Read like van Gogh

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by van Gogh (1889).

Van Gogh of the sunflowers.

Van Gogh of Starry Night.

Van Gogh of the breakdown. The bandaged head. The severed ear slopped into a frightened woman’s hand.

He smouldered like touchpaper, blazing inside and tending towards explosion. But I want to separate the words that have been attached to his name: tortured genius.

True. He was both tortured and a genius. But one trait opposed the other. And that feels important to recognise. We can’t casually glamourise this kind of pain:

His erratic mental health didn’t come with divine inspiration. Hallucinations didn’t grant an audience with the muse. That’s a fable we like to comfort ourselves with, while reading about an artist’s troubled life.

The Painter on the Road to Tarascon by van Gogh (1888).

Van Gogh’s illnesses were burdens he longed to shrug off, like the easel he carried on the scorched road to Tarascon:

There’s a story of him eating yellow paint to become brighter and cheerier. Probably a myth, but his letters record other homemade cures:

We should thank Dickens for inspiring van Gogh to eat anything at all. The painter often went hungry, having spent his money on canvases or models.

He teetered on the edge of exhaustion, propped up by coffee and cigarettes, pulled down by absinthe and brandy.

The Night Café by van Gogh (1888).

The Dutchman had no shortage of bad habits, then. But reading did him good. Here are four ways books supported his genius and softened his tortures. They’re backed by science and make the case that we should be reading, too.

Van Gogh grew up in a vicarage, the child of a Protestant minister. And he was raised on moral stories, including the work of Charles Dickens. (Christmas Carol appears in several of his paintings.)

L’Arlésienne by van Gogh (1890).

His early exposure to literature added to his vocabulary, making him gifted at self-expression. His letters to friends and family are unusually articulate – by today’s standards and certainly by the standards of the time.

Van Gogh understood what studies have since proven: exposure to vocabulary through reading not only leads to higher scores on reading tests, but also higher scores on general tests of intelligence.

Theo van Gogh was Vincent’s brother who supported the artist through years of repeated failure.

Theo was also an art dealer with a happy marriage. So you might think Vincent wouldn’t have advice to offer his sibling, four years his junior.

But the painter didn’t hesitate to recommend Zola:

Émile Zola reinforced van Gogh’s social conscience. Stories like ‘L’Oeuvre’ depicted life in slums and miners’ villages without sanding down the rough edges. They were unromantic. They were real.

Van Gogh was reading Zola in the same year he painted The Potato Eaters, which has been called “the first truly realistic peasant painting in western art”.

The Potato Eaters by van Gogh (1885).

Zola and van Gogh were kindred spirits, men with heightened senses of empathy. And that capacity can come from reading, according to research published in Science.

You can practice imagining what other people are thinking by chewing through a chapter or two. That’s quite the perk, say the researchers, because:

By this point, you won’t be surprised to hear van Gogh had a difficult love life. I mean, we began by mentioning the ear he gave to a maid at his local brothel…

Even his happier relationships were marred because of society’s judgement. He fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos and later lived with Sien Hoornik, a prostitute. Those hardly counted as the actions of an upstanding citizen of the nineteenth century.

Sien Hoornik by van Gogh (1882).

Fiction helped. In ‘L’amour’ by Jules Michelet, Vincent van Gogh found wisdom he could apply to his own love life. It offered some external validation that helped him justify his choices to himself, at least – if not to his family.

Van Gogh used Michelet’s story in the same way we’d use self-help books today. Hansa Pankhania, author of ten books on wellbeing, promotes the genre with arguments based on extensive research:

So let’s talk about mood. There’s lots of evidence of the uplifting effects of art. A study by Sussex University showed reading may reduce stress by as much as 68%.

The Sower by van Gogh (1888).

Reading certainly helped van Gogh cope with the irritations of provincial life in Arles. He read ‘Tartarin de Tarascon’ by Alphonse Daudet: “an entertaining caricature of the southern Frenchman”.

Once Daudet started joking, van Gogh could laugh at his own misfortunes. ‘Tartarin de Tarascon’ was a gift, because the subject was so relatable. But in some ways:

Cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis, there – as quoted in The Telegraph.

Our genius – with an eloquence, empathy and clarity enhanced by reading – can turn a prettier, more profound phrase than I can:

Perhaps literature is most valuable because it’s another thing to love.

Starry Night over the Rhone by van Gogh (1888).

Aidan Clifford shares business lessons from creative icons. He writes for Pinstripe Poets – artists who love their day jobs.

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