Looking for Vincent

Nov 1st, 2009 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Don McClean’s songs were always beyond the comprehension of a schoolboy.  “American Pie”, with its references no-one seemed quite to understand was hard enough, but “Vincent” seemed even harder.  It had no-one dancing in the gym and no jokers stealing crowns, but the story it told seemed inexplicable.  How could the life of someone as brilliant as Vincent van Gogh go the way it did?  How could it come to a tragic end when there seemed everything in the world for which to live?  The pictures of Vincent’s paintings in the books at school were full of colour; we couldn’t understand why someone would want to paint a picture of a chair or a vase of flowers, but we liked the simplicity of it.

GoVincent's Houseing to Auvers-sur-Oise during August, in search of Vincent, didn’t really bring much progress in understanding; he remained as elusive in the summer as he had been in the schoolboy days.The house in which he lodged is neat and pretty and was a place for which Vincent expressed fondness in his letters.  The scenes around the village, which feature in various of his paintings are pictures of beauty and of tranquility.  Yet in the village park, the statue of Vincent is of a gaunt and strained looking figure. The pained expression on the sculpted face of Vincent parallels the anguish described in McLean’s lyrics:

Vincent statue“Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they’ll listen now.”

Perhaps the world will understand Vincent better now that his letters have been published.  The six volumes cost £325 Sterling, hardly within the budget of most readers, yet in a spirit of generosity worthy of the subject, the entire work has been published free online by the Van Gogh museum.  It’s even better than having a paper edition because the letters can be searched just by typing words.

A sense of the gentle soul, whose work now commands the highest prices in the world, is found in a letter from Vincent to Theo van Gogh and Jo van Gogh-Bonger sent from Auvers-sur-Oise, on Wednesday, 2nd July 1890, just over three weeks before Vincent’s death:

My dear Theo and dear Jo,

I’ve just received the letter in which you say that the child is ill; I’d very much like to come and see you, and what holds me back is the thought that I’d be even more powerless than you are in the given state of distress. But I can feel how very exhausting it must be, and would like to be able to lend a hand. By coming straightaway I fear I would increase the confusion. However, I share your anxieties with all my heart. It’s a real pity that at Mr Gachet’s the house is so cluttered with all sorts of things. Otherwise I think it would be a good plan to come and lodge here – at his house – with the little one, at least for a good month – I think that the country air has an enormous effect. In the street here there are kids born in Paris and really sickly – who however are well. Coming here to the inn would be possible too, it’s true. So that you aren’t too alone I could come myself to stay at your place for a week or fortnight . . .

. . . I’m writing to you at once that as regards the little one I think you mustn’t worry yourselves excessively; if it’s that he’s teething, well to make the task easier for him perhaps we could distract him more here where there are children, animals, flowers and good air.

I shake your hand and Jo’s firmly in thought, and kiss the little one.

His concern for his little nephew captures the warm humanity of Vincent, yet he could not find enough in the world to persuade him to remain.  Going out to paint on 27th July 1890, he took with him a revolver and shot himself.  The chest wound caused Vincent’s death two days later.  An unfinished letter to Theo, found on him, included the line, “Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it”.

Don McLean’s words remain as difficult and as simple as they always were:

“For they could not love you,
But still your love was true.
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you”.

Vincent's Grave

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  1. We write of the same place one day after the other, and we were both there in August!

    I too find his death a difficult truth to swallow, but I think he felt too much a burden to his brother, as is hinted at in the letter you quote here. He was an exquisitely beautiful and spiritual man, and I for one am most saddened by the fact that so few recognized that during his short but potent life…

  2. The piece was prompted by a review in Saturday’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ of the six volumes of letters. I think it is wonderful the museum have made them available online.

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