“The more I think about it, the more I realize there is nothing more artistic than to love others.”
Vincent van Gogh
Arguably one of the most recognized and posthumously commercialized paintings of all time, Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night transcends art itself. Composed in 1889, Starry Night incorporated elements and techniques that van Gogh struggled with for years. To van Gogh, each color was a concept unto its own. For instance, the color blue represented the vastness of eternity. The color yellow signified divine love. With this in mind, Starry Night takes on a whole new element of meaning. In it, we see a village sprawled across a hill-laden countryside. The primary light illuminating the quaint village below is yellow- the divine love of God penetrating the deep, eternal blues of heaven. By contrast, the church in the middle of town is devoid of light and life. The artistic statement was not accidental.
After intentionally cutting off his own ear during a hallucination, van Gogh admitted himself to an asylum with the hope of a lasting recovery. Shortly after arriving, he somehow found inspiration to finish the work that had confounded him for so long. Starry Night was finished in the early days of his stay. Overjoyed with his success, he took a drastic turn toward recovery. However, it didn’t take long for his demons to return in full force. After wrestling with depression, sporadic hallucinations, and recurring bouts of suicidal thoughts, van Gogh took his own life in July 1890.
The only things I remember learning about Vincent van Gogh in school were his brilliance on the canvas and the grisly story of his intentional self-mutilation. Little was ever said about the rest of his life, including the depressing fact that he only sold one painting in his entire life. Likewise, I never even heard that a few years prior to painting Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh forsook the nobility of his birth after finishing his studies in Bible school. Preeminent in his mind was a desire to serve the poor and needy who dwelt in the shadows. After years of trying to awkwardly fit into the upper-class life inhabited by the London elite, van Gogh decided to follow his heart. In 1879, he departed London and moved to Belgium where he became a full-time missionary.
Upon arriving in Petit-Wasmes, a small coal mining village, van Gogh moved into a spare room at the back of a baker’s house. It was right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of town. However, Van Gogh’s heart was drawn far from the city proper and down the hill where the soot-covered miners worked and lived. After seeing the poverty and squalid working conditions the miners lived and worked in, van Gogh returned to his room each day and spent the rest of the evening tearing his clothing into long, rectangular strips. The next day, he would return to the poverty-stricken area down the hill and bandage the wounds of the injured coal miners.
One night, van Gogh arrived home with nothing more than his pants and shoes on. Every other item of clothing had been donated to the poor or cut into bandages to help the wounded. Seeing him in such a lowly state, van Gogh’s landlords approached him with disappointed concern. “Monsieur Vincent,” they inquired, “why do you deprive yourself of all your clothes like this - you who are descended from such a noble family?”
Van Gogh’s response was simple and to the point: ”I am a friend of the poor like Jesus was.”
For his landlords, it was the last straw. Unable to comprehend why a person of nobility would willingly sacrifice everything he owned for the sake of the poor, they contacted his elder church leaders, begging them to take matters into their own hands and rescue the foreign missionary from his delusions of self-sacrifice.
Van Gogh moved out of the baker’s house and far from the upscale side of town. Instead, he migrated toward the impoverished poor who resided down the hill. A few days later, an explosion rocked the local mine. Van Gogh made straight for the disaster, working tirelessly to rescue the wounded and trapped he had come to befriend. When he noticed how overwhelmed the doctors were, van Gogh took one of the injured under his wing for more than a month. Thanks to van Gogh’s care, the miner recovered. The incident made him something of a beloved celebrity among the poor. Soon after, the locals of Petit-Wasmes began referring to the artist-missionary not as Monsieur van Gogh but as The Good Samaritan.
Around this time, church leaders from abroad showed up to investigate the concerns addressed by his old landlord, the baker. After searching all day for van Gogh, they found him sleeping in a crowded room with the poor and impoverished miners he had come to love and serve. Confused as to why the missionary would stoop to such a low, unseemly level, the elders forcibly removed van Gogh from his ministry at Petit-Wasmes. When he arrived home, van Gogh was fired from the ministry altogether and labeled an embarrassment to the church.
Life would never be the same for Vincent van Gogh. Although he never lost his faith in God or his passion for the lost, the weak, the hungry, or the poor, he lost all faith in the organized structure that the church had become. He found it ironic that the ones whose job it was to reach out to and care for the poor were, in fact, nothing more than modern day Pharisees who would rather pass them by on the other side of the street.
In the waning months of his life, van Gogh would brilliantly capture his frustration in Starry Night. It is no mistake that the central church is lightless and void while the town is illuminated by the one true light from above. To van Gogh, it was the only light that could truly change people, cities, and the world he lived in.
A few weeks before his death, van Gogh’s thoughts returned to Belgium. He had always considered his time among the poor and needy of Petit-Wasmes to be the most meaningful of his life. In his personal apartment at the asylum was a painting studio. As he sat down to paint one morning, images of the miners he had come to love came to mind. Each brushstroke took on a life of its own. With more than 2000 works of art to his name, he had never painted one like this before. By the end of the frenetic session, a painting stood before him that would be easily recognizable to anyone who had heard of the famous Bible story it portrayed.
To van Gogh, it was more than just a Bible story- it was his story. Portrayed in the image was his greatest passion of them all: the wounded, impoverished, and helpless of the earth. To van Gogh, loving them was the greatest art of all. Standing back to observe the finished work, he was reminded of a better time in a better place in a land so far away from the asylum where he lived, painted, and died a few weeks later.
He called it The Good Samaritan.
“I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals.
For there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral,
however solemn and imposing the latter may be -
A human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker,
is more interesting to me.”
- Vincent van Gogh