Lucas Cranach the Elder Adam and Eve oil on paired panels 1530
This talk isn't about art in any particular way, but since I've posted a talk at church I gave two years ago about Vincent Van Gogh here and got some supportive responses, I thought I would post the talk I just gave at church about marriage. Since my religion and my marriage play a large role in my artistic psyche, I think this blog is the right place to post this meditation, even if there aren't any paintings or painters (except for myself) referenced this time. Although the art critic/writer Rebecca Solnit does get a lengthy quote. . . So maybe there is more oblique art content than I first thought.
So, without further ado:
Why Marriage Between a Man and Woman is Ordained of God: for Joy
By Eowyn Wilcox McComb, presented in the RidgeCreek Ward, Murray, UT on January 24, 2018
In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells an origin story that goes something like this:
In the beginning, when the gods made humans, they made them with two faces, four hands, and four legs. And they made them in this form: man-woman, and sometimes man-man, or woman-woman. Humans became powerful, intelligent, and strong, so much so that the gods began to fear that their creations would rise up and try to overthrow them. So the gods met together and came to a decision: they would take the humans and split them apart, weakening them and leaving them lonely and desperate, restlessly wandering the world seeking their lost other half. Some of the broken humans longed so intensely for the rest of themselves that they became ill with loneliness, and sickened, and some even died. This story is the origin of the concept of ‘soul-mates.’
Aristophanes’ myth is perhaps one of the earliest stories to attempt to explain the passion that drives us together towards marriage. That marriage needs an explanation makes one stop to think. Most cultures have an origin story about the beginning of humanity, and most of those origin stories center on the creation and union of a man and a woman. On a physical level, this makes sense---in mammalian species there needs to be a male and female member in order to procreate and have offspring. But this does not require marriage, or loyalty, or fidelity. While some animals, like swans or many wolves, are monogamous and mate for life, many other animals, like mice or ducks, are promiscuous, sometimes violently so. So why do we humans practice marriage? Why do we have ancient origin stories about soul mates?
In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” President Gordon B Hinckley and the first presidency of this church proclaimed that “the family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.” How do we know this principle to be true except through the scriptures? When God gives us a commandment he wishes us to follow, he usually gives us a story about that commandment so that we better understand it. And what story is more archetypal on the subject of marriage than the story of Adam and Eve? Aristophanes had one story about how soul-mates came to be. We have another.
Adam and Eve’s story is of marriage and true love enduring. Let us turn to Genesis chapter 2, where I will paraphrase the story told there, and we can consider together the implications of Adam and Eve’s choices, and what we can learn from them:
In the beginning, some time after God made the world, he made a garden with a river that ran through it, which he called Eden, and in it he “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” named Adam. Adam lived in harmony with the plants and the animals in Eden, which was a place of surpassing beauty. All of his needs were met for him, because Eden had every good fruit and vegetable. God gave Adam two tasks: to keep the garden and to name the many living beings within it. But something was lacking---there was a need that Adam had that was not met, and he did not know it. God saw this and “caused a deep sleep to fall over Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” God gave Adam and his new wife two commandments: first, that they should “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28), and second, that while they could eat freely of any tree in the garden, they should never eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for they would “surely die.” And while Adam and his wife kept the second commandment, the first commandment they could not keep, for they were innocent and ignorant and did not know how to keep it.
Now Lucifer disguised himself as a snake and came into the garden and spoke to Eve. The art critic and writer Rebecca Solnit wrote in her essay “As Eve Said to the Serpent”: “I always thought Eve and the serpent must have conversed at greater length than Genesis records. That the most crucial conversation in Judeo-Christian theology is between a woman and a beast suggests that the voices that count are not always those of the fathers. . . That talking and eating were Eve’s decisive acts suggests a kind of intellectual and corporeal exchange with her surroundings, a willingness to take in the new and the risky. Imagine Eve as one of the few scientists to discuss the long-term consequences of her acts before she began her apple-eating experiment. Imagine what she and the snake might have had to say to each other about becoming symbols and scapegoats, about how they would be represented and misrepresented, about what joys would rise like seafoam from the storms of history ahead, about what kind of places they would encounter and what it would take to make those places seem like home or Paradise.” Eve had not yet gained her name: “The mother of all living.” She had to make her risky decision first, all alone. After she spoke with the serpent, she realized that she needed to gain knowledge to ever progress or change or fulfill that paradoxical first commandment she had been given. She was the first human to desire knowledge, and the first to risk everything she had and lose her innocence to gain it. I have found through observation and reading and personal experience that gaining knowledge rarely makes life easier----it complicates our decisions and makes them a great deal harder-----but is worth every sacrifice for how it enriches life and opens avenues of thought and inspiration that were closed before.
So Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, fruit described as “good for food, and... pleasant to the eyes, and... to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). And she was not selfish. She loved her husband, and offered him the fruit, and he ate it also, and “the eyes of them both were opened.” And so Adam and Eve fell from grace and were banished from the garden, and given toil and sorrow and pain for their punishment. And what we know of as time began, and children were born, and with their work came achievement, and with their loss came gain, and with their sorrow came joy.
For “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” I find it striking that in that famous scripture I just read, 2 Nephi 2:25, it is Adam who is named, and blamed, for the Fall, and not Eve. I think there is a reason other than gender-bias at work in making Adam responsible: we often focus on the difficulty, riskiness, and profundity of Eve’s choice, but we rarely focus on the great sacrifice Adam made when he chose to follow her and partake of the fruit himself. In one action, Adam gave up his home in the garden and his ability to walk and talk with God face to face----all to follow his wife into exile and spend the rest of his life working for the privileges he gave up to be with her. Is this not powerful? Adam knew God---he spoke to God----and yet he willingly gave up God’s presence out of loyalty to his wife. Adam’s example is complex: he chose his marriage before God, and yet his choice fulfilled God’s wish and commandment that he should “cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
While I often identify strongly with Eve as a fellow woman facing the necessity of making choices that rarely affect only myself, and who often has to resort to subversion to be able to act or speak in a world that strongly favors men-----still, when it comes to my own marriage, I identify more strongly with Adam. Eve made a choice without Adam that affected the direction of his life. This put him in the position of being forced to make his own choice, but one of reaction, rather than action. My marriage has followed a similar pattern: when I met Ryan he was finishing his master of bio-science at Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California. He had already made significant life-decisions about his education and his career path, and he had also made the crucial decision to go very deeply into debt to achieve those goals. And those decisions he had made without me changed the path of my life after we got married. His debt affected us every day as we gave up (among other things:) meat and cheese, the internet, going out, new clothes or new anything, heating, and finally our car in our efforts to make ends meet. I learned to cook beans from scratch and bake bread to save money. I sewed my own clothes out of sheets and fabric that I found at the thrift store. I learned to make art in tiny spaces, with only a desk and a bookcase and an easel in a corner of the room as my studio. I had chosen not to pursue a Master of Fine Arts after I finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Art Center College of Design because I was afraid the debt would cripple my career as an artist. That decision I made turned out not to matter: Ryan’s career path led us out of the neighborhood I’d lived in all my life and the city where I had all of my career opportunities. Similarly, Adam had to sacrifice his comforts, his home, and his standing with God to follow his wife into banishment and hard work that he had probably never expected and in the beginning, surely didn’t know how to do. Why did he do it? Why did I do it? For love, for true love. For the chance to have joy together. In Moses 5:10, Adam reflected on his decisions and: “Blessed God. . . saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy.” And Eve, reflecting on her own decisions in the next verse said: “Were it not for our transgression, we never should have. . . known. . . the joy of our redemption.”
The paradox of Genesis is that Eve and Adam disobeyed in order to obey. Lehi explains the importance of Adam’s choice to follow Eve in 2 Nephi 2: 22-23: “…Behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden.” And I would add here: remained there alone. “And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.”
Let me return again to 2 Nephi 2:25: “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” Here, in one sentence, is laid out the plan of salvation and God’s purpose for us: We exist for joy, to be joyful. Teryl and Fiona Givens wrote in their book The God Who Weeps that “in a universe limited by the economy of the essential, joy is proof of surplus” (35), and perhaps, if you take this idea one step further---proof of God. For what other reason does joy exist except that God intends us to have it? What purpose does joy serve except to crown our lives and give purpose to everything else----all the suffering we have to endure in order to achieve and recognize joy at last. What other proof of love is there, than that it gives us joy? And what better proof that God loves us, than that his purpose for us on this earth, is to learn to cultivate and understand and have for our own selves----joy?
Marriage is one way to increase and multiply the joy in our lives. Love is the greatest source of joy, and marriage is, at its best, a test of true love and a way to develop more pure love and gain more joy. All the sacrifices I have made for Ryan are worthwhile because I love him, and that love gives me joy and the love he returns gives me strength to bear, or at least attempt to bear, our burdens. The love we have for each other is a choice, and is thus fragile, strengthened by time and sacrifice. The hardships we have faced together and will face together in the future are the special alchemy that transforms our love into a solid substance that binds us: true love. This said, I would like to assure you all that true love is not limited to marriage---love and joy are something all of God’s children can and do enjoy, through any and all relationships based in love. Any time we love a person, a place, an animal, a thing----we are following God’s path towards joy.
For after all, "which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said. . . Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). If we love, we are following God’s way, and are sure to achieve joy at last. The more love we have, the more joy we will be given. Of this I can and do firmly bear my testimony.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
I’ve been reading this recent biography of the English landscape painter Constable (the first new biography in over 160 years) with a great deal of pleasure. It is a slow, precise book, much like the painter and his paintings which it describes. Best of all, to me, is the feeling on finishing the book that I like Constable as a man as well as I like him as a painter----a rare feeling when finishing an artist’s biography (I certainly didn’t feel that way reading the biographies of Gaugin, Giacometti, Suzanne Valadon, and even Bonnard----books which made me think less of them as people, even though I enjoy their artwork).
Constable was born in 1776, a year of revolutions, but his own revolution was a small and overlooked one: trying to make truthful, realistic, lively paintings of the eastern English landscape where he grew up. He spent his life in struggle to realize his aims, without much support outside of his middle-class farming-milling family and a few loyal friends. What struck me most while reading was how much waiting he had to do in his life: he was 24 when he officially became an art student at the Royal Academy, 26 when he first exhibited a painting, 34 when he had his first exhibition sale, 40 when he finally married his beloved Maria Bicknell (who he met when she was 12----she was 28 when they married at last, against the opposition of her family), and 53 when he finally got elected a full fellow of the Royal Academy. Sadly, the things he waited so long for didn’t last long, aptly proving the Latin lines that Constable had engraved on the side of the tomb he eventually shared with his wife: Alas! From how slender a thread hangs / All that is sweetest in life. He and his wife had only 12 years together before she died from tuberculosis, and Constable himself died from heart failure when he was only 61, leaving seven children and a range of beautiful landscape paintings as a legacy.
The other thing that struck me was Constable’s struggle with his art. He was a slow painter, exhibiting only half as many paintings as his peers generally did at most exhibitions throughout his life, and reworking his paintings over many months and even years. He was rarely satisfied with his efforts, feeling that nature was greater than art could ever be, and yet he kept trying to capture a shadow of it on his canvases. He wrote to a friend early in his art career about his “conviction of the truth of Sir Joshua Reynold’s observation that ‘there is no easy way of becoming a good painter.’ It can only be obtained by long contemplation and incessant labor.” Constable’s ideas about art were unusual for his time, focusing on ordinary subjects rather than the extraordinary. He wrote: “We derive the pleasure of surprise. . . in finding how much interest the art, when in perfection, can give to the most ordinary subjects.” He also said that, “Painting is but another word for feeling.” Feeling was something even the most critical of his critics acknowledged that he had in his paintings (despite their being ‘freckled,’ ‘pockmarked,’ ‘rough,’ and ‘crude’), although the melancholy darkness that lingered in the clouds and woods of some of his work wasn’t very popular with either critics or the populace at large.
His integrity, his kindness to his children, his ability to paint even while melancholy, his abiding love for his work----all these things endeared him to me, even though I already admired his artwork from seeing it many years ago at the Huntington Library in a visiting show of his ‘six-footers.’ I remember their freshness, the feeling of air and sky, the vividness of their colors and details, how life-like they felt. Now I only like him more, and admire his very original cloud studies in particular only more and more as time goes by.
John Constable Cloud Study oil on paper on board 1822
Rembrandt van Rijn Jan Asselyn, Painter 1647 etching, drypoint, and engraving
A strange series of events including a laboratory fire (which thankfully did not affect my husband’s work, as it was not in his building but instead the one adjacent to it) led Ryan to need to go back to Stanford last Saturday afternoon when we had planned to go out on some errands together. He invited me to go with him on the train so I could visit the Cantor museum while he worked and we could do our errands on the way home. I so rarely get to go to museums anymore that I was happy for the chance, and felt extra lucky that one of the current exhibits at the Cantor museum is of Dutch golden age intaglio prints. The show is loosely grouped around the theme of daily life and the selection was large and impressive, including some very beautiful Rembrandts, mostly portraits and self-portraits and one landscape. The prints are all very small, very intricate, and very intimate, since you have to stand very close to them to study them well, so that they feel very dear.
While all of the artists were accomplished, the Rembrandts stood out for their exquisite range of tone. No other artist mastered the velvet blacks that Rembrandt used so well to make even the tiniest figures feel real, dimensional, physically and emotionally genuine.
The other part of the show that was most intriguing to me was a set of twelve prints representing the twelve seasons of the year. They were all distant views of Dutch landscapes with very tiny figures going about their seasonal business and pleasure: ice-skating, buying and selling food, plowing fields, harvesting, talking, playing music. The way the landscapes were laid out for the eye to roam and travel reminded me of Van Gogh’s large fields. The trees felt more important than the people, larger and more detailed and slower. The whole series had a feeling of slowness—the very gradual shifts of bare branches to small leaves to large leaves--- the people ice-skating in January and ice-skating again at the end of the series in December. It made me reflect on time and how over three hundred years have passed between then and now with each gradual shift in the seasons subtly shading one month into another and another and another and the tiny people living and dying and the artist living and dying until here they are on another wall in another part of the world and I am one of the people living and looking at these tiny people who lived so long ago and someday I will die and someone else will be looking at them, and maybe at artwork of my own, if I am lucky.
Christiane Pflug Still Life with Flowers and Tea Pot tempera on canvas 1957
I have been thinking of the issue of skill in art. When I think back on previous years spent wandering the galleries and contemporary art exhibitions at museums in Los Angeles, I observed much fetishization of “finish.” I would describe it as a certain smoothness of surface, a feeling of professionalism about all aspects of the painting or sculpture, a light irony of tone. It is not what makes me thrill when I look at artwork. When I was reading a book of Denise Levertov’s poems, I came across one that describes how I do feel when I look at artwork that feels genuine to me, real---like Van Gogh, or Christiane Pflug:
Since I must recover
my balance, I do. I falter
but don’t fall; recalling
how every vase, cut sapphire, absolute
dark rose, is not indeed
of rarest, of most cherished
perfection unless flawed,
with rough thumbprint, bladescratch, brown
birthmark that tells
of concealed struggle from bud to open ease
of petals, soon
to loosen, to drop and
be blown away.
tree of life, fractionally lopsided
at the trunk’s live-center
tells where a glancing eye,
not a ruler
drew, and drew strength
from its mistake.
The picture of perfection
must be revised.
Allow for our imperfections,
consume them into its substance.
Bring from necessity
its paradoxical virtue,
mortal life, that makes it
give off so strange a magnetic
shining, when one had thought
darkness had filled the night.
I finished reading Rachel Corbett’s You Must Change Your Life, a double-biography of Auguste Rodin and Rainer Maria Rilke, and enjoyed it. Since it is a double-portrait, with many other artists and writers making appearances, it lacks the depth of a singular biography. What it lacks in depth, though, it makes up for in breadth, charting the intersecting courses of a wide variety of artists and writers at the turn of the century and seeing how they enriched and frustrated and haunted each other. Most of her portrayals are sympathetic, although I don’t know how it could have escaped Corbett’s attention that Gwen John was a real artist in her own right, not just a love-struck student mistress of Rodin’s, as she describes her in a single throwaway sentence.
My favorite parts of You Must Change Your Life are where she explores the creative growth of her two main protagonists, like this excerpt where she writes of Rilke’s developing poetic ideas:
“Inseeing described the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart, wherein perception leads to an emotional connection. Rilke made a point of distinguishing inseeing from inspecting, a term which he thought described only the viewer’s perspective, and thus often resulted in anthropomorphizing. Inseeing, on the other hand, took into account the object’s point of view. It had as much to do with making things human as it did with making humans thing.”
She peppers her text liberally with wonderful quotations from Rilke’s letters and poetry and Auguste Rodin’s sayings. It is worth reading the book just to come across quotes that resonate as strongly as Rilke describing an artist as being “like a worm working its way form point to point in the dark.” Or Rodin declaiming: “There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character.” I think the quote that felt closest to my own feelings as I read was Rilke’s comment in a letter: “I yearn so strongly: to be a real person among real things.” I sometimes think that desire for the real is the driving force behind most art. It is the wonderful, terrible, quixotic attempt to capture some essence of life, some feeling of self, some of the texture of reality.
When we were visiting our parents for Christmas my family was very kind and took me to the museum. I wrote about it in my journal: “I did get to see Van Gogh’s bedroom painting, visiting from Chicago to the Norton Simon, which was so beautiful in person—a dream of serenity---a dream of home that Van Gogh painted when he was at the asylum in Saint-Remy, having already lost that bedroom and everything it represented to him. It was very poignant for me to see it, struggling as I am with not having a home of my own, no space, no room, no decent studio to work in.”
It is the main reason I haven’t been writing as much here. Since we moved to the bottom of the Silicon Valley in September 2015, I have done nothing but struggle and miss my home. Like Van Gogh, I too, have been painting from memory, using painting to cross boundaries of time and space and re-inhabit the place I miss most. One of the paintings I am working on now is of Mimi, who died last year on one of my visits home, sitting in the long green grass in the backyard of my parents’ house. I can’t pet Mimi anymore, I can’t even sit in the grass that I love and miss so much, but I can paint them, here, in this tiny, dark, cold place hundreds of miles away. It is one of the gifts painting gives the painter.
I am trying so hard to capture some images of life. One of my new year’s goals is to try to write more here, to keep updates on the progress of my artwork and the spirals of my thoughts. Since I rarely get to go out to art shows any more, I’ll try to write more this year about the art books that I am reading, and paintings that I am looking at in my memory, or through my post-card collection, which is its own tiny museum of art.
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.