Idle Bird


Arts & Culture

Van Gogh finds art in the Borinage.


Vincent van Gogh, Coalmine in the Borinage, 1879.

In October of 1879, Theo van Gogh went to visit his brother, Vincent, in the Borinage coal-mining district of Belgium. Theo was en route to Paris, where he had business to conduct as an art dealer; Vincent was doing self-appointed missionary work. The pair walked along an abandoned quarry that reminded them of a canal they’d frequented as children in Holland, but now there was an undeniable rift between them. Theo, upset by Vincent’s appearance—he had given away nearly all of his clothes to the miners, and had ceased bathing—told him, “You are not the same any longer.” He felt that Vincent was wasting his time in this squalid place, and suggested that he leave to take up a different trade.

Angry at his brother’s inability to understand him, Vincent wrote a letter to Theo on October 15 that would be the last for ten months. The brothers had been writing letters to each other almost unceasingly since 1872, when Vincent was nineteen and Theo fifteen. This would be the first and deepest rupture between them, a silence that would never repeat itself. Referring to Theo’s accusation of “idleness,” Vincent wrote with bitterness,

I am not sure it would be right to combat such an accusation by becoming a baker, for instance. It would indeed be a decisive answer (always supposing that it were possible to assume, quick as lightning, the form of a baker, a barber or a librarian); but at the same time it would be a foolish answer, more or less like the action of a man who, when reproached with cruelty for riding a donkey, immediately dismounted and continued his way with the donkey on his shoulders.

Vincent, at twenty-six, had already changed his profession nearly half a dozen times. For seven years, from 1869 to 1876, he had worked as an art dealer in his uncle’s company, moving from the Hague to London to Paris; from there he moved to Ramsgate, England, where he did a two-month stint as a teacher; then back to London, where he worked as an assistant to a minister; and then to Dordrecht, Holland, where he worked a little more than three months as a bookseller before deciding he wanted to be a pastor, like his father and grandfather before him. His vocational choices had always been somewhat haphazard, guided by his family and their connections, and Vincent was sick of following along. “Plans for improvement and change and gathering energy,” he wrote to Theo in the letter after his visit; “do not be annoyed, but I am a little afraid—because I sometimes followed them, and the result was poor. How many things have been discussed that later proved to be impracticable.”

Theo’s visit came at a particularly vulnerable point for Vincent. After almost a year in the dark and poverty-stricken landscape of the Borinage, he was losing any clarity he had about what his life was for. He had brought himself to the furthest limits of his Christian understanding trying to help the destitute community he found there, giving them all of his money and clothes, moving out of the comfortable home he was living in and into a run-down abandoned miner’s hut, trying to live like them and care for them as Jesus would have, and yet it had come to nothing—no one was saved. The break from his brother was only the last deepening of an isolation that had been growing for years. Vincent was wrestling, at base, with who he was; he was struggling to understand the dissonant elements of himself, the religious man and the artist, and the ways they might combine. He was frightened of the spiritual void he might confront if he gave up his religious life, yet he had known no other life. The deep silence of those ten months over the winter of 1879—more than any outside accounts of him or what he would later write of the time—speaks to the profound struggle of this, the most significant period of transition in his life.


Miners’ wives carrying sacks of coal, 1881–82.

By the time he moved from the Borinage to Brussels, in the fall of 1880, van Gogh was committed to being an artist—a commitment he would never break. In July of 1880, in the letter that broke the silence, Vincent wrote Theo again of his “idleness,” as if he had been incessantly mulling over their conversation since the previous year. His analogy reveals his feelings:

A caged bird in spring knows quite well that he might serve some end; he is well aware that there is something for him to do…What is it? He does not quite remember. Then some vague ideas occur to him, and he says to himself, ‘The others build their nests and lay their eggs and bring up their little ones’; and he knocks his head against the bars of the cage. But the cage remains, and the bird is maddened by anguish.

‘Look at that lazy animal,’ says another bird in passing, ‘he seems to be living at ease.’

Yes, the prisoner lives, he does not die; there are no outward signs of what passes within him—his health is good, he is more or less gay when the sun shines. But then the season of migration comes, and attacks of melancholia—‘But he has everything he wants,’ say the children that tend him in his cage. He looks through the bars at the overcast sky when a thunderstorm is gathering, and inwardly he rebels against his fate. ‘I am caged, I am caged, and you tell me that I do not want anything, fools! You think I have everything I need! Oh! I beseech you liberty, that I may be a bird like other birds!’

A certain idle man resembles this idle bird.

I was in the art history library at Columbia University when I first read these words—twenty-six or so myself, in the midst of an M.F.A. program, searching for a paper topic for a nonfiction writing class. Who knows why things strike us when they do? I was amazed by the power of Vincent’s words—how felt they were, how directly they spoke to his struggle. I was moved by what a good writer he was, and copied out the passage in its entirety so I could return to it later (eventually, it found its way to the bulletin board above my desk). What was it that moved me exactly? The metaphor he uses is not particularly surprising, even borderline cliché. But there’s something about the almost childishness of it that touched me—the way the metaphor is being so deeply felt, so lived that it becomes new and entirely Vincent’s own. Was I feeling something similar myself, struggling against the familiar realization that pursuing art is not a viable career? The texture of that long period of silence between the brothers was tantalizing to imagine.

Earlier this year, an exhibit—“Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist”—appeared in Mons, Belgium, the town that sits at the tip of the Borinage, where Vincent passed through on his way to the mining village where he lived. It’s the first time this kind of light has been shed on this period of van Gogh’s life, though it has long been agreed on by biographers that this was a crucial period. Not much evidence is left behind—Vincent only wrote a few letters while he was in mining country, and most of the drawings he did were destroyed. (He used them as kindle to light fires in his hut.) How do you examine a period of the past without evidence? You write novels, perhaps, or you look for resonances in the years to come. The latter is what Sjraar van Heugten, the curator of the exhibit, has done, placing the story of Vincent’s time in the Borinage into context with the rest of his interests and obsessions. Peasant life, for example, always fascinated him—he saw beauty in the toil of the poor.

In mining country, van Gogh followed Christian teaching literally to the letter—to the dismay of his father and other pastors on the missionary committee—behaving, truly, as if he were Jesus Christ, sacrificing all he had. But in the end, after he had given away everything and was sleeping on the floor of his abandoned hut, feverish and delirious, barely preaching anymore, the townspeople began, as people would for the rest of his life, to think him mad. Enormous explosions rocked the mines and he had nothing to give the people to help, but still he ran from hut to hut, tearing up his remaining clothes to use for bandages. Then Theo came to visit and berated him, completing his isolation and despair.

At some point during the winter after Theo’s visit Vincent walked some seventy kilometers from the Borinage to Courrieres, a town just across the French border; his aim was to see the painter Jules Breton, whom he admired, and whom he had heard had recently moved there. As he wrote months later, “I had undertaken the trip to find some kind of work … I would have accepted anything. But after all, perhaps I went involuntarily, I can’t exactly say why.” The trip seems to have been an artistic pilgrimage, a way of breaking free from the darkness of the mines and the religious life that held him there. He was reaching, however unconsciously, for something concrete to hold onto—confirmation, perhaps, of the dawning of his call to art. Prior to this time, Vincent had never thought of himself as an artist – he was always involved with art and artists, but always as an admirer rather than a creator. In the Borinage, he began to draw more earnestly, and it was after his time there that he began his study to become the artist we know.

It took him a week to get to Courrieres, where Breton lived. Vincent walked through freezing rain and slept in haystacks and woodpiles, waking up each morning in frost. But when he finally got to Breton’s house, he could not get himself to enter. “The outside of the studio was rather disappointing,” he wrote later: “it [had] … an inhospitable, chilly and irritating aspect … But what shall I say of the interior? I was not able to catch a glimpse, for I lacked the courage to enter and introduce myself.” He walked around the town, searching for some trace of Breton or his work, but found nothing concrete. He had no more money and nothing else to do, so he turned around and walked back.

Vincent van Gogh's Evening (after Jean-François Millet), 1889.

Evening, after Jean-François Millet, 1889.

Despite the seeming failure of his pilgrimage, the journey served the purpose Vincent originally hoped that it would. As he wrote to Theo,

Though this trip was almost too much for me and I came back overcome with fatigue, with sore feet, and quite melancholy, I do not regret it, for … one learns to take a different but correct view of the hardships of real misery … Well, even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself, in spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing. From that moment everything has seemed transformed for me; and now I have started and my pencil has become somewhat docile, becoming more so every day.

In taking up that pencil, he didn’t leave behind the ordinary laborers he’d worked among—“I should be happy if some day I could draw them,” he wrote, “so that these unknown types would be brought before the eyes of the people.” Art, he was beginning to see, could serve as a true channel between religion, labor, and beauty.

Not long after, when Vincent visited his parents, his father passed him a gift of fifty francs from Theo; Vincent wrote to thank him. This was the first letter in ten months, a long and rambling missive in which Vincent attempted to explain the deep changes he’d undergone. The letter speaks forcefully of a new philosophy, one that merges religion and art:

I think that everything which is really good and beautiful—of inner moral, spiritual and sublime beauty in men and their works—comes from God, and that all which is bad and wrong in men and in their works is not of God … But l always think that the best way to know God is to love many things. Love a friend, a wife, something—whatever you like—you will be on the way to knowing more about Him … To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture.

Vincent never returned to the Borinage, though he often spoke of it. His time there had changed him in profound ways, and had left him with the unwavering commitment to being an artist. “Wait, perhaps someday you will see that I too am an artist,” he wrote to Theo in his last letter from the Borinage, on September 24, 1880. “I don’t know what I can do, but I hope I shall be able to make some drawings with something human in them … The path is narrow, the door is narrow, and there are few who find it.”

Nellie Hermann was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her second novel, The Season of Migration, was published in January. She is the creative director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University and has taught and lectured widely on the use of creativity in nontraditional contexts.

A new exhibition, “Van Gogh and Nature,” opens June 14 at the Clark in Williamstown, Massachusetts.