What Distinquished Van Gogh's Art
From His French Contemporaries?
the influence of Calvanism on the art of Vincent Van Gogh
by Ann Murray
Wheaton College, Massachusetts
The Religious Background of Vincent van Gogh and its Relation to his Views on Nature and Art Ann H. Murray
Ann H. Murray (Ph.D., Brown) is Assistant Professor of Art and Director of Watson Gallery at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts, where she specializes in the history of modern art. Her publications include (author), Printout: An Exhibition of Computer-Generated Graphics; (coauthor) The Portrait Bust, Renaissance to Enlightenment; and (coeditor), Process of Perfection. The present article is an outgrowth of a chapter from her doctoral dissertation on Vincent van Gogh.
As the son of a Dutch Reformed Minister, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) was dominated by intense spiritual needs even after he had renounced formalized religion. Although art historians have recognized an essentially religious motivation for van Gogh's paintings, no one has related his artistic views specifically to his early religious training.
Van Gogh's art theories clearly diverge from those of Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and his followers. These French Post-Impressionist painters, with whom he corresponded frequently, maintained that the artist should work from imagination rather than from a model in nature. On the other hand van Gogh's pantheistic view of nature relates him to earlier Romantic painters—especially those in Germany, whose work he had not seen but whose subjects anticipate his own. His reverence for nature as the one place where he might experience God actually prevented van Gogh from following Gauguin's advice to abandon the real world as his artistic starting point. This paper postulates that van Gogh's religious background conditioned such attitudes toward nature and its role in the creative process.
Van Gogh was not reared according to the strict Calvinist creed of the Dutch Reformed Church but according to the moderate Groningen branch. This made it possible for him to develop more liberal attitudes toward art and religion than orthodox Calvinism would have tolerated. By the early 1880s he had turned to nature as his sole source of spiritual fulfillment and admittedly tried to express such feelings in his art. This explains why he rarely painted religious themes, but focused instead on landscapes and portraits of simple people who lived in harmony with nature.
Of particular relevance to van Gogh's theory of art is the fact that the Groningen branch formed in the 1820s under the influence of German theologians such as August Twesten (1789–1876) and Karl Ullmann (1796–1865), whose ideas were indebted to Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). Not only did Schleiermacher look favorably upon the Romantic movement, but he is credited with introducing elements of Romantic thought into theology. Thus the Groningen branch of the Dutch Reformed Church provides a concrete link between van Gogh and the romantic tradition in Germany. This clarifies why his attitudes and motifs reflect those of the Northern Romantics whose work he did not know, and remain distinct from those of his contemporaries in France.