In September of 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote at length to his brother Theo, describing the emotional solace to be found in the art of painting. “It does me good to attempt difficult things,” he noted, “but it does not prevent me from having a terrible need of – shall I say the word – of religion. So I go outside in the night to paint the stars.”
The eldest child of a Dutch Reformed minister, Van Gogh grew up in Groot Zundert, near Breda, and often accompanied his father into the countryside to attend the sick and the dying. These early memories – of farmers gathered at humble meals in lamp-lit cottages, of the thatched Zundert rectory at dusk – would provide him with subjects for some of his earliest paintings.
That Van Gogh developed an interest in art seems not to have upset his father, who was fond of pictures, as were many other members of the family, among them Van Gogh’s uncle (also called Vincent), a partner in the Dutch branch of the Goupil gallery. Far more alarming to the family than any painterly vocation was Van Gogh’s early plan to follow in his father’s footsteps, preaching the gospel with a fervor that bordered on impropriety. A posting in Belgium’s impoverished Borinage region came to a bad end: the Evangelical Council reprimanded the young missionary for overzealousness after he gave away nearly all of his possessions to indigent miners.
When Van Gogh, stung by this rebuke, turned away from the organized practices of the Reformed Church and began referring to its senior ministers as “Jesuits” – a very strong term of abuse for a Dutch Protestant – he did not necessarily surrender his personal vision of the Almighty. There is a saying in the Netherlands: “One Dutchman, a preacher; two, a church; three, a schism.” And it is not difficult to see Van Gogh’s artistic calling in this light, for he seems to have taken up his brushes and palette with the conviction that this too was a path to saving souls...