The Van Gogh That Breaks My Heart

Vincent van Gogh aspired to become a Calvinist pastor, like his dad.

He pursued ministry in the Dutch Reformed Church until he hit a roadblock by failing his academic training, and then experienced what personal failure often breeds: disillusionment. He became disenchanted with pastoral ministry and then left the church for good in 1880 at the age of 27. From that point on van Gogh redirected all his ambitions to art.

Of all van Gogh’s famous works, I’m most struck by a painting he feverishly finished in one day: “Still Life with Bible” (1885). The symbolic painting features two books. The large book in the background is the Bible of van Gogh’s pastor-father. The Bible is opened to Isaiah 53. The yellow book in the foreground is a French novel by naturalist Émile Zola. The book is titled La Joie de Vivre, or in English, The Joy of Life (1884).

So why did van Gogh put these two books together?

Getting into his mind is no easy task, but here are a few possibilities.

Possibility 1: It plays on colors.

There’s an aesthetic point to the painting. Contrary to popular opinion, van Gogh was convinced that beautiful art could also be dark art, and this painting was an attempt to prove the point. In letters to his brother, van Gogh clearly explains his artistic use of black, in stark contrast to the bright yellow novel. But surely there’s more to this painting than a play on contrasting colors.

Possibility 2: It memorializes his father.

Vincent’s father Theodorus van Gogh (1822–85) died just a few months before the painting was made. The snuffed-out candle is a clear symbol of his departed father. The Bible is his father’s, and likely represents everything about his father’s life and work. The painting’s memorial value is unmistakable, but the presence of the yellow novel in the foreground suggests a more pointed symbolic value.

Possibility 3: It renders contemporary literature equally beneficial to Scripture.

History tells us van Gogh labored to prove the value of literature to his parents, but they would have none of it. Vincent saw biblical themes in contemporary novels, and sought to point out the themes to show his parents the value of contemporary literature. But his parents apparently saw literature as unnecessary to the Christian life and potentially dangerous to the soul.

In Zola’s novel, and in Isaiah 53, van Gogh saw parallels.

In a 1901 preface to the English edition of Zola’s novel, journalist and author Ernst Vizetelly explains the story. “The title selected by him for this book is to be taken in an ironical and sarcastic sense. There is no joy at all in the lives of the characters whom he portrays in it. The story of the ‘hero’ is one of mental weakness, by a constantly reoccurring fear of death; whilst that of his father is one of intense physical suffering, blended with an eager desire to continue living, even at the cost of yet greater torture. Again, the story of the heroine is one of blighted [shattered] affections, the wrecking of all which might have made her life worth living.” He continues, “Zola is not usually a pessimist. One finds many of his darkest pictures relieved by a touch of hopefulness; but there is extremely little in the pages of La Joie de Vivre which is essentially an analysis of human suffering and misery. . . . When all is considered, judging by what one sees around one every day, one is forced to the conclusion that this diseased world of ours makes extremely little progress towards real sanity and health” [The Joy of Life (London: Chatto & Windus), v–viii].

The painting may very well be van Gogh’s comparison between his interpretation of Zola’s dark novel and his understanding of the sorrows of Christ. The Bible offers you “a Man of Sorrows,” bruised and crushed by the world (Isaiah 53:3). The French novel offers a woman of sorrows, Pauline Quenu, and her shattered heart and life of disappointments. Different books. Same story. Same ending.

Possibility 4: It renders contemporary literature superior to Scripture.

I think this option helps explain the heart of van Gogh’s painting. In his mind, literature not only makes similar points, but it makes those points in a more relevant manner. Van Gogh paints the contrasts for us. The biblical text is illegible. The novel’s title is legible. The Bible sits silently in the dark shadows, a relic of his father’s generation, an extinguished age. The new novel is bright, alive, and relevant. The Bible is calm, clean, and seems abandoned. The novel is dirty and misshapen from use.

The hopeless, dark, suicide-strewn novel of Zola is a mocking gesture to joy. And yet his novel is superior and more relevant because it is more real to life, wrote van Gogh to his sister in 1887. “If one wants truth, life as it is, . . . Zola in La Joie de Vivre . . . and so many other masterpieces paint life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell us the truth.”

In a letter the following year, van Gogh said he believed the Bible to be too narrow-minded, too depressing. “But the consolation of this so saddening Bible, which stirs up our despair and our indignation — thoroughly upsets us, completely outraged by its pettiness and its contagious folly — the consolation it contains, like a kernel inside a hard husk, a bitter pulp — is Christ.”

La joie de vivre is a cynical banner taunting hopelessness. Life is sorrow. The Bible — just like Zola’s novel — has nothing to offer the sorrowful but more sorrows. Take and drink the bitter pulp of a man of sorrows.

Pleasures Forever

Van Gogh is right. We cannot live on lies. We must know the truth. And here’s one truth we must live by: In Christ, God has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us to live forever in a world of misery, cancer, war in the Middle East, and raging Ebola outbreaks. There’s a greater plan for us, as we are reminded over and over again in the TULIP of reformed theology.

John Piper explains:

We need to rethink our Reformed doctrine of salvation so that every limb and every branch in the tree is coursing with the sap of delight. We need to make plain that [T] total depravity is not just badness, but blindness to beauty and deadness to joy; and [U] unconditional election means that the completeness of our joy in Jesus was planned for us before we ever existed; and that [L] limited atonement is the assurance that indestructible joy in God is infallibly secured for us by the blood of the covenant; and [I] irresistible grace is the commitment and power of God’s love to make sure we don’t hold on to suicidal pleasures, and to set us free by the sovereign power of superior delights; and that the [P] perseverance of the saints is the almighty work of God to keep us, through all affliction and suffering, for an inheritance of pleasures at God’s right hand forever.

True Calvinism is not superficially bound by the circumstances of this fallen planet. Reformed theology goes deep into our hearts, our passions, and our pursuits of pleasure. It digs down to our ultimate desires and drives. Calvinism uncovers the depravities at work in our hearts and exposes the great delights and pleasures at work in God’s heart. It gives us eternal hope.

What we find in Scripture is a God who does not trade your sorrows for more sorrows in the hands of a Man of Sorrows. No, we find a Man of Sorrows who suffered in order to remove your eternal sorrows and to give you eternal pleasures beyond your imagination.

Each letter in TULIP represents a chapter in an unfolding cosmic story of God’s pursuit of his children and their eternal joy.

Truly Alive

God rejoices in his redemptive labors for our joy. The Man of Sorrows drank the cup of God’s wrath for us so that we can now taste “La joie de vivre” — the true joy of aliveness in the midst of a world filled with death, disappointment, and ever-present sorrows. Our joy is one of the deepest and profound purposes of Christ’s work. In Christ we are brought to life (Ephesians 2:5). By beholding the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ, we are renewed and restored — we are made fully alive (2 Corinthians 3:18–4:18).

This is why van Gogh’s painting breaks my heart. Whether or not he lost his faith altogether, I don’t know. Some say he remained a believer and that his faith emerges in his paintings. Perhaps that’s true.

But at least in this painting, I’m led to believe he put the solid joys of redemption in the background to make room for the joy-mocking of Zola. Perhaps in his pursuit of realism, van Gogh could only see the sufferings of life. Perhaps he was blind to the transcendent joys of God. I hope I’m wrong, but if not, this was a breakdown of his reformed heritage. Retelling this story of joy is the grand task of Calvinism.