When I was a child, maybe eight or nine years old, I discovered paint-by-numbers kits. The kits were cheap and plentiful, always oil, and usually 8×10 or so in size. Completing a painting usually took only an afternoon. For some reason, no painting ever made it into a frame, and I have no idea what happened to them. I had not even thought about them for years until a few minutes ago when the idea for this post popped into my head. My parents were attentive and always did what they could to support my interests, even though they rarely had the money to do so. Perhaps they are responsible for my love of impressionist art.
One Christmas, when I was 12 or 13, they gave me a large paint-by-numbers kit of Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows.” I was intrigued by the size of the painting, mostly because I realized my parents no longer thought of me as a little kid (I had no idea who van Gogh was). I worked on completing that kit for weeks and remember running out of a shade of blue when there was plenty of sky remaining. I don’t remember how I solved that problem, but I do recall feeling quite pleased with myself for working on it.
Amazon Prime Video has a series on impressionist art (Tim Marlow) that covers the essential works of the major painters. Watching the series, I realized I knew very little about the personal lives of the artists. Knowing why a painting was made or what inspired it, I find useful. However, knowing that the artist was a lousy person, for me, adds nothing for or against the work. I like their paintings—the artists are gone, and their works remain, and it is only their works with which I can interact. They all had frailties common to humans, which is to say, none were saints. Who is?
Among them all, van Gogh stood out as particularly vexed. Hearing his story, one cannot help feeling the sadness that overshadowed his life. One theme that seemed consistent in both his life and art was his desire to portray the meanness of everyday existence that so many suffer on their way to an eventual rest.
I never saw sadness in van Gogh’s works; I still don’t. What I saw as a child and over the years was an exuberance expressed with color and bold strokes. It is those features that made me seek out his work in museums and buy posters to adorn my walls. Having heard his story, I still do not see sadness but rather honesty and truth about life. The starkness of his portrayal of those who worked hard each day for every meal invokes in me not sadness but instead respect and admiration for those who struggle and persist. My parents were those people. I wonder if van Gogh was so troubled because he cared so much? Don McLean seems to have hit on something…
My van Goghs— a poster of “The Starry Night” hanging in a guest room, a small print of “The Cafe Terrace” sitting on a mantel, and a poster of “Irises” adoring a home office—are rich with color, bold, and exuberant. Misery, surrendered to, can lead to despair— challenged, it gives rise to hope. Looking at my van Goghs, I see beauty and hope. Thanks, Vincent.