The preacher with red hair

This is an expanded version of the article by Peter Flower that was published in Richmond History 25 (2004).

Back in the 1870s a young Dutchman came to work in London at the showroom of the art dealer Goupil & Co in Covent Garden. It was a promotion for him, as he had already worked for four years as an assistant at Goupil’s gallery in The Hague. That young man who arrived in 1873, aged 20, was Vincent van Gogh. The intriguing tale of his possible connection to the Vineyard Church in Richmond was about to unfurl.

Van Gogh originally lodged in Brixton, at 87 Hackford Road, where he fell in love with the landlady’s daughter, Eugenie. She rejected his shy advances – a devastating blow that affected him all his life. Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, said that “with this great sorrow his character changed; when he came home for the holidays he was thin, silent, dejected – a different being” (see Note 1) . After he went home on holiday in July 1874 she wrote that he was “in a melancholy, depressed mood. From that time on there was a change in his character: he inclined more and more towards religious fanaticism and led a secluded life”. But it was also from this time onwards that Van Gogh began sketching.

Rev Thomas Slade-Jones

Van Gogh was eventually dismissed in January 1876 from Goupil’s Gallery – in Paris – where he had been transferred. Aged 23, he then turned to teaching to earn his living – first at a school in Ramsgate in April 1876 run by a Mr Stokes. Stokes later moved his school to the village of Isleworth, and Van Gogh moved with him in late June to Linkfield House at 183 Twickenham Road. Unfortunately, Mr. Stokes did not keep his promise to pay Van Gogh a salary after a month’s trial, so he left and joined another school down the road at Holme Court, 158 Twickenham Road, run by a 47-year-old Congregational minister, Rev Thomas Slade-Jones (See Note 2). He was paid a salary of £15 p.a. plus board and lodging.

The son and grandson of Protestant pastors from the Dutch Reformed Church, Van Gogh was a Christian and he felt the call of God to serve in whatever way he could (See Appendix 2: Van Gogh’s Christian faith). In a letter to his brother Theo, written in July 1876 (Letter 85) (See Note 3) after his arrival in Isleworth, he said that “being a London missionary is rather special, I believe; one has to go around among the workers and the poor spreading God’s word and, if one has some experience, speak to them, track down and seek to help foreigners looking for work, or other people who are in some sort of difficulty, etc. etc. Last week I was in London a couple of times to find out if there’s a possibility of my becoming one.

Rev Thomas Slade-Jones’s school

Because I speak various languages and have tended to associate, especially in Paris and London, with people from the poorer classes and foreigners, and being a foreigner myself, I may well be suited to this, and could become so more and more. To do this, however, one has to be at least 24 years old, and so in any case I still have a year to wait”.

Van Gogh was not successful in his quest and he continued teaching and sketching; it was Rev Slade-Thomas who recognised his calling and encouraged him to serve in his church – a Congregational church that he was pastoring three miles away in Chiswick Road, Turnham Green. This church was planted by Slade-Jones and others in October 1875; it was later called Gunnersbury Congregational Church.  As there was a Congregational church in Isleworth, founded in 1848, it begs the question as to why Van Gogh did not get involved there. The church was literally across the road from Slade-Jones’s school; Slade-Jones must have encouraged him personally in his calling and so Van Gogh’s ministry blossomed elsewhere.

Isleworth Congregational Church

In early October 1876 Slade-Jones told Van Gogh that he could help work in “his parish”. For a short period he then helped out in a number of ways from visiting the sick to being an assistant teacher in the Sunday school; at the same time he contributed to mid-week Bible studies with adults as well as teaching children on Sundays. Jo Van Gogh-Bonger described him “acting as a kind of curate” (See Note 4).

Slade-Jones had the necessary contacts to introduce him to other non-conformist (see Note 5) churches in the vicinity at Richmond and Petersham. Besides his work at Turnham Green he started to attend prayer meetings on Monday evenings at the Methodist Church (see Note 6) in Kew Road, Richmond. This church had been founded a few years earlier in 1871 and it provided the opportunity for him to begin his brief preaching career. Van Gogh was a prodigious letter writer throughout his life, as were those in his close family, especially his brother Theo and his parents.

Site of Richmond Methodist Church

The period of his stay in Isleworth was no exception. The 14 letters written from July to November 1876 to his brother Theo throw light on his activities and thoughts then. The letters are lengthy, exuberant and peppered with numerous scriptural references. Given his mental instability these written outpourings and his frenetic activity during October and November, followed rapidly by a period of depression, are very likely to reflect a bipolar episode (see Note 7).

On 2 October he “said a few words” at a meeting at the Richmond Methodist Church and three weeks later on Sunday 29 October he preached his first sermon there based on Psalm 119 verse 19: “I am a stranger on earth; hide not your commandments from me” (Letter 96). With echoes from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, his sermon sees himself as a pilgrim cut off from his family and his native country: “We are pilgrims, our life is a long walk or journey from earth to heaven”. Towards the end of his sermon he describes one of his favourite paintings by George Broughton called God speed! Despite his strong accent (see Note 8), he then preached again at Petersham Methodist Church on the evening of Sunday 19 November (Letter 99).

Did he have other speaking engagements besides those at these two Methodist churches?

Buried deep in the archives at the Tate Gallery is a handwritten document (see Note 9) deposited there in 1981 by Kenneth Pring (see Note 10), that was discovered by Martin Bailey (see Note 11), the art historian and biographer of Van Gogh. This lengthy document recalls conversations that Pring had as a child between the ages of 10 and 14 with his elderly grandmother, Mrs Ellen Pring. She had joined the Vineyard Congregational Church, aged 21, in 1866 just after her marriage to John Lyddon Pring when they moved to Richmond from Holloway (see Note 12), John Pring was a warehouseman. The couple lived at 34 Cambrian Road, Richmond (see Note 13) and had seven children. John Pring died in January 1895, so Ellen was a widow for 27 years until her own death, aged 78, in 1922.

A church meeting minute in 1919 recorded the church’s “heartiest congratulations” for Ellen’s 54 years of active membership and wished that “she be spared to us in health and strength” (see Note 14). One of her sons, Arthur, another stalwart of the church, who was Church Secretary for many years, replied on her behalf as she was too infirm to be at the meeting. She had therefore joined the church 11 years before Van Gogh came to live in Isleworth.

Grandmother Pring dressed in black widow’s weeds when her grandson knew her. Her grandson recalls her many amusing stories – especially about the church. Apparently there was one minister who was so short he had to stand on a stool in the pulpit and on one occasion lost his footing and disappeared completely from view for a few moments! She also told him about a young man who came to the church to preach on one or two occasions. She described him as being rather impetuous and he sensed she did not warm to his preaching style. Pring’s deposition states: “I cannot recall the exact words that my grandmother used except that she certainly did remark that he had bright red hair”.

Was this Van Gogh?

Van Gogh’s friend, Paulus Gorlitz, with whom he shared a room in Dordrecht after he left England, described him in this way: “His face was ugly, his mouth more or less awry, moreover his face was densely covered with freckles, and he had hair of a reddish hue. As soon as spoke about religion or art he became excited, which was sure to happen very soon. His eyes would sparkle, and his features would make a deep impression on me; it wasn’t his own face any longer – it had become very beautiful” (See Note 15).

Rev George Ingram

Kenneth Pring certainly thought his grandmother was referring to Van Gogh, but only much later during the Second World War when he began reading about the life of Van Gogh who was by then world famous as a post-Impressionist artist. Extensive research of the church archives has been undertaken for the period 1876–77, but sadly there is no record whatsoever of Van Gogh preaching. The Church Meeting minutes are concerned with the rather mundane routine of church life – especially towards the end of 1876 when new trustees had to be appointed to comply with the trust deed. The Deacon’s minutes concern building and maintenance matters. No record of visiting preachers was kept at all during this period.

Van Gogh was extremely busy during these months (See Appendix 1: List of Church Engagements October to November 1876) but it is possible that he spoke at a service or meeting at the Vineyard Congregational Church in December. The minister was Rev. George Ingrams (see Note 16), a Scot who had previously been at the Congregational Church in Twickenham for ten years. Undoubtedly he and Slade-Jones knew each other. They would have discussed developments at each other’s churches, including the young Dutchman who was helping out at Turnham Green.

It is possible that Van Gogh may have spoken at an evening meeting at some stage during October to December at the Vineyard Congregational Church. He wrote of “speaking” at the Richmond Methodist Church at a meeting on Monday 2 October (Letter 92) when he said a “few words” on “Nothing pleaseth me but Jesus Christ and in Him all things please me” (from the words of a Dutch hymn) and also on Monday 9 October (Letter 94) when he spoke using the text “He has sent me to preach the gospel to the poor”.

The Vineyard Congregational Church held a mid-week meeting (see Note 17) also, on Thursday evenings at 7.30pm. This was a “Prayer Meeting and Exposition of Scripture”. Van Gogh may have spoken at one of the Vineyard Thursday meetings which Ellen Pring attended. However, as he attended three meetings on Thursdays at Turnham Green on 2 and 11 November and 4 December (see Note 18) and he was quite explicit in his letters about his activities during October and November, it seems very unlikely that he did.

His last letter (No 99), written in Isleworth, was on 25 November. Four weeks later Van Gogh then travelled home on 20 December with his sister Anna (see Note 19) to Etten in Holland for Christmas with his family. His parents found him depressed and moody and advised him to stay in Holland. His next letter (No 100) was written on 31 December from Etten. It makes no mention of his activities from 20 November to 20 December prior to his departure from England.

This leaves four missing weeks for which there is no record of Van Gogh’s activities.

Given the frequency of his letters it is significant that none have survived for late November or December. Van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated before he went home and he stopped writing.

When his parents saw him at Christmas his health was poor; they were so concerned that they persuaded him not to return to England and a job was found for him by his uncle in a book store in Dordrecht. He never returned to England after this (see Note 20).

Kenneth Pring ended his deposition: “I have no doubt that Van Gogh did preach at the Vineyard Congregational Church in 1876. Without any proof, this obviously cannot be accepted as fact but, even so, I felt it would be worthwhile to make a record of my search.

Despite no Church record being found nor any reference being made in his surviving letters, it is still possible that Van Gogh visited the Vineyard on one of the four “missing” Sundays during December to preach; or he may have attended a Thursday prayer meeting.  Either way, his escalating depression could account for Ellen Pring remembering that the red-haired preacher was rather impetuous and she did not warm to his preaching style. However, she made no mention of his accent.

During what is likely to have been a bipolar episode towards the end of 1876, Van Gogh had the encouragement and opportunity to explore the outworking of his Christian faith. As Jo van Gogh-Bonger later said (see Note 21):he never did anything by halves”. His faith was expressed through preaching, teaching in Sunday school and the informal exposition of scripture at churches in Richmond, Petersham and Turnham Green. And maybe at the Vineyard Congregational Church too.

It is an intriguing possibility.

Appendix 1: List of Church Engagements from October to November 1876 recorded in his letters and elsewhere.

[The letter numbering is as designated by the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam]

Date Day Location Activity Letter No Notes
2 Oct Monday

evening

Richmond Methodist Church Walked to Richmond Methodist Church in the evening. Yesterday said a few words on “Nothing pleaseth me but Jesus Christ and in Him all things please me” (from a Dutch hymn). No 92

Written Tuesday 3 October

The words of the hymn were: “Oh may all my livelong days, What pleaseth Him please me always”.
2 Oct Monday

evening

Turnham Green Congregational Church Walked in place of Slade-Jones (after visiting  Richmond Methodist Church) No 92

Written Tuesday 3 October

Walked over with the eldest boy, 17 years old
8 Oct Sunday Isleworth Slade-Jones said VG “can work in his parish” No 93

Written 1-8 October

9 Oct Monday Richmond

evening

Spoke on “He has sent me to preach the gospel to the poor”.

(Luke 4:18)

No 94

Written 13 October

Probably the Richmond Methodist Church
16 Oct Monday Turnham Green Congregational Church Helped set up a “Tea Meeting” for the first anniversary of the church. No 95

Written Monday 23–Wednesday 25 October

250 attended. Afterwards Slade-Jones and several other preachers spoke until late in the evening.
22 Oct Sunday Turnham Green Congregational Church Helped Rev Jones prepare for a lecture using a magic lantern given by a vicar from Leicester for the Monday evening No 95

Written Monday 23–Wednesday 25 October

It is not clear whether VG was at the lecture on the Monday evening.
29 Oct Sunday

morning

Richmond Methodist Church Preached for the first time on “I am a stranger in the earth , hide not thy commandments from me” (Psalm 119:19). No 96

Written Friday 3 November

The sermon is copied out in the letter: “May it be the first of many”.
2 Nov Thursday Turnham Green Congregational Church VG said he hoped to speak….on John and Theagenes (see Note 22). (This was a story about St John and a convert which was well known in Holland.) No 96

Written Friday 3 November

VG said in Letter No 97 that he walked to the church with the oldest boy in the school.
9 Nov Thursday

evening

Turnham Green Congregational Church Slade-Jones “let me take my  turn” and he took as his text: “I would to God that not only thou but all that hear me this day, were both almost and altogether such as I am, except these bonds” (Acts 26:29). No 98

Written Friday 17 and Saturday 18 November

12 Nov Sunday

morning, afternoon and

evening

Turnham Green Congregational Church Taught at Sunday school. In the afternoon went with Slade-Jones and his 10 year old son to have tea with the sexton. Slade-Jones gave a sermon in the evening. No 98

Written Friday 17–Saturday 18 November

VG said he has to teach during the week too: “Mornings and evenings Sunday school at Turnham Green”.
19 Nov Sunday morning Turnham Green

Congregational Church

VG said that “it was so beautiful …the chestnut trees and clear blue sky and the morning sun was reflected in the water of the Thames….”. No 99

Written Saturday 25 November

“Mr Van Gof” was accepted as a co-worker by the Sunday School teachers in the morning (See Note 23).
19 Nov Sunday

evening

Petersham Methodist Church Walked there from Turnham Green via Richmond. VG read Acts 5: 14–16, Acts 12: 5–17 and Acts 20: 7–38 …and then told the story of John and Theagenes. No 99

Written Saturday 25 November

VG said there was a harmonium in the church played by a young woman from a boarding school that was attending en masse.
4 Dec Monday evening Turnham Green Congregational Church Teachers meeting: “Proposed by Mr Sims and seconded Mr Vincent that we hold a children’s service every Thursday evening, that the time for commencing be ¼ past 6 to close at ¼ past 7 and that the secretary prepare a plan and also get gentlemen to come and address the children.”

A second motion was proposed and accepted that “it be optional with teachers whether they visit their own scholars or Mr Vincent visit them”. Finally it was agreed that “Mr Vincent be supplied with all the names and addresses of the scholars in the school and that he go round to each class for particulars of those who require visiting”.

Minutes of Turnham Green Congregational Church Teachers (see Note 24) After VG wrote to Revd Slade-Jones on his return to Holland in mid-January 1877 that he would not return at a Teachers’ Meeting on 5 February 1877, it was decided to write to him to ask for his resignation.

Appendix 2: Van Gogh’s expressions of his Christian faith

 [For a detailed exploration of his faith see “Van Gogh’s Untold Journey” (2010) by Dr William J. Havlicek; of his mental health see “The Illness of Vincent Van Gogh” by Dr Dietrich Blumer in the American Journal of Psychiatry (2012)]

Claude Monet asked the question “how could a man who loved flowers and light so much and has rended them so well, how could he manage to be so unhappy”?(See Note 25)

The impact of mental illness on Van Gogh’s life is well known. Today, the term multiple and complex needs would be used to describe his condition. His illness ranged from periods of depression, hyper activity, anguish, despair, and self-mutilation. Admissions to asylums finally ended in his death by suicide (see Note 26). However, the impact of his faith is less well known. Some biographers have portrayed his beliefs as “religious hysteria”, or a “religious” period in his life which he later rejected. One of several false starts, like being an art dealer or a bookseller until he found his real vocation as an artist in the latter years of his life.

This cannot be further from the truth. His faith was the source and inspiration of his  creativity. Bouts of mental disorder, with increasing severity, buffeted him. Both shaped the artistic genius that was Van Gogh.

His mental health has long been the subject of research and conjecture. His personality was eccentric, and today he might be described as having a personality disorder. He had unstable moods, he experienced psychotic episodes in the last two years of his life and he mutilated himself. Modern medical opinion has identified temporary lobe epilepsy as perhaps his primary condition, but episodes of depression followed by sustained periods of high energy, enthusiasm and exuberance point to bipolar (see Note 27). But whatever the diagnosis, his mental instability was aggravated by the effects of drinking absinthe and venereal disease.

During his stay in Isleworth, it is likely that he experienced perhaps the first of his manic episodes. This would account for his feverish church activity as well as his voluminous letter writing in which the intensity of his thoughts and emotions were outpoured.

Faith expressed through preaching and teaching

His faith had been forged early in his life. The Christian faith of Van Gogh’s parents as well as others in his family is well documented. This grounding led Van Gogh as a young adult in committing his life to Christ. When he left home his mother prayed a prayer of Jesus that he would not be “taken out of the world but that he be protected from the evil one” (see Note 28). His deep concern for the marginalised in society was influenced by his pastor father, Theodorus. His theological basis of faith sought to emulate Jesus’ love, humility and service to the poor (see Note 29). Van Gogh’s early letters to Theo from England are full of his spiritual thoughts and an increasing sense that he was being called to serve God in some form of full time ministry. Training to become ordained as a Minister, like his father and grandfather, was the obvious route within an established denomination.

He wrote to the Revd Edmund Henry Fisher, the vicar of St Mark’s in Kennington, south London, when he was staying with his eldest sister Anna in Welwyn in June 1876. He used to attend St Mark’s often when he was living nearby in Brixton. This letter provides a helpful insight into his thoughts. It was quoted in full in Van Gogh’s letter (Letter 84) to his brother:

Rev. Sir.

A clergyman’s son, who, because he must work to earn a living, has no money and no time to study at King’s College, and who, besides that, is already a couple of years older than is usual for someone starting there, and has not even begun on the preparatory studies of Latin and Greek, would, in spite of everything, dearly like to find a situation connected with the church, even though the position of a clergyman who has had college training is beyond his reach. My father is a clergyman in a village in Holland. When I was 11 years old I started going to school and stayed there until I was 16. At that time I had to choose a profession and didn’t know what to choose. Through the offices of one of my uncles, an associate in the firm of Goupil & Co., art dealers and publishers of engravings, I was given a position in his branch at The Hague. I worked for the firm for 3 years. From there I went to London to learn English, and after 2 years from there to Paris. Forced by various circumstances to quit the firm, however, I left Messrs G. &Co. and have since taught for 2 months at Mr Stokes’s school at Ramsgate. As my goal is a situation connected with the church, however, I must look further. 

Although I have not been trained for the church, perhaps my past life of travelling, living in various countries, associating with a variety of people, rich and poor, religious and not religious, working at a variety of jobs, days of manual labour in between days of office work &c., perhaps also my speaking various languages, will compensate in part for my lack of formal training. But what I should prefer to give as my reason for commending myself to you is my innate love of the church and that which concerns the church, which has at times lain dormant, though it awakened repeatedly, and – if I may say so, despite feelings of great inadequacy and shortcoming – the Love of God and of humankind. And also, when I think of my past life and of my father’s house in that Dutch village, a feeling of ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son, make me as one of thy hired servants. Be merciful to me.’ When I was living in London I often attended your church and I have not forgotten you. Now I am asking you for a recommendation in my search for a situation, and to keep a fatherly eye on me should I find such a situation. I have been left very much to myself; I believe that your fatherly eye could do me good, now that the early dew of morning has passed away at noon.

Thanking you in advance for whatever you may be willing to do for me…”

Besides the Bible, and many varied devotional books (see Note 30), Van Gogh was strongly influenced by a number of English writers such as  John Bunyan, George Eliot and Charles Dickens. The recurrent themes in Dickens’ novels of social injustice and concern for those in poverty resonated with Van Gogh; he was also deeply impressed by the humanity, faith and love of Monseigner Bienvenu, the priest, in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  The theme of redemption in this book gripped Van Gogh. And in his sketches and paintings these themes became expressed with greater confidence and clarity.

In this letter of 3 November 1876 [Letter 96] to Theo he said that when he stood in the pulpit he felt like someone emerging from “a dark underground vault into the friendly daylight and its wonderful thought that from now on wherever I go I’ll be preaching the gospel – to do that well one must have the gospel in his heart, may He bring this about”.  He clearly felt this was his calling.

During his six-month stay in Isleworth, Van Gogh opened his heart to his brother. He dashed off one letter after another. During October and November there was an avalanche of 12 letters in total. He expressed the intensity of his thoughts as he sought to explore his vocation. His letters contain numerous religious references, scriptural quotations, verses of well-known Dutch hymns, references to paintings with a religious theme as well as poems. In his 4,000-word letter (Letter 96) after his first sermon he gave 73 biblical references, seven references to words from hymns and five references to devotional books. He also copied out portions of the Psalms and other biblical passages. While this showed the depth of his knowledge of scripture it also revealed the breadth of his reading.

His emotions cascaded from the pages of his letters; thoughts tumbled out. His style sometimes rambled. New ideas were suddenly flung out, quotations scattered at random. Then the pace quickened; then it slowed. In short, his writing is characteristic of a bipolar episode.

It is possible that during the “missing four weeks” in early December his hyperactivity plummeted into a depression. This may well account for his lack of correspondence as well as his family’s concern on his return home in Etten over Christmas. His parents found him moody, depressed, often in despair and seemingly obsessed by religion. His father complained to Theo that “if only he would learn to become simple as a child, not so overdone and overexcited, bandying around biblical quotes. We worry more and more and I fear that he may become unequipped for practical life”.

Faith expressed through evangelism and service to others

Given his heart for the marginalised, it is interesting to speculate what might have happened in England if he had met up with those like William Booth, and his Christian Mission in London’s East End, who shared his same concern. Van Gogh spoke of visiting Whitechapel in the East End, which was a notoriously poverty stricken area. [Letter No 99]. Renamed The Salvation Army two years after Van Gogh left England, the Mission was one of numerous religious groups trying to help the poor and needy in London’s East End. Booth married his wife in a Congregational church and was involved early in his ministry with the Methodists but was barred from campaigning in their congregations; in the early 1860s he became an independent evangelist. Booth’s combination of evangelism and practical help to the most needy including alcoholics, criminals and prostitutes would have fulfilled Van Gogh’s calling.

But it was not to be.

Van Gogh never returned to England, being persuaded by his parents that this was not in his best interests. His uncle obtained a job for him in a book store, 15 miles away in Dordrecht, but he found it unfulfilling. In May he moved to Amsterdam to study Latin and Greek to enable him to enrol at university. But he was not suited to academic study, abandoned this course and moved in July 1878 to Brussels to enrol in a theological college.

Van Gogh still strove to fulfill his calling. He wrote in March 1877 (Letter 108) that “it is my prayer and deepest desire that the spirit of my Father and Grandfather may rest upon me, and that it may be given me to be a Christian and a Christian labourer that my life may resemble that of them whom I name – the more, the better”.

But by November 1878 he had abandoned this course too and had returned to his parents in Etten. He was then accepted as a Home Missionary in Belgium, working in the mining community in the Borinage – an acutely poverty-stricken area. Through personal acts of compassion he selflessly lived out the gospel by helping those in desperate need. He sold what possessions he had, gave the proceeds to the poor and lived in a squalid hovel, identifying with the exploited, downtrodden and dispossessed to show Christian love. If humility and dependence of God are pre-eminent characteristics of being a follower of Jesus then Van Gogh quietly displayed these.

The “Evangelical Council” that had appointed him felt that his “exces de zele” was completely unsuitable and inappropriate. His probationary period had ended and the Council withdrew its support and appointed another more conventional man in his place. Perhaps he had experienced another manic episode in the Borinage; it appears that he suffered a mental breakdown soon after he left. He was angered at the genteel respectability required by the church. Rejected yet again by the organised church, thankfully Van Gogh emerged with a new, developing sense of purpose in his life. Encouraged by Revd Pieterson, a pastor who was also an amateur painter in his spare time, Van Gogh began to express more fully his ideas through painting, rather than preaching. Over time, living in The Hague, and later in Paris, he drifted away from institutional Christianity.

His father died unexpectedly in March 1885. Less than a year later, in February 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris to develop his art. Guilt about his father’s death weighed heavily on his mind as he had been told that his behaviour had been largely responsible. He began to drink heavily with those with whom he now mixed. Absinthe was popular with the bohemian company that he kept.  The drink is particularly dangerous for those with any sort of mental disorder. Like “skunk” cannabis today, absinthe can induce psychotic seizures. Blackouts, mood swings, and an increasingly strange behaviour became commonplace in his life. Conventional expressions of faith through prayer, church fellowship and Bible reading fell away. He went with prostitutes. Where was Van Gogh’s faith now? His letters now contained few, if any references to the faith he had espoused so earnestly a few years before (see Note 31)

He had written earlier that: “we too have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death and what lies beyond is a great mystery which only God comprehends, but He has revealed absolutely through His Word that there is a resurrection of the dead” . He certainly passed through that valley but thankfully, he realised that he needed to get away from the influences that were destroying him. He left Paris to live in the country at Arles in Provence; there he continued his painting.

Faith expressed through painting

A composer expresses himself through music; an architect though a design; a writer through words; a painter through pictures. The message is the medium. Van Gogh found that his gift was not in preaching but in painting. Consciously or sub consciously, he realised his artistic creativity was from God (see Note 32). It was through this that he expressed himself in the midst of his worsening bipolar episodes. Jesus once said that all that was needed was faith as small as a mustard seed; faith that could move a mountain. The sort of faith that could transform the world with a picture.

In Letter 801 he wrote to Theo while in hospital in September 1889 that …”even during the suffering religious thoughts sometimes bring me great consolation.”

But a month or so later in November 1889 he wrote: “of course with me there is no question of doing anything from the Bible …”(Letter  823) (see Note 33)

Yet, in Provence some of his finest paintings were created. In the tranquility of the cornfields Van Gogh recognised the hand of the Creator. An interesting number of his paintings of this period depict biblical stories such as the Good Samaritan, The Rising of Lazarus and the “Pieta” of Jesus and Mary. All were painted in the year of his death and his sacred view of life continued to the end.

The flame of faith burned, but it burned low.

Writing in November 1878 (Letter 148) to Theo after he had left England, Van Gogh had said “….you know the roots or foundations , not only of the Gospel, but of the whole Bible is ‘Light that rises in the darkness, from darkest to light’. Well, who needs this most, who will be receptive to it?”

He was speaking of the miners in the Borinage, but he could well have been speaking of all who were later to view his paintings of Provence depicting the vividness of the countryside bathed in glorious sunlight. Arguably his most famous piece was Starry Night – a work about divine light. As William Havlicek has said: “as a work of sacred art, the Starry Night is the embodiment of light saturated moral beauty transformed into radiant glory” (see Note 34). A sermon in a painting.

During the course of his first sermon in Richmond, Van Gogh quoted the words of a hymn which meant much to him:

I know in Whom my faith is founded,

Though day and night change constantly,

I know the rock on which I’m grounded,

My Saviour waits, unfailingly.

When once life’s evening overcomes me,

Worn down by ills and strife always,

For every day Thou hast allowed me,

I’ll bring Thee higher, purer praise.

The purer praise that Van Gogh brought towards the end of his life was expressed not in song, nor in preaching but in painting.

His faith can perhaps be illustrated as the plank of a seesaw in a children’s playground. At one end of the plank his faith was expressed conventionally through church life and service; at the other end his faith was expressed creatively. In his early adulthood the seesaw tilted heavenward as he sought to express his faith through traditional ways. But the conventional church rejected him; in the last few years of his life the seesaw tilted at the other end as his faith was expressed creatively through his art. After his father’s funeral he quoted Victor Hugo: “Les religions passent, Dieu demeure” (Religions pass away, God remains). For Van Gogh, God always remained.

He remarked in one of his letters from Isleworth to Theo “how terrible life must be, especially later on – when the evil of each day increases as far as the things of the world are concerned – if it isn’t supported and comforted by faith. And in Christ all things of the world can improve and become sanctified, as it were. These are beautiful words, and happy are those who come across them. Nothing pleaseth me but in Christ, and in Him all things please me”. (Letter 97). This sentiment remained through the latter years.

Mark Roskill (see Note 35) has said “He was not averse to provisional experiment, but in the long run he always fell back on to the fundamentals; the content of the Bible, for example, was as much of a fundamental to him at the end of his life as it was in his youth, even though specific reference to it came to play a much smaller part in his letters than it had in the years when religion offered him a practical goal…..”

One of Van Gogh’s favourite sayings was taken from the apostle Paul which he quoted in his first sermon in Richmond and then in later letters. It was that he was “sorrowful, but always rejoicing” see Note 36).

A man blighted in love, troubled in spirit, weighed down by mental suffering, tormented into self mutilation, and rejected by the conventional church. But his flame of faith always burned, however low, towards the end of his short life.

This was Van Gogh: a man of sorrows.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Martin Bailey, art historian and author of Young Vincent, for inspiring him to originally research this article, and his general guidance as well as the helpfulness of his other publications about Van Gogh.

Grateful thanks also to Dr William J Havlicek, art lecturer at the Laguna College of Art and Design, California and author of Van Gogh’s Untold Journey for his encouragement and challenge in carrying out further research, and his critique of the draft article.

Thanks to his friend Fred Houwen for encouraging further research since the original article was written. Also for reading Hoe ik van Londen Houd – wandelen door het Londen van Van Gogh and summarising the content in English for another insight into Van Gogh’s stay in London.

Theo’s experience of bipolar disorder has given the author a deep personal insight into this debilitating illness. The author is extremely grateful for Theo’s openness in talking about his episodes of ecstatic euphoria and bleak depression caused by bipolar.

Finally, thanks to his friend Roger Smith for proof reading.

Sources

Pring K  L  “In Search of Van Gogh”. Handwritten paper. (1981) The Tate Gallery Archive Reference TGA 8135/37

The Vineyard Church Minute Book 1857–1898.

The Vineyard Church Minute Book 1914–1924.

The Vineyard Church Deacon’s Minute Book 1868–1902.

Bibliography

Bailey, Martin. Young Vincent – the story of Van Gogh’s Years in England. (1990) Allison & Busby

Bailey, Martin. Van Gogh – a portrait of the artist as a young man in England (1992) Barbican Art Gallery

Bailey, Martin. Van Gogh and Sir Richard Wallace’s Pictures (1998) Wallace Collection

Bailey, Martin. Studio of the South (2016) Frances Lincoln

Blumer, Dietrich. “The Illness of Vincent Van Gogh”. (April 2002) The American Journal of Psychiatry 159:519–526

Clegg, G. “Van Gogh in Chiswick”, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal (2001)

Groenhart, Christine & Verlinden, Willem Jan. Hoe – ik van Londen Houd – wandelen door het Londen van Van Gogh van Gogh (2013) Athenaeum

Havlicek, William. Van Gogh’s Untold Journey (2010) Creative Storytellers

Pasmore, Stephen. Vincent Van Gogh in Richmond and Petersham (1981) Richmond History No 1, Journal of the Richmond Local History Society

Naifeh, Steven & White Smith, Gregory. Van Gogh The Life http://vangoghbiography.com/mission

Roskill, Mark. The Letters of Van Gogh (1991)

Silverman, Debora. Pilgrim’s Progress and Van Gogh’s métier. England (1992) Barbican Art Gallery

Van Gogh-Bonger, Jo. A Memoir of Van Gogh (2015) Pallas Athene

Van Gogh Museum: Vincent Van Gogh – The Letters numbers 085 (3/4 July 1876) to 99 (25 November 1876) http://vangoghletters.org.

Note on author

Peter Flower has a B.A. Hons in modern history from London University and is an Associate of King’s College London.

1 Jo Van Gogh-Bonger (1913)  A Memoir of Vincent Van Gogh

2 Revd Slade-Jones (1829–1883) married Annie Slade in April 1864 and incorporated his wife’s surname into his own. They had five daughters and one son. Van Gogh taught some of the children.

3 All Van Gogh’s letters have been catalogued (Edition 2007) by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and numbered. Those relevant to Van Gogh’s stay in Isleworth are Numbers 85 to 99. Earlier catalogues have different numbers.

4 Ibid A Memoir of Vincent Van Gogh

5 Nonconformist was the name given to Christians who were not part of the established Church of England. Under the Toleration Act of 1688 they had freedom of worship, but were discriminated against under other legislation, chiefly the Test Act 1673 and Corporation Act 1661 which effectively barred them from serving in any civil or military office. These acts were eventually repealed in 1828 after considerable pressure had been brought on the Government of the day. The Catholic Emancipation Act followed a year later. The remaining areas of discrimination (for instance, the bar to Non-Conformists going to Oxford and Cambridge) were gradually removed during the next thirty years.

6 The church stood on the corner of Kew Road and Evelyn Road, Richmond; it was sold and pulled down some years ago to build a block of flats.

7 The number of letters that he wrote and their style point to a bipolar episode which can be characterised by intensive energy, restlessness and impulsiveness.

8 He was conscious that he had a strong accent and that his spoken English was (in his words) “poor”. Letter 99.

9 The Tate Gallery Archive Reference TGA 8135/37.

10 Kenneth Lyddon Pring was 73 when he placed this document in the Tate archives before dying four years later. He had been a pilot in the Second World War with the RAF Volunteer Reserves (109 Squadron) and was awarded the DFC and bar. [Information supplied to the author by Evelyn Dick. a relative of Lyddon Pring].

11 Martin Bailey is the author of Young Vincent, published by Allison & Busby in 1990.

12 While they started coming to services in 1866, they both became full members of the church in May 1867.

13 The original Victorian house has been replaced with a modern building.

14 Vineyard Church Minute Book 1914–1924

15 Vincent Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Unpublished letter Ref A7

16 Revd George Ingram was Minister of the Vineyard Congregational Church from 1864 to 1888.

17The earliest Annual Report of the Vineyard Congregational Church printed for church members that has survived is from 1878, two years after Van Gogh was in Richmond. Amongst the details of the church activities it states that “A Prayer Meeting and Exposition of Scripture, in the Lecture Room, at Half-past Seven o’clock” was held on Thursday evenings.

18 The meeting of 4 December was recorded in the Teachers’ Minute Book of Turnham Green Congregational Church.

19 Anna Van Gogh had worked in Welwyn for two and a half years as a teacher at the time.

20 On 5 February 1877 at the Church Teachers’ Meeting at Turnham Green Congregational Church it was agreed that a letter should be written to Van Gogh to ask for his resignation as he had left the country. No record exists as to whether he replied or not.

21 Ibid: A Memoir of Vincent Van Gogh

22 The story of John and Theagenes is an early Christian legend about the apostle John asking the bishop of Ephesus to keep an eye on young Theagenes; he fails to do this and Theagenes becomes the leader of a street gang. John later persuades him to repent and Theagenes turns his life over to God. The story was well known in Holland at this time.

23 Minutes of the Turnham Green Teachers’ Meeting 19 November 1876

24 Minutes held at the Corporation of London, Greater London Record Office (Ref N/C 35/6)

25 Leon Daudet, Escrivains et artistes, Capitole, Paris vol i, p. 154

26 This conclusion has now been questioned by two researchers,  Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith who have suggested in their biography Van Gogh, The Life (2011) that Van Gogh was shot, possibly accidently, by one of two schoolboys: Gaston or Rene Secretan. If Van Gogh took the blame for the accidental shooting to protect the boys then this is consistent with his character which was to selflessly look to the needs of others. An act of deep compassion at the very end of his life.

27 An article in the American Journal of Psychiatry published in April 2002 by Dr Dietrich Blumer on “The Illness of Vincent Van Gogh” provides an excellent outline of research carried out into his mental health.  Dr Blumer is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine.

28 John 17:15

29 Theodorus Van Gogh was trained as a divinity student in the Groningen School of Theology which emerged in the 1820s in Holland within Dutch Reformed Church. Also known as “The Evangelicals”, this school of thought rediscovered the approach of Thomas a Kempis in his “Imitation of Christ” of the selflessness of Jesus as a model for his disciples through the ages.

30 Such as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis (see above reference) and The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.

31 Yet in Letter 632 to his friend Emile Bernard, written in June 1888, he speaks extensively and positively about the Bible and Christ.

32 See Exodus 31 vs. 1–3 in the description given to Bezalel who filled with the Spirit of God had skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of craft.

33 Gauguin had sent Van Gogh a sketch of his painting Christ in the Garden of Olives.

34 William Havlicek: Van Gogh’s Untold Journey

35 Mark Roskill: The Letters of Van Gogh

36 2 Corinthians Chapter 6:10