He is commonly portrayed as a sometimes loony genius who failed in a fanatical quest to become an evangelical preacher, turned his back on religion and went on to become one of history's most celebrated painters.
But Vincent van Gogh--whose landmark work is on display through May 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--in fact remained deeply spiritual throughout his life even after rejecting the institutional church, scholars say. His religious passion was central in shaping both the images he drew and the artistic techniques he used.
Van Gogh's spiritual philosophy, largely ignored in traditional art history circles, is now coming to light more than a century after the Dutch artist ended his colorful, tragic life in suicide. The research is unveiling new depths of character in this endlessly dissected artist, the complex theological culture that influenced him and the rich spiritual meaning in Van Gogh's legendary images of starry nights, fields of wheat, sunflowers and stolid, humble peasants.
"Religion was the central, driving force in Van Gogh's life," said Kathleen Powers Erickson, author of the newly released "At Eternity's Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh."
"Realizing that really turns around your whole concept of who Van Gogh was and what his art is about."
As a young man, Van Gogh burned with religious fervor and won his first appointment to preach to poor coal miners in the Belgian town of Borinage in January 1879. In what many secular biographies have termed his era of "religious fanaticism," Van Gogh determinedly sought a life of acute asceticism. The goal, he told one acquaintance, was to be "a friend of the poor like Jesus was."
He gave away his money and clothes, refused the lodgings of a miner family and slept crouched in the hearth of a bare hovel. He even refused the luxury of soap; his contemporaries recalled a shirtless, soot-faced, emaciated Van Gogh tending his flock with an intense ardor, Erickson's book recounts.
Despite his fervor and popularity with miners, the ecumenical Protestant organization that gave him the six-month appointment declined to renew it, citing Van Gogh's lack of eloquence in the pulpit.
A Crisis of Faith
The crushed Van Gogh was further devastated when his own father withdrew support for his pastoral ambitions and, disturbed by what he viewed as his son's excesses, sought to commit him to an insane asylum. In addition, his beloved Uncle Stricker, another staunch religious influence, rejected Van Gogh's repeated attempts to woo his daughter, Kee.
The triple betrayal permanently alienated Van Gogh from institutional religion; he never set foot in a church again and took pains to express his bitterness in such works as "Starry Night," where all village buildings glow with yellow light except the dark steepled church, Erickson said.
At this point, most biographers claim Van Gogh abandoned religion, but a new generation of scholars now say he retained his spiritual passion and only rechanneled it into art. He subscribed to French playwright Victor Hugo's maxim, "Religions pass, but God remains," scholars say.
Van Gogh sought to "find a way, through art, of teaching spiritual truths to people so as to console them," said Naomi Margolis Maurer, the Minneapolis-based author of "The Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom: The Thought and Art of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin."
"He believed in a religion that teaches people to have reverence and awe of creation, and to have compassion and feelings of charity and sympathy toward people suffering. It was totally noninstitutional," said Maurer, who will give a lecture on Van Gogh's spiritual vision Feb. 14 at LACMA.
Among more than 2,300 Van Gogh works, only a handful depict classic religious scenes: "The Pieta," portraying the suffering Christ, is one included in the Los Angeles exhibit. He deliberately avoided such subjects, scholars say, preferring to express the divine as reflected in nature or in the soulful eyes of the peasants, miners and prostitutes in his life.
Van Gogh painted olive groves to represent Christ and sunflowers as symbols of the pious soul who, like the flower, follows God's blinding light, Erickson and others say. His sheaves of wheat, which crumble into the earth to regenerate life, represented the timeless cycle of death and rebirth. In one 1888 letter to his close artist friend, Emile Bernard, Van Gogh confessed "a longing for the Infinite, of which the sower and the sheaf are the symbols still enchanting me."
Butterflies symbolized spiritual transformation and immortality to the artist, who speculated in his writings about life after death and the possibility of being reborn on other stars.
The radiant yellows he used to color his sun, stars and wheat fields were symbols of God's love; while the deep blues evident in the masterpiece "Starry Night" represented the infinite, Erickson says he wrote in his letters.
Strokes of Genius
And beyond the symbols, Van Gogh expressed his religious beliefs in his artistic techniques, highly texturizing his paintings to mirror the plowing, weaving and other work of the peasants he so admired as true pilgrims of God, said Debora Silverman, UCLA professor of history and art history.
The zeal to plow and work his canvas like a farmer in the field stemmed from Van Gogh's attempt to reconcile his status as an indigent painter--he sold only one work in his lifetime--with his religious belief in active work as the source of grace, Silverman said.
Van Gogh's melding of art and spirituality reflected the traditions of a family of both art dealers and religious thinkers. His grandfather, father and uncle were all ministers. They were influenced by two trends within the Dutch Reformed Church. One rejected the Calvinist view of original sin, salvation for a select few and predestination in favor of a belief in humankind's godlike nature, universal salvation and free will, Erickson said.
The other trend rejected miracles and supernatural events and sought instead to seek the divine more realistically in nature and community through painting, poetry and other forms of art. Later, the naturalistic tendencies of Zen Buddhism, which reached Europe late in the 19th century, added their influence to Van Gogh's thinking.
Among the works included in the L.A. exhibit, two notably capture Van Gogh's spiritual vision, scholars say.
"The Potato Eaters," a grimy portrayal of dusty peasants sharing a meal in their dank hovel, is typically described as simply a portrayal of the working class. But Silverman and others say the work includes powerful religious imagery: the poor peasants as spiritually superior servants of God who win grace through honest work; the meal as a sacred Eucharistic celebration, the glowing yellow of the overhead lamp illuminating the dark faces in the light of God.
"Wheatfield With Crows" is one of Van Gogh's most analyzed works. Where some see doom and signs of Van Gogh's imminent 1890 suicide in the threatening skies, black crows and roads leading nowhere, Erickson says the artist's views on death instead suggest a meaning of triumph and ultimate release.
The work's deep blue skies of infinity, brilliant yellow wheat of rebirth and roads of pilgrimage suggest "not a painting of psychological deterioration, but a work depicting the journey of life, with the hope of ultimate rebirth," Erickson wrote.
"You could almost say that everything he did was imbued with some kind of sacredness," Erickson said.