Vincent Van Gogh Blossoming Almond Tree oil on canvas 1890
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints there are no paid clergy. The lay members take turns with all of the teaching, including giving talks in sacrament meeting on spiritual subjects. This past Sunday was my turn, and my husband’s, and we spoke on the subject of love and patience in the family. When I received our assigned subject, I immediately thought of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh. Here is my talk:
If you were able to go back in time to the mid-1860s to a small town named Zundert in Holland, you might have seen two young boys walking together through the fields and woods, gathering flowers and grasses, confiding secrets, hunting bird’s-nests, playing games, and in the winter, ice-skating on the frozen ponds or sledding across the snow under the dark, leafless trees. The elder brother, an awkward, red-headed boy, was named Vincent Van Gogh; his younger, slighter and fairer brother was named Theo. These long childhood afternoons and evenings were the beginning of an ardent bond that lasted their entire lives until their deaths a mere seven months apart at age 37 and 35.
Theirs is a remarkable story of enduring patience and love. The masterpieces that may come to your mind when you think of the name Vincent Van Gogh: the brilliant yellow sunflowers, the cypresses, the irises, the mysterious starry nights, the golden, waving wheat-fields, the serene lavender bedroom, the sunburnt portraits of peasants, and the tortured self-portraits of a troubled man----it is likely that not a single one of these paintings would have been made without Theo Van Gogh’s love, encouragement, and support.
Vincent Van Gogh Sunflowers oil on canvas 1889
To explain this, we should return in our minds to those two boys, whose love for each other was adoring and fervent. They shared the parsonage where their pious parents eked out a modest living with three sisters and a much younger brother. As the oldest, much was expected of Vincent, and when he was in his teens, his father got him a job with his namesake uncle Vincent, an art dealer in the Hague who became very successful selling prints of famous artworks to decorate the walls of middle-class Dutch homes. Vincent worked hard, and in the summer of 1872, he received permission to visit home and resume his long walks and talks with his favorite younger brother, Theo. During one of their long rambles in the countryside, the two brothers pledged to always support each other and write to each other often, a promise they kept until death. After Vincent returned to work, his uncle sent him to the English branch of the Goupil and Co. gallery. Vincent was an awkward, intense young man, described later in life by his brother as having “something in the way he talks that makes people either love him or hate him.” As the months dragged on, Vincent felt unfulfilled by working at the gallery, and possibly seriously depressed. One of his sisters described his depression, how, “intensely serious and uncommunicative, (he) walked around clumsily and in a daze, with his head hung low. . . He was a stranger to himself.” Concerned by his behavior, Vincent’s uncle transferred him again, this time to the Paris branch of the gallery, where Vincent quickly lost his job and came home to familial accusations of “shame and scandal.” Theo was sent back to Paris to take his place.
This was only the first of many failures that dogged Vincent through his twenties. He attempted to become a teacher and failed; he tried to woo his widowed cousin, only to be firmly rejected. He worked at a bookshop, but only briefly. He told his father he would like to emulate him and enter the priesthood. Skeptical, his father arranged for a tutor so Vincent could try to get admitted to the university to study theology. But nothing came of it. Desperate, Vincent attempted to become an evangelist, a sort of missionary to the coal miners in the Borinage, a bleak and desolate region of southern Belgium. His parents were convinced that Vincent would “spoil everything by his eccentricity, his queer ideas and views on life.” And after a mere six months the Church Council withdrew their support from Vincent because of his “almost scandalous excess of zeal.” He had given his possessions away to the poor and lived in a shed even smaller than the tiny shacks the miners dwelled in. Stranded, desolate and alone, Vincent did not want to go home. His parents had already threatened to institutionalize him in an insane asylum, frustrated with his erratic and intense behavior and alarmed by the trail of failures he left in his wake. Instead, destitute and almost starved, he began to draw in earnest, at the age of 27, using pieces of charcoal and cheap sheets of paper. His artwork saved him. He wrote to Theo: “How rich art is, if one can only remember what one has seen, one is never empty of thoughts or truly lonely, never alone.”
Vincent Van Gogh Pine Trees in the Fen pen and ink on paper 1884
Theo was his only supporter. He had always thought his brother would make a good artist, and even though Vincent’s first attempts at drawing were heavy and clumsy, Theo promised his brother financial support to get the training and materials he needed to become an artist.
This was the beginning of one of the shortest and most remarkable careers of any painter in all of art history. Vincent remained dependent on Theo for financial and emotional support for the rest of his life. He attempted to return his brother’s kindness with his own devotion to his work, mailing stacks of paintings and drawings back to his brother that would eventually become some of the most valued masterpieces in the world.
Vincent Van Gogh Olive Trees with the Alpilles oil on canvas 1889
What can we learn from the relationship of these two brothers? What can they teach us about love and patience in our own families?
First, to increase love, there must be an increase in communication. The bond between the two brothers was born out of the intense, intimate conversations they shared as children, and was cemented by the almost one thousand letters Vincent wrote to his brother over the course of his adult life. The letters, described by the writer Proust as some of the greatest literature in history, are full of vulnerable emotion, voluble opinions, wide-ranging ideas and recommendations. They are, in short, the record of a soul, bared to his brother. To love someone, you must know them, and accept them for who they truly are.
But when you know someone so well, you also know their weaknesses, their faults----you become vulnerable to disappointment, and also hurt feelings. That is why to continue to grow in love you must also practice forgiveness. Both Vincent and Theo were often disappointed by the others’ limitations. Theo was disappointed in Vincent’s poor relationship with their parents, and Vincent was disappointed that Theo, though a successful art dealer, never sold a single one of his paintings. Vincent chafed at being dependent, and mild, gentle Theo struggled to support Vincent, his family, and all the other artists whose work he showed and championed. The brothers sometimes fought, but they also forgave each other. In Luke 6:37-38, Christ tells us to “judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven; give, and it shall be given unto you. . . for with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”
Why did Theo keep forgiving Vincent, even when he overspent Theo’s money and sent him argumentative, demanding letters, even when he failed to become independent, or to reconcile with those he offended? Why did he stay loyal to him when his own parents no longer believed in their wayward son? Perhaps the answer lies in the answer that Jesus gave to Simeon and the Pharisees when they condemned the woman who “washed his feet with tears.” Christ said, “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:47). Vincent was a passionate and ardent man, a man who loved art more than anything, and who shared that love with Theo. Perhaps Theo was able to forgive him his failings because he understood that Vincent’s weaknesses as a person were also his strengths as an artist: his stubbornness, his persistence, his intensity, his originality. For as it says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, “ God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen. . .” Like the apostle Paul, Vincent Van Gogh was “a fool in glorying.” His humility born of difficult experiences and persistent loneliness, his similarly humble subject matter, his direct and powerful way of painting are what give his artwork enduring beauty, reality, and power. In Ether 12:27 God promises, “I make weak things become strong.” When we are humble, and accept our own and other’s limitations, then there is a true chance for forgiveness, and the chance that we, too, may have our weaknesses transformed into strengths.
Finally, most importantly, we learn from Theo and Vincent’s example to never give up on those we love. As Shakespeare wrote in his (CXVI) 116th sonnet: “Love is not love / which alters when it alteration finds, / or bends with the remover to remove: / O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark, / that looks on tempests and is never shaken; / it is the star to every wandering bark, / whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. / Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / within his bending sickle’s compass come; / love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / but bears it out even to the edge of doom.” Theo and Vincent surely bore their love out to the edge of doom. Vincent dreamed of starting a utopia of artists in southern France. But his dream failed when the painter Gaugin made plans to leave the famous yellow house they shared in Provence after only a brief few months’ stay. Distressed and depressed, Vincent’s mind failed him, and on Christmas Eve, 1889, he cut off part of his left ear, delivered it to a prostitute with the words, “take this in memory of me,” and returned home to collapse on the bed in a pool of his own blood. Gaugin took one look at him and fled, leaving Vincent to wake in the hospital on Christmas Day injured and alone. As soon as Theo heard, he rushed to Vincent’s side, proving Proverbs 17:17 that “a friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” In one fateful swoop Vincent lost his friend, his yellow house, and his health. He checked himself into the St. Remy asylum, where he had sad, lucid periods where he painted canvases all day which are now among his most loved, interspersed with episodes of illness and what he described as “mental torture.” Putting on a brave face for his brother, he wrote to Theo: “Considering my life is spent mostly in the garden, it is not so unhappy.”
Vincent Van Gogh Irises oil on canvas 1889
Yet Vincent was dead less than a year later. A phrase he wrote in a letter to Theo is almost a premonition: “There’s nothing sad in this death, it goes its way in broad daylight with a sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold.” The true circumstances of Vincent’s death may never be known. The facts, however, are these: one morning in late summer in the year 1890, Vincent walked out into a sunny wheat field to paint. A few hours later, he stumbled back to the hotel where he was staying, a bullet in his stomach and an unfinished letter to Theo asking for more art supplies in his pocket. Were his persistent feelings of failure and the fear that his illness was growing worse enough to push him to the desperate act of suicide? Or had his local tormentor, a teenage boy, shot him by accident with a borrowed gun? The gun was never found. Vincent’s easel, his still-wet painting, his last palette-----were also never found. And so Vincent Van Gogh died in a tiny rented room in Auvers, attended by Dr. Gachet, and his brother Theo, who had rushed from Paris to his side in time to hear Vincent’s last words: “The sorrow will last forever.”
Theo prepared for Vincent’s burial. He placed one of Vincent’s old palettes on his coffin, hung the walls with Vincent’s blazingly colorful canvases, and filled the room with the sunflowers so beloved by his beloved brother. A handful of artists gathered and said farewell to a man who was, like Christ, “a man of sorrows,” and “well acquainted with grief.”
Vincent Van Gogh Wheatfield with Cypresses oil on canvas 1889
Theo’s health had been delicate for a long time, but his brother’s death shook him to his core, and he collapsed soon after the funeral he had so lovingly arranged. His family interned him in an asylum in Holland, where he died at the end of January in 1891. His grieving wife arranged for his body to be brought back to France and buried beside his older brother under the rolling yellow wheat fields they both loved so much. The legacy of love and patience that Theo bore his brother did not die with him, though, because his wife Jo Van-Gogh-Bonger, kept all of Vincent’s artwork and his letters, and after not many years had passed, Vincent’s paintings rose to fame, and became, as Vincent so ardently desired, “a consolation” for many “broken hearts.”
I am grateful for the love and patience my family has shown and continues to show to me, especially for the abiding love and immense patience Ryan gives me every day. I am also grateful for all the times in my life I have been able to see in person the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, a truly great artist.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.