Many years ago, I saw Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, a cinematic biography of Vincent van Gogh, based on the novel by Irving Stone. In recent years I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Both experiences gave me an appreciation for the unique artistry and power of Van Gogh’s paintings.
Loving Vincent is an unusual motion picture. An animated film, it uses the style of Van’s Gogh’s art to tell its story. The film recounts hypothetically the last years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life. Did he commit suicide? Was he murdered? Was he depressed for a significant length of time? What may have contributed to his despondency?
The narrative begins one year after he died. Joseph Roulin, Vincent’s postman, requests his son Armond to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother Theo. The postman does not understand why Van Gogh chose to end his life when he seemed a well-adjusted man only a few weeks earlier. He shares his ambivalent feeling about Vincent’s death with his son, who reluctantly takes the letter to Paris.
Once in Paris, Armond learns that Theo died six months after Vincent. He then travels to the home of Dr. Paul Gachet, the physician who housed Van Gogh during a time of his artistic development and who shared his artistic sensibilities. Vincent’s relationship with his doctor is complicated and Armond leaves with more questions than he had before he met him.
All roads of inquiry finally lead to Theo’s widow, who happily reads Vincent’s last letter. The missive testifies to the strong love of the brothers for one another. It is signed “Your Loving Vincent.”
The mystery surrounding his death remains, but we sense that Van Gogh’s paintings show both the agony and ecstasy of his troubled life. He writes: “What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”
In his letters, Vincent reveals the purpose of his art: “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’. I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.”
Van Gogh is an artist for whom details are important. Indeed, that is the nature of art, to be concerned about details and how they come together to create enduring works of art. Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, writes: “Look closely at a masterpiece painting and see how it is composed of many small brushstrokes. If we were able to approach the artist – Rembrandt or Monet for example – and ask them, ‘Did you really need that brushstroke of blue in the bottom left corner or that dab of red in the upper right?’ they would be appalled. It’s only through the combination of all those brushstrokes that you get the full beautiful picture, the masterpiece.” The little details affect the whole picture.
This notion that details are important is embedded in all of Judaism, and is not limited to art. Braverman connects Orthodox Sabbath observance with a concern for the detail of Jewish law, which expresses the very essence of the day. There are many laws about the Sabbath that, if observed, enable one to make, as Braverman says, a “spiritual masterpiece” of the day.
Loving Vincent gives us an opportunity to look at the work of a great master. It also reminds us that behind the artistry is often a life of turmoil and disappointment, in which the artist is plagued by lack of self-esteem. It is difficult to earn a living when the product the artist is selling is so idiosyncratic. Van Gogh rarely received kind words for his artistic renditions, but over time he became a celebrated artistic innovator. His work reminds us that God is in the details.