Vincent Van Gogh – Living in the Shadow of Failure

Perhaps the greatest undersold virtue – the one we least applaud – is the capacity to endure difficult circumstances. We have been ingrained with the notion, particularly through fictionalised films and literature, that victory lies in changing one’s external situation. If we perceive our bodies to be defective, we feel compelled to subject them to nips and tucks; to be a hero means eliminating one’s nemesis by murderous violence and a health triumph can only be celebrated if we stumble upon a cure. The result of this thinking is that those who aren’t  able to change unwelcome circumstances in their lives, feel they have failed or life is meaningless. 

The journalist, Bryan Appleyard, observed that the lives of those we admire are often marked by some extreme disadvantage:

“In 1962, research was published that 75% of 400 eminent historical figures had been troubled by broken homes and rejecting, over possessive, estranged or dominating parents. Another 50% had financial problems and 25% had physical handicaps.” [Appleyard, Bryan. “Lighting up Our Lives.” The Times. June 22, 1997: 2-3.]

Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) was a Dutch painter  who only achieved fame posthumously. He had his fair share of challenges during his relatively short life. One gets the impression from his biography that all he really wanted was to form a nurturing community in the ‘yellow house’ in Arles, the South of France, where he and other artists could explore their creativity and develop their artistic skills free of distractions. His most famous paintings which now sell for hundreds of millions, are the ‘Sunflowers’ and ‘The Starry Night’. He is only known to have sold one painting during his ten year career.

Van Gogh may have deemed himself a failure on many fronts:

  • He tried to become a pastor but was sacked from his job as a lay-preacher in Belgium.
  • His first  marriage proposal was rejected, and this led to his first breakdown.
  • He fell out with his house-mate and fellow painter, Paul Gaugin, which led to the infamous incident where he cut off his left ear.
  • When this incident became known, his neighbours in Arles decided he was dangerous, and petitioned for him to leave the neighbourhood.
  • Such was the fragility of his mental state that he voluntarily admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital for a year.
  • During his ten-year career as an artist, he struggled to sell his art, and so relied on his brother, Theo, for financial support.

You will no doubt be relieved to know that we do not need to determine by our own criteria whether or not our lives have been a failure or a success. That difficult assessment was meant to be left to our Creator. It is He alone who has embedded within our sole a divine code which includes all the information of what we are to become and accomplish on this earth.

By all accounts Van Gogh perceived himself and was perceived by others as a failure; many of those who knew him whilst he was alive probably felt the same. His own mother obviously thought so little of his artistic works that many were discarded by her after his death. Those of us who read his biography today may also hold the same view.  His life was viewed differently after his death than when he was alive.

From an early age, he suffered from depression and ill health, most notably epilepsy and psychosis. If only he could have foreseen how successful he would have become; perhaps this would have made his life more bearable. He neglected his health – a typical sign of self-loathing. The link between mental and physical health was little known at the time, and is still seldom made today. But he did encounter a physician who felt that his meagre diet of bread, alcohol and cigarettes could be the cause of his mental and physical deterioration.

How can someone feel so tired of life at 37 such that suicide is perceived as the only way out? His final words to his brother were of a “sadness that will never end”. The 10 years of his career as a painter may give us a clue. This was also the final decade of his life in which he produced over 2,100 works which included oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and sketches. It is reasonable to surmise that this may have led to burnout. It may be that he lived in the shadow of his brother was stillborn the year before he was born. He may have taken on the grief of his parents, and felt compelled to make something of himself to make up for their loss. But in his won mind, his efforts would never be enough.

Popular new age thinking has spun the misconception that once we alight on our destiny, our lives will be plain sailing. Yet, the fulfilling of a destiny is rife with struggle and difficulty. No doubt God designed it that way so that we would look beyond our human skills and capacities to Him for superhuman assistance. Because so many expect life to be easy, they feel like failures along the way because the temporary defeats seem to underscore their own incompetence.

“Enjoy yourself too much rather than too little, and don’t take love or art too seriously.” This is a memorable quote from Van Gogh, and the implication is that he had enjoyed himself too little and had taken love and art too seriously. Yet, had he not taken his art so seriously, we would not be the beneficiaries of it today. His shadow of failure was finally laid to rest with him. It is his success which outlived him, and is his lasting legacy.


*Though it is widely accepted that Van Gogh shot himself in the chest and died two days later, the theory has been advanced by some that Van Gogh was shot accidentally, and having resigned himself to dying, he told no one of his injury.