Vincent’s attempts

Van Gogh

Van Gogh is something of an anomaly – a painter who clearly led the move into modernism in art, by the way he painted and his subject matter, and yet Cliff Edwards, in his recent book Van Gogh’s Ghost Paintings (Cascade), suggests that it is easy to lose track, when looking at Van Gogh’s works, of the deep religious feelings behind them, feelings so evident in Van Gogh’s copious letters. Intriguingly and tantalisingly, Edwards focusses on paintings Van Gogh attempted and then destroyed (or painted over), but which are described in his letters, which had as their subject matter Christ’s agony in the Garden of Olives, something with which Van Gogh felt a deep association. It seems a funny thing to write about – paintings that don’t exist, but Edwards’ inference is that these attempts mattered a great deal. It is not that other paintings didn’t stack up, it is just an interesting aside that these paintings were started more than once, that it was obviously important to Vincent to somehow convey these themes to the canvas. These attempts were for Van Gogh something of a conundrum. He wanted to paint from real life, but also admired the religious paintings of Rembrandt and Delacroix (which Vincent copied beautifully), and wanted to make his own religious paintings. The fact that his attempts do not survive shows that he wasn’t successful, at least on his own terms, but Edwards goes on to suggest that Van Gogh’s existing paintings question the very idea of ‘religious art’ because his paintings, superficially of ‘nature’, are often paintings of biblical parables, and that the paintings reveal Van Gogh’s notion that the natural world is filled with what Gerard Manley Hopkins described as ‘the grandeur of God’.

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