For the first time I’ve been reading Irving Stone’s biographical novel Lust for Life, about the life and artistic pursuits, and general unwavering obsessions and fanaticism, of the great Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, whose work is so known and admired it’s almost a cliché. Van Gogh was an artist who suffered a great deal, more even than I’d ever realized, even though many of his worst wounds were self-inflicted. He eschewed paying work and jobs that would monetarily support his efforts, instead relying solely upon the charity of his brother, Theo, and others, which was barely enough to live on. Better to live in poverty with moth-eaten clothes, a writhing hungry belly, and early wrinkles upon his battered face than to compromise even an inch. In short, Van Gogh was single-minded and epically stubborn, and once he dedicated his life to producing drawings and paintings, he was unshakeable in that pursuit. It should also be said that it’s pretty likely that Van Gogh suffered from some undiagnosed mental illness and that were he alive now, he’d be popping Prozac like Tic Tacs.
Despite some early encouragement, many of those who’d originally supported Vincent’s art, eventually turned against him and tried to talk him out of this pursuit. This included his cousin by marriage Anton Mauve, who was one of many who disputed Van Gogh’s claim even to be an artist and tried vehemently to dissuade him from pursuing his craft. Now, before we wholly demonize this un-supportive enclave, it should be said that Van Gogh was a bit of a leech. He borrowed money he never paid back. He was socially awkward, frequently inappropriate, and ignorant to the sorts of daily social norms that lubricate the vast majority of our interactions, which are constantly suffused with the suppression of true feelings in exchange for being liked and getting along. Van Gogh possessed no such filter. He showed up at people’s houses. He said weird, creepy things that would have found him the odd man out at every party he attended. It’s likely that he would have been very difficult to be around and remain friends with. So while I found myself angry at Mauve and others, there’s context to their frustration with Vincent and their eventual rejection of him.
I’m only about halfway through the book, but I was struck by the following exchange, in which Van Gogh bumps into Mauve weeks after they’ve had a terrible quarrel that has driven a perhaps irreversible wedge into their relationship. Van Gogh tries to apologize to Mauve and invites him to visit his studio to assess his most recent work, even though Mauve (who regularly loaned Van Gogh money and initially supported his work) has grown frequently, even cruelly, dismissive of Vincent’s efforts. After assuring Vincent he will do no such thing, Mauve asks:
“Do you call yourself an artist?”
“How absurd. You never sold a picture in your life.”
(Here is where my ears perked up and my nervous system began to murmur. I have been writing constantly for nearly twenty years and have made little to no money from my writing in that entire time. I’ve often felt embarrassed over that fact, even though I know the same is true of so many writers, many far more talented than I. It’s Van Gogh’s response to Mauve that has continued to resonate and whisper. He says…)
“Is that what being an artist means–selling? I thought it meant one who was always seeking without absolutely finding. I thought it means the contrary from ‘I know it, I have found it.’ When I say I am an artist, I only mean ‘I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.'”
I’m not personally sure what an artist is, and in spite of being one most of my life, I’ve spent little to no time thinking about what it means, let alone having such a clear understanding in my mind as Van Gogh expresses here and elsewhere. Is that bad? I always feel a little awkward when someone calls me, or I call myself, an artist. The word has never seemed to properly indicate what I do, what I feel, why I sit and write. But this idea of seeking, or striving, even in the absence of monetary, or other brands of external reward? That felt just about right.