelming urge to push beyond his physical limits occurred first in the mining camps. But therein lies a paradox: his passion to alleviate the fatigue of others did not extend to himself, exploiting his own health to an alarming degree—the very thing he tried to prevent in others. Van Gogh biographers A. M. Hammacher and Renilde Hammacher (1982) make the following observations about Vincent that are nearly identical to those made about Dickens:
“The known facts are too numerous for one not to agree with Vincent himself, who said that the output which, after ten years of preparation, he finally produced at speed in the space of ten years meant exhausting his physical and psychic strength and destroying his health. His psychological disposition—including his unconscious—possessed a reservoir of energy comparable to the fertile field which has to be plowed, sown, manured, and rained on, before its latent forces can be realized. Such forces included the sickness which could not fail to make itself felt after Vincent had whipped up all his nerves into a paroxysm in order to produce his work. Tensed beyond the limits, he could not be saved by any re- laxation of tension. Relaxation became disorientation.”
The forsaken region of Belgium where Vincent ministered was analogous with Dickens’s “Coketown”, his fictional city described in Hard Times, wherein was the home of the laborer Stephen Blackpool. Vincent saw clearly how this fictional character was the portrait of any of the thousands of real, nameless men, women and children he met in the Borinage.
“…among the multitude of Coketown, generally called “the Hands”— a race who would have found more favor with some people if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs—lived a certain Stephen Blackpool, forty years of age.
“Stephen looked older, but he had had a hard life. It is said that every life has its roses and thorns; there seemed however, to have been a misadventure or mistake in Stephen’s case, whereby somebody else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed of the same somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own. He had known, to use his words, a peck of trouble. He was usually called Old Stephen, in a kind of rough homage to the fact.
“A rather stooping man, with a knitted brow, a pondering expression of face, and a hard-looking head sufficiently capacious on which his iron-grey hair lay long and thin, Old Stephen might have passed for a particularly intelligent man in his condition. Yet he was not. He took no place among the remarkable “Hands,” who, piecing together their broken intervals of leisure through many years had mastered difficult sciences and acquired a knowledge of most unlikely things. He held no station among the Hands who could make speeches and carry on debates. Thousands of his compeers could talk much better than he, at any time. He was a good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity. What more he was, or what else he had in him, if anything, let him show for him- self.”
—Charles Dickens, in Hard Times
Note how easily one can transition from Stephen Blackpool to a description of Van Gogh at that time who found in Dickens’s fiction a person who was so “characteristic,” so much like himself. Vincent was comforted to find so much of his own immediate reality in Dickens. In fact, Blackpool’s physical description could have been of Vincent himself; Blackpool was forty, but looked much older, with stooping posture, knitted brow, and pensive expression, all very much like Vincent’s own traits. The name Blackpool may be synonymous with someone lost in a dark pool of ignorance and indifference, leading perhaps to the darkness of death itself. Both men, in their fictional as well as their real per- sonas, were dedicated to giving of themselves in order to improve the lives of the downtrodden.
Vincent did not seek reward for his actions; he aspired to illuminate needy people through his art. Like Dickens, he would bring their troubling reality before us, demanding our acknowledgment. As a mis- sionary, Vincent quickly discovered that he could not save the many Blackpools of nameless origin who were victims of greed and indiffer- ence. As an artist with a mission, Vincent could only try to give graphic form to their silent struggle in an unseeing, uncaring world.
“They walked, and in their talk of the beauty of the earth do not notice the frail little beggar girl tripping after them”.
– Chekhov 1947
Dickens’s character Stephen Blackpool would die as a result of his fall into an abandoned coal mine known as “Old Hell Shaft.” Vincent had also descended into the Marcasse mine, one of the most dangerous in Europe. The name is evocative since its French meaning suggests a wild boar (marcassin). Old Hell Shaft was perhaps like a wild boar who attacks and harms those who fall victim to its rage. Stephen’s final words, spoken in a humble dialect, expressed the cry for all who fell prey to the hideous place that was the Borinage.
“I ha’ fell into th’ pit, my dear, as have cost, wi’in the knowledge o’ old fo’k now livin’, hundreds and hundreds o’ men’s lives—fathers, sons, brothers, dear to thousands an’ thousands, an’ keeping ‘em fro’ want and hunger. I ha’ fell into a pit that ha’ been wi’ th’ fire-damp crueler than battle. I ha’ read on ‘t in the public petition, as onnyone may read, fro’ the men that works in pits, in which they ha’ pray’n and pray’n the lawmakers for Christ’s sake not to let their work be murder to ‘em, but to spare ‘em for th’ wives and children that they loves as well as gentlefo’k loves theirs. When it were in work, it killed wi’out need; when ‘tis let alone, it kills wi’out need. See how we die an’ no need, one way an’ another—in a muddle—every day!”
Dickens’s Blackpool said everything essential about mines in both a metaphorical and actual sense. The lawmakers and unions were called upon to stop the needless death of innocent people, countless thousands of whom had by then lost their lives. The general indifference to their fate was too much for Vincent, and in the end it crushed him emotionally.
Dickens relates how as Blackpool lay dying outside Old Hell Shaft, he looked up and said:
“‘If Mr. Bounderby had ever know’d me right—if he’d ever know’d me at aw— he would’n ha’ took’n offence wi’me. He would’n ha’ suspect’n me. But look up yonder, Rachel ! Look above!
“Following his eyes, she saw that he was gazing at a star. ‘It ha’ shined upon me,’ he said reverently, ‘in my pain and trouble down below. It ha’ shined into my mind…wi’ it shinin’ on me—I ha seen more clear, and ha’ made it my dyin’ prayer that aw th’ world may on’y coom toogether more, an’ get a better unnerstan’in’ o’ one another, than when I were in ‘t my own weak seln.’
“The bearers being now ready to carry him away, and the surgeon being anxious for his removal, those who had torches or lanterns prepared to go in front of the litter. Before it was raised, and while they were arranging how to go, he said to Rachel, looking upward at the star: ‘Often as I coom to myseln, and found it shinin’ on me down there in my trouble, I thowt it were the star a guided to Our Savior’s home. I awmust think it be the very star!’
“They lifted him up, and he was overjoyed to find that they were about to take him in the direction whither the star seemed to him to lead.
‘Rachel, beloved lass! Don’t let go my hand. We may walk toogether t’night, my dear!’
‘I will hold thy hand, and keep beside thee, Stephen, all the way.’
‘Bless thee! Will somebody be pleased to coover my face!
“They carried him very gently along the fields, and down the lanes, and over the wide landscape; Rachel always holding the hand in hers. Very few whispers broke the mournful silence. It was soon a funeral procession. The star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to his Redeemer’s rest.”
— Charles Dickens
Mines appear as a central motif in the Dickens novel working as powerful symbols of stifling social convention—pits from which painters, among others, try to ascend and escape. For Vincent, the mining experience not only symbolized broader public themes; it also allowed him to personally understand how humanizing moral beliefs could be expressed through an artistic and religious vocation. There could, in his view, no longer be a separation. Consoling words and com- forting deeds would now become embodied in transforming images. This is so evident that when a passage is read, such as “the effect is like black characters on white paper—like pages of the Gospel” one realizes how thorns, snow, landscape, and desolate mines can be given visibility, all taking part in a sacred whole that is redeemed and resurrected within the Gospel. This can also be graphically evident in redemptive stage plays, like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables: …”passing shadows, dimly visible in the twilight”.
As the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it in discussing words and meaning in The Visible and the Invisible, “the whole landscape is overrun with words” (using nearly the same words as Vincent’s). Here there is no ambiguity between language, art and image; signified and signifier—they are both “an expression of experience by experience”:
“And, in a sense, to understand a phrase is nothing else than to fully welcome it in its sonorous being, or, as we put it so well, to hear what it says (l’entendre). The meaning is not on the phrase like the butter on the bread, like a second layer of “psychic reality” spread over the sound; it is the totality of what is said, the integral of all the differentiations of the verbal chain; it is given with the words for those who have ears to hear. And conversely the whole landscape is overrun with words as with an invasion, it is henceforth but a variant of speech before our eyes, and to speak of its “style” is in our view to form a metaphor. In a sense the whole of philosophy, as Husserl says, consists in restoring a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a wild meaning, an expression of experience by experience, which in particular clarifies the special domain of language.”
We are reminded here again of what Mark Roskill (1991) said about Vincent’s thought:
“The coalescence that he made between the visible aspects of experience and their internal or philosophic meaning was supremely intense.”
Kathleen Powers Erickson (1998) has carefully reported these connections and their impact on Vincent’s artistic visions:
“Vincent’s genius lies not so much in the originality of his vision, but in his unique synthesis of the traditional and the modern, both in art and religion. Essential to the nineteenth-century Romantic aesthetic was the belief that art and religion are inextricably linked.”
During his time in the Borinage, Vincent had nursed many men back to life, specifically those suffering from third-degree burns. Covered with perspiration, these men were caked with fine, black coal dust which, when ignited, turned them into terrifying human torches, their coal-soaked bodies aflame like candles in the dark. Vincent discovered that the charred limbs of those who survived needed to be softened and oiled in order to regain suppleness. He would administer cloth compresses soaked in olive oil to their blackened skin, a restorative balm that also helped stave off disease. Years later in his studio, he would soak chunks of charcoal in oil to make powerful composite drawings of anonymous laborers, finding his own graphic balm to wage war on the disease of human indifference, and to assuage his own anger at the things he had seen.
This concept of beauty falls far outside our traditional understanding of the word. But for Vincent, beauty was truth-telling first and foremost. Like a wound slowly healing, beauty was the outward proof of inner regeneration. Vincent could no longer view the miners as different than himself, nor could he think of their experience in any manner other than with compassionate solidarity. Having experienced public rejection as a missionary, he was now able to commiserate with them, and become one of them himself.
“The miners and the weavers still constitute a race apart from other laborers and artisans, and I feel a great sympathy for them. I should be very happy if someday I could draw them, so that those unknown or little-known types would be brought before the eyes of the people. The man from the depth of the abyss, de profoundis—that is the miner; the other with his dreamy air, somewhat absent-minded, almost a somnambulist—that is the weaver. I have been living among them for two years, and have learned a little of their unique character, at least that of the miners especially. And increasingly I find something touch- ing and almost sad in these poor, obscure laborers—of the lowest order, so to speak, and the most despised—who are generally represented as a race of criminals and thieves by perhaps vivid but very false and unjust imagination.”
—Vincent van Gogh
And then there was Gauguin. Paul Gauguin, the great Post Im- pressionist painter, recognized the symbolic power of Vincent’s experi- ences in the mines, and the role it took in shaping his life and opinions. Gauguin was somewhat of a cynical extremist—self-promoting, egotistical and preoccupied with himself to an inordinate degree. We find in Gauguin’s letters, and those of his wife, a real perspective of how he con- trasted with Vincent. While there is still controversy over the reasons behind Gauguin’s Essais d’Art Libre, (Still Life) was written in 1894, four years after Vincent’s death. Nonetheless it reveals far more than it con- ceals:
“In my yellow room there was a small still life: this one in violet. Two enormous shoes, worn, misshapen. The shoes of Vincent. Those that, when new, he put on one nice morning to embark on a journey by foot from Holland to Belgium. The young preacher (he had just finished his theological studies to become, like his father, a pastor) was on his way to see those in the mines whom he called his brothers, like the simple workers, such as he had read of in the Bible, oppressed for the luxury of the great.
“Contrary to the teachings of his instructors, the wise Dutchmen, Vincent believed in Jesus who loved the poor; his soul, entirely suffused with charity, desired by means of consoling words and self-sacrifice to help the weak, to combat the great. Decidedly, decidedly, Vincent was already mad.
“His teaching of the Bible in the mines was, I believe, profitable to the miners below, but disagreeable to the authorities on high, above ground. He was quickly recalled, dismissed, and a family council convened that judged him mad, and advised rest at a sanatorium. He was not, however, confined, thanks to his brother Theo.
“One day the somber black mine was flooded by chrome yellow, the fierce flash of firedamp fire, a mighty dynamite that never misfires. The beings who were crawling and teeming about in filthy carbon when this occurred bid, on that day, farewell to life, farewell to men, without blasphemy.
“One of them, terribly mutilated, his face burnt, was taken in by Vincent. “And yet,” the company doctor had said, “he is a finished man, barring a miracle of very costly nursing. No, it would be folly to attend to him.”
“Vincent believed in miracles, in maternity. The madman (decidedly he was mad) kept watch for forty days at the bedside of the dying man; he prevented the air from ruthlessly penetrating into his wounds and paid for the medications. He spoke as a consoling priest (decidedly he was mad). The work of this madman had revived a Christian from the dead.
“When the wounded man, finally saved, descended into the mine again to resume his work, you could have seen, said Vincent, the head of Jesus the martyr, carrying on his forehead the halo and the jagged crown of thorns, red scabs on the dirty yellow forehead of a miner.
“And me…I painted him—Vincent—who traced with his yellow brush on the suddenly violet wall: I am the Holy Spirit. . . sound of Spirit.
Decidedly, this man was mad.”
Having shared the famous Yellow House in Arles, France, with Vincent in 1889, Gauguin had many opportunities to discuss Vincent’s early life with him. He noted in his essay the humble subject of discarded shoes, ripped, and as unappealing as blackthorn and sackcloth, the castoffs in an age of recycled things. In art history, these subjects are lower than the most humble still life of the French 18th century painter Chardin, for instance, with his focus on pots, pans, and kitchen items dented and stained with age. Gauguin was drawn to the shoes and their link with the mines as a place of devastation. The shoes were ruined by misuse like the miners themselves. Gauguin used the shoes as a metaphor for the mines as a place of destruction. He symbolized the danger of explosion as fire emitting a chrome yellow flame, which can be interpreted as redemption. Gauguin suggested that Vincent’s life and work were important for the redemption of art itself, moving away from mere entertainment and back to real life-enhancing content, all in a way that Gauguin often did not emulate himself. But in tribute to Vincent, Gauguin’s admiration of his compassionate nature is more than evident.
The overall thrust of Gauguin’s essay carried many important references to those experiences as part of Vincent’s development. At the same time, Gauguin purposely began to contribute to the myth of Vincent as a mad and accursed artist.
Gauguin came across in his essay as a somewhat self-serving and duplicitous friend who, while claiming to applaud Vincent’s work in the mines, and the art that resulted, also did not want to be sullied by his friendship with the Van Gogh brothers, especially after Vincent’s suicide and Theo’s descent into mental turmoil and subsequent death some months later. In the essay, he appeared to be distancing himself from them in claiming that all artists have a madness, in a general sense rather than a clinical one. He used Vincent’s insanity metaphorically to elicit compassion for artists like himself. Vincent was quite aware of Gauguin’s back-stabbing.
Victor Hugo also used the mine as a metaphor for layers of social stratification, as in a “social ladder,” a phrase which Vincent used to describe the motives of Gauguin, the “schemer,” the upward climbing man who was more than willing to use the Van Gogh brothers as long as they were advantageous to him:
“I feel instinctively that Gauguin is a schemer who, seeing himself at the bottom of the social ladder, wants to regain a position…at the same time very politic.”
Gauguin was well-read, knowing that the theme of the mine was often used by the authors of the time, as an image of human degradation. Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables was widely read, and Vincent, Gauguin, Bernard and others in their group used it almost as a muse. Gauguin gave Vincent a self-portrait, referring to himself as the main character in the novel, Jean Valjean. Gauguin, like Hugo, understood the layers of society signified by the cave and the mine, and one’s acceptance or rejection within these complex and shadowy zones. Gauguin, in the third section of his essay, compared the social disconnection and scorn of those “authorities on high”, with the isolation and neglect of the miners deep in the caves of the earth.
It was clear from Gauguin’s essay that Vincent was not mad in a conventional sense but rather the reverse. The way Gauguin used madness is similar to the way in which Jesus speaks of blindness and sight: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41 NASB).
To better understand the madness to which Gauguin alludes, one finds an answer in Les Misérables where Hugo considers the plight of the downtrodden, lost in the “caves” of society:
“This cave is beneath all, and is the enemy of all. It is hate universal. This cave knows no philosophers; its poniard has never made a pen. Its blackness has no relation to the sublime blackness of script. Never have the fingers of night, which are clutching beneath this asphyxiating vault, turned the leaves of a book, or unfolded a journal….
“Of all things, including therein the upper saps, which it execrates. It does not undermine, in its hideous crawl, merely the social order of the time; it undermines philosophy, it undermines science, it undermines law, it undermines human thought, it undermines civilization, it undermines revolution, it undermines progress. It goes by the naked names of theft, prostitution, murder, and assassination. It is darkness, and it desires chaos. It is vaulted in with ignorance.
“All the others, those above it, have but one object—to suppress it. To that end philosophy and progress work through all their organs at the same time, through amelioration of the real as well as through contemplation of the absolute. Destroy the cave Ignorance, and you destroy the mole Crime…
“…Humanity is identity. All men are the same clay. No difference, here below at least, in predestination. The same darkness before, the same flesh during, the same ashes after life. But ignorance, mixed with the human composition, blackens it. This incurable ignorance possesses the heart of man, and there becomes Evil.”
One immediately sees the connection between Van Gogh, Hugo, Dickens, and even to some extent Gauguin. The literal and metaphorical aspect of the mines pertains not only to death but also to ignorance, hate, and neglect for all misunderstood and abandoned madmen—especially artists. Line by line, the Gauguin account resonated with irony, anger and incomprehension at the 19th century upper classes living thoughtlessly above the wasted souls beneath the earth. As Victor Hugo described it in Les Misérables, class can equally become caste. These themes were often the concern of Realist or Naturalist writers such as Hugo and Dickens. More than mere concerns expressed in words, they were bolstered by the actual experiences of these writers.
Dickens, Hugo, and Stowe with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had achieved what Vincent believed great art could also accomplish. He had studied, too, some of the best illustrators of the time including Samuel Luke Fildes, who had made Dickens’s characters come so alive. Art could, in Vincent’s view, disentangle the web of expediency that was so prevalent in those dark times, and to which he had been an eye-witness in the mining camps of the Borinage. He believed he could send the same message by appealing to the deepest sympathy of humankind through his art. And he clearly saw that his zeal and true interest in the welfare of others was the literal fulfillment of the Gospel’s most demanding request that one love another as if that person were oneself.
“All lava begins at midnight,” said Victor Hugo. Desolation leads to redemption, as Dickens, Hugo, and Van Gogh insisted. A star appeared in the night to lead the way for Vincent in his darkest hours. And later in life, his horrible mental suffering and confinement in the Hospital of San Remy would give way to the elegiac Starry Night. The fragile, sackclothed land of suffering would overflow with words and white-blossomed drawings, spread over blackthorn hedges that twisted and entwined human existence. His art would blanket the landscape like a snow-stormed invasion of healing Gospel pages, flowing like lava at midnight.
Vincent’s moral actions in the mining camps were to provide sustenance for his spiritual renascence. And the lessons of the Borinage, and the wisdom learned from kindred spirits in the literary realm, would forge Vincent’s transformation into an artist with an intensity of compassion and purpose seldom seen in the history of mankind.