The Starry Night (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh. Original from Wikimedia Commons. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
The Complicated Faith of Vincent van Gogh

Engage Art | Artist to Artist, Faith | May 23, 2022

When it comes to famous painters, Vincent van Gogh ranks somewhere at the top of the list. Most of us are familiar with The Starry Night, at least, and many remember his love for sunflowers and his tragic lifelong struggle with mental illness. Vincent van Gogh also had a profound, complex relationship with Christianity that influenced his artwork and endured in various forms throughout his life.

In this two-part series, we will first look at Vincent’s biography, his faith, and his development as an artist. In the second installment, we will take a closer look at some of Vincent’s masterpieces through the lens of Scripture and the artists who inspired him.

Vincent van Gogh’s Upbringing


Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 to a deeply religious family living in a small town in the Netherlands. Vincent’s father was a Dutch Reformed (Calvinist) minister, as was his grandfather. The van Gogh family was also deeply entrenched in the art world—two of Vincent’s uncles were art dealers and so was his brother Theo.

Vincent left school at 15 and apprenticed at an art gallery, where he worked for 7 years until he grew tired of selling art he no longer found appealing. Next, he took on a couple of teaching stints, which he enjoyed, according to his letters home. It was while he was teaching that he became more interested in religion and found himself drawn to the other family business—the clergy. 

Exploring Ministry

Still a young adult, Vincent explored the possibility of following in his father’s footsteps. He took a role as a Methodist minister’s assistant, tried his hand at Bible translation, spent long hours studying Scripture, and went to any church service available to him. In 1877, he began to prepare for the entrance exam to study theology at the University of Amsterdam. He abandoned that goal after 15 months of prep—”the worst time in my life,” he called it—when it became clear to him that he would not be able to master the Greek, Latin, and mathematics required for admission.

Vincent then tried to get into a mission school in Laeken, where he attended on a trial basis for 3 months before they dismissed him as unqualified. Still looking for an entryway into ministry, he spent several months as a missionary in an impoverished coal mining community in southern Belgium. He gave up his appointed lodgings—as well as food and clothing—to live in the same austere conditions as the community he served, earning him reprimands. Ultimately, he was expelled from that position. 

Rediscovering Art

Vincent continued to live with the miners for another year before he began to sketch them, chronicling their difficult lives and rekindling his love of drawing. In 1880, he left for Brussels, where he took drawing classes funded by his brother Theo, although biographers differ on whether his application to the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts was accepted.

Prominent themes that run through Vincent’s early life are religion, art, passion, failure, perseverance, and valuing practical experience over education. By the time he embarked on what would pass as his career, he had already rejected a life as an art dealer, a teacher, and a preacher, and he was wholly committed to his art practice. 

An Emerging Artist

"Self Portrait as a Painter" (1888), Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum

Over the next few years, Vincent focused on his art. He was introduced to color with a set of watercolor paints and, later, oils. He was involved in several tumultuous romantic relationships, mostly unrequited from one side or the other, and he retreated into isolation and itinerant living when they ended. His relationship with Christianity evolved, too. He began to distance himself from organized religion. In 1881, during a stay at his family home, he refused to attend church services, leading to a fight with his father. He was with his parents once again when his father died suddenly in 1885. 

His First Masterpiece—"The Potato Eaters"

At the time, Vincent was deep into painting studies for his first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, sketching peasants and landscapes as a way to refine his skills. He would work through several “drafts” before The Potato Eaters was ready for display, and during that time he was also working on many still life paintings. 

Here in his first masterpiece, Vincent’s unique perspective already emerges—his affinity for peasants and, without romanticizing their poverty, his aptitude to see the sacred in the everyday scenes around him. There’s something sacramental about The Potato Eaters—the family gathered round the table, under the glow of the lamp, sharing a meal (Eucharist?) of potatoes and coffee. 

Vincent’s tendency to portray the sacred in everyday life may point back to his Dutch Reformed roots. Religious iconography and ornate cathedrals had no place in this heavily Protestant culture; rather, Dutch artists were drawn to portraying history, nature, and lifestyle scenes instead. 

"Still Life with Bible"

"Still Life with Bible" (1885), Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy of wikiart

Perhaps in response to his father’s death, Vincent painted Still Life with Bible. Vincent was responsible for transporting their father’s Bible to Theo. While it was in his possession, Vincent painted his father’s large Bible juxtaposed with his own copy of the French novel La Joie de Vivre, or The Joy of Life in English. Vincent places these two sources of inspiration together. 

The Bible in Vincent’s still life is large and heavy; the candle beside it, melted, low, and snuffed out. The novel perching in the foreground is smaller, newer, and lighter. Its bright yellow cover is perhaps the purest pigment in the palette of golds, browns, and white. The Bible stands open, ready for study—yet it’s the novel that appears to be read more often, the cover curved and the corners curled with use. The brightest color on the canvas—the white of the pages—unites the two books.

Is this a painting of his relationship with his father? Could it reveal something of Vincent’s evolving spirituality? How could each book be a comment on the other?

Maturing as an Artist

Forming Community in Paris

In 1886, Vincent moved to Paris, unannounced, and his brother Theo felt obligated to take him in. There, Vincent discovered new sources of inspiration, including Japanese woodblock art, Impressionism, and a close-knit circle of artist friends, including Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat, and Camille Pissaro. His color palette transformed from the rich, dark traditionally Dutch colors to a much more vibrant palette during this time. His brushwork evolved as well, filling his paintings with movement and energy. Vincent painted constantly, completing 200 paintings in the span of 2 years. 

In Paris, Vincent also continued to probe his thoughts about God. In one letter to his sister, Vincent writes “Is the Bible enough for us? Nowadays I believe Jesus himself would again say to those who just sit melancholy, it is not here, it is risen. Why seek ye the living among the dead?” Vincent channeled his religion—his ardor for God’s truth—into the world of art, discovering the Symbolists, whose approach deeply resonated with his philosophical and artistic instincts. 

Symbolists shared “a fascination for the worlds that lie behind visible reality.” Charles Darwin had published his groundbreaking book The Origin of the Species in 1859, and it turned public opinion toward rationalism and scientific thinking, both quite popular in the late 19th century. Symbolists, however, were more interested in the truths that lie behind, beneath, or beyond the observable world. They looked for the connections between objects, constructs, and ideas that would illuminate a larger picture.

Vincent valued and respected artwork abuzz with meaning. He selected his subjects and composition specifically to explore the deeper ideas and concepts that interested him—for example, the importance of a cross-shaped window mullion behind a figure, or a ring of light overhead. In an 1888 letter to his friend Émile Bernard, about exploring the symbolism in artwork, Vincent wrote “I can only reply, come on, just look a little more closely than that; really, it’s worth the effort a thousand times over.” 

a Move to Southern France

Vincent then moved to southern France, intending to establish an artists’ colony with his circle of friends in a place with more days of sunshine. He continued to sketch and paint almost constantly, pausing only to exchange lengthy letters with his friends and family. His health was in increasing turmoil—probably epilepsy, possibly mental illness—leading to long stays in a hospital. At the same time, his art flourished, and many of his most recognized paintings emerged in the years just before his sudden, tragic death in 1890, at just 37 years old. In spite of a lifetime devoted to artwork, and a transcendent genius for painting, he sold only one painting while alive. Yet his letters and masterpieces continue to enrich our lives, centuries later. 

We hope you have enjoyed this closer look at Vincent van Gogh’s biography—particularly how his faith and artwork grew, evolved, and inspired one another—throughout his life. Stay tuned for the second part of our series, which will look at several of Vincent’s late masterpieces and examine how they are recasting the artwork and Scriptures that inspired him. 

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