In an 1886 missive to Theo from Antwerp—a personal favorite of mine—van Gogh brilliantly assesses the painterly strengths and weaknesses of Rubens. He writes that he views Rubens as “superficial, hollow, bombastic . . . altogether conventional,” admitting nonetheless that he is a wonderful painter who expresses moods of “gaiety” and “serenity” through his combinations of colors. His portraits are “deep and intimate,” van Gogh writes, and have remained fresh “because of the simplicity of the technique.” Nonetheless, he objects to Rubens’s attempts to portray human sorrow: “Even his most beautiful heads of a weeping Magdalen or Mater Dolorosas always just remind me of the tears of a pretty tart who’s caught the clap, say, or some such petty vexation of human life—as such they’re masterly, but one needn’t look for anything more in them.” So what did van Gogh see as his own strengths and weaknesses? In an early letter to Theo (May 8, 1875), he quotes Renan: “Man is not placed on the earth merely to be happy; nor is he placed here merely to be honest, he is here to accomplish great things through society, to arrive at nobleness, and to outgrow the vulgarity in which the existence of almost all individuals drags on.” This is a vision he lived. But at what cost? In one of his late letters to his brother (July 2, 1889), van Gogh says that he was “infinitely too harsh . . . in claiming that it was better to love painters than paintings.” The reader now has to ask similar questions. Van Gogh becomes less likable and more lovable, more familiar and yet somehow ever stranger. In reading and studying these books, we can at once achieve both ends.
more from Tyler Cowen at Bookforum here.