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Vincent van Gogh on Delving Deeply, Focusing on One Thing, Courage to Fail, and the Art of Doing

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The celebrated painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) regularly wrote to his brother Theo, his ardent supporter and friend. 

Out of the hundreds of letters the Van Gogh brothers exchanged, the Vincent van Gogh organization has put about hundred online. All those letters are poetic, sincere, and full of intelligent advice on pursuing one’s profession. But more than the rest, one letter dated 15 October 1881 from Vincent to Theo left me no choice but to write this piece on hardships of work and the courage to pursue any skill. 

photo of vincent van gogh letter on the courage and perseverance needed to follow art
October 15 1881/ From Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh.

(Soon you will find another piece on learning to practice anything and becoming a master: inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s letters. Coming soon.)

Vincent van Gogh made most of his paintings — almost 2000 — in his last two years 1889 and 1890. He wasn’t recognized for his artwork during his lifetime. Vincent was poor and was supported by his brother (mostly), father, and other friends. Records can only confirm the sale of one of his paintings when he was alive.

Vincent not only needed paint, canvases, brushes, paper, and chalk every day but also needed boundless patience to slowly persevere. Though every letter of Vincent is a glowing cosmic of self-reflection, determination, and painful living from which you can absorb infinite stars of wisdom, in this letter Vincent writes to his brother about the hardships of a professional and why he decided to stick it out as a painter and artist despite the difficulties.

While acknowledging the favorable comments of his brother on his paintings, Vincent underlines the resistance of nature towards an artist. His comments can be understood in light of any work: nature represents the environment in which the labor withstands and all crafts need practice.

“Nature always begins by resisting the draughtsman, but he who truly takes it seriously doesn’t let himself be deterred by that resistance, on the contrary, it’s one more stimulus to go on fighting, and at bottom nature and an honest draughtsman see eye to eye. 

Nature is most certainly ‘intangible’ though, yet one must seize it, and with a firm hand. And now, after spending some time wrestling and struggling with nature, it’s starting to become a bit more yielding and submissive, not that I’m there yet, no one is less inclined to think so than I, but things are beginning to go more smoothly. The struggle with nature sometimes resembles what Shakespeare calls ‘Taming the shrew’ (i.e. to conquer the opposition through perseverance, willy-nilly).”

Vincent van Gogh

One may always surrender the task and say, “this is too hard, I can’t do it.” 

But Vincent — an artist who in his mentally tumultuous times could project the hardly conceivable flows of turbulences into his paintings — says, “In many things, but more particularly in drawing, I think that delving deeply into something is better than letting it go.”

The importance of focusing on the one thing at hand, be it writing a paragraph, painting a tree, selling a business idea, or writing a line of code is explained by Vincent in compassionate words.

“If one draws a pollard willow as though it were a living being, which it actually is, then the surroundings follow more or less naturally, if only one has focused all one’s attention on that one tree and hasn’t rested until there was some life in it.”

Vincent van Gogh

A painter isn’t the only one who puts life in trees on canvases. Be it a shirt a tailor is stitching, a fabric a businessman is repurposing, a path a gardener is raking, a sonata a musician is practicing, a baguette a baker is kneading, a game a coder is writing — all of these become alive when their creator gives all of their attention to it.

Everything that is great

is so

because its creator didn't rest

until she gave the work her best

We all become doubtful when we spend a lot of time learning. Our results aren’t yet visible to us, let alone to the world. Hastening, we wriggle out of the motherly arms of learning and run towards the tower of results.

But for those times Van Gogh has promising advice as he shares with one friend De Bock,

“De Bock, if you and I were to concentrate on figure drawing for a whole year, afterwards we’d both be completely different people from what we are now; if we fail to get a grip on ourselves and simply go on without learning anything new, we won’t even remain what we are but, standing still, we’ll go backwards.”

Vincent van Gogh

We can go on without learning. We can fake for a while. But eventually we would have gone backwards, not forwards.

We also either become lazy or hesitant while taking upon new work. When I have to write a second-person narrative or tackle a new topic, I’m unsure. Would I be able to handle the writing? Is the effort to learn worth the results? 

Even though Vincent was still learning and didn’t think of himself as the master, or any good at all, he always looked up to the masters and drew inspiration from them.

“Millet and Corot, whom we both like so much, could they paint a figure or couldn’t they? I mean, those Masters balked at nothing.” Vincent asked another contemporary artist friend.

If we have to master any profession or art, we have to be courageous to take up just about anything. Otherwise, our days would be counted for what we didn’t do.

At times we wonder whether the work is worthy of doing. For such times Vincent has a beautiful and real example (of which his letters are full) of a conversation between a friend De Bock and a painter Destrée. 

“Surely you know the painter Destrée. He had gone up to De Bock with a very pedantic air and had said to him, very superciliously, of course, and yet in a mealy-mouthed and unbearably patronizing way: De Bock, they also asked me to paint that panorama but I thought, since it was so unartistic, that I had to refuse. To which De Bock replied: My dear Mr Destrée, what is easier, painting a panorama or refusing to paint a panorama? 

What is more artistic, doing it or not doing it?” Vincent van Gogh asked.

To conclude,

I could lay down the pen
you can pause on your path
labor can be given up by men
we all quit the works of wrath

but what then

we are a pale blue dot
in the cosmic
one's work define
who they are

without the labor
only comes despair
the wine floweth
but what am I known for

give me a pen
you please walk
we toil, friend
for only agony leads to delight

we are a pale blue dot
in the cosmic
one's work define
who they are

Do you think doing is better than not doing? Why?

You might also like: Nietzsche on why suffering isn’t bad, why to work when we don’t want to, and why having fun is the best way to work.

Images Courtesy: Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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