a worker’s prayer: van gogh: on work and everyday courage
In an effort to understand life as a writer, I often read artists’ and poets’ letters. This was suggested by my professors in grad school, who thought that Keats could help me complete my MFA in the allotted three years. They were right; without Keats’ elegant descriptions of his own ambition and despair, and the ways he wrote and loved through them, I may have taken five years to write sixty poems, or despaired of finishing altogether.
It seems strange, perhaps, to turn to Keats, an impoverished poet who died of tuberculosis at twenty-six, and Van Gogh, an impoverished painter who committed suicide at thirty-seven, for advice on how to live. I look to them mainly because of their courage. They were both considered failures, but they continued to work with the hope of creating something beautiful. Van Gogh, struggling with mental health and loneliness, lost this courage in the end, but his philosophy of art–what it should be and how to pursue it–remains true.
Van Gogh does not find his calling to paint right away; he first tries art dealing and preaching, and feels great uncertainty in each career change. Toward the end of his failed preaching career, he writes to his brother Theo: “All the same I am good for something, my life has an aim after all, I know that I might be quite a different man! How can I then be useful, of what service can I be! There is something inside of me, what can it be?” Even after he decides to pursue art, Van Gogh finds work and self-worth difficult: “It constantly remains a source of disappointment to me that my drawings are not yet what I want them to be. . . . 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.”
The beautiful thing about Van Gogh is that he doesn’t stop at self-doubt and uncertainty.
He says, “As one stands before such a task, the basic necessities are patience and faithfulness.” He explains further, “Thus slow long work is the only way, and all ambition and resolve to make a good thing of it, false. For you must spoil quite as many canvases when you return to the onslaught every morning, as you succeed with.” In my own life I find it very difficult to accept mistakes, and I think Van Gogh is brave here. Although he is afraid of failing, he accepts setbacks, believing in daily work and the “canvases . . . you succeed with.”
He begins, perhaps, to believe a little too much in his work: “I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot . . . do without something which is greater than I, which is my life–the power to create. And if, defrauded of the power to create physically, a man tries to create thoughts in place of children, he is still very much a part of humanity.” This seems extreme, that art is Van Gogh’s only way to participate in humanity. But I know what he means. When I was out of work one summer, I felt useless, and I sometimes believe that I am less alive than my friends who have children. Then I remember that God loves me. With all his courage, Van Gogh must have been lonely without this remembering.
He has confidence in his work, though, and rather than painting the “material difficulties” or the unrest he feels at being “defrauded” of wife and children, he writes, “And in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize.” This, I believe, is the ultimate courage. To look at a world that has mainly rejected you, that contains much ugliness and despair, and in return offer beauty.
Deanna Boulard lives in Louisville, and delights in windows, Bach, and marmalade. She has her MFA from the University of Maryland and worked as a language assistant in southern France. Sometimes she has flashbacks of her favorite views, which make it hard to see what’s in front of her. She would like to live every day aware that “the present is the point at which time touches eternity.”