In 1878 Van Gogh was a struggling would-be preacher. At his lowest ebb, he began to draw. Alastair Sooke looks back at this pivotal moment in history.
In the spring of 1878, Vincent van Gogh turned 25. As he looked back over his short life, the Dutchman found little to celebrate among the meagre endeavours of his faltering career. By conventional, middle-class standards, he was a failure.
A stint working for an art dealership first in The Hague then in London and Paris hadn’t worked out: shy and awkward, he didn’t take to the profession, and in 1876, he was fired. That was followed by a couple of dead-end teaching jobs in England, as well as a short, forgettable spell working in a bookshop in Dordrecht, before he moved to Amsterdam to become a minister of religion, following in his father’s footsteps.
However, he didn’t have the patience or rigour to master the necessary study, so in 1878 – a few months after his 25th birthday – he left for Brussels, in order to enrol in a swifter training school for evangelists. Even this, though, was beyond him. After a three-month trial period in which his performance was less than mediocre, he was told that he would not be admitted to the course.
By now, Van Gogh’s family was beginning to despair. He had not curbed his socially inept and awkward manner, which was exacerbated by an eccentric tendency to dress in a deliberately unkempt fashion. How could an oddball like Vincent ever hope to scrape a living? His father was beginning to wonder whether his eldest son should be admitted to a mental hospital.
Van Gogh, though, was still fired with religious zeal and remained adamant that he could find work as an evangelist. At the end of 1878, he set off for the depressed coalmining district of the Borinage to the west of the city of Mons in Belgium, determined to establish himself as a lay preacher to the working
As a new exhibition, Van Gogh in the Borinage, at BAM (Beaux-Arts Mons) documents, he stayed in the region until October 1880, when he returned to Brussels. (Mons is one of the European capitals of culture for 2015.) Although ultimately his ambitions to become an evangelist would be thwarted – things got so bad that at one point his sister suggested that he should re-train as a baker – the Borinage was the making of Van Gogh in one fundamental respect. It was here, encouraged by his gentle brother Theo, that he decided to become an artist.
The startling thing is that his experiences in the Borinage seem to have set the template for many subjects and motifs that would continue to fascinate him as an artist over the next decade, until his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest in the summer of 1890.
True to form, life for Van Gogh in the Borinage was not straightforward. He lived in a humble hut, gave away much of his money, and swapped his smart clothes for the practical work-wear of the ‘Borins’. Unfortunately, he was not a gifted orator, so his meetings were sparsely attended. His inability to connect with the local coalminers was compounded by a practical, linguistic difficulty: he couldn’t make head or tail of their quick-fire patois known as ‘Walloon French’, while they were mystified by his own attempts at French, which to their ears sounded overly formal and fussy. In July 1879, only half a year after he had arrived in the region, he received another setback: the authorities terminated his trial appointment as an evangelist, precipitating a crisis of self-doubt.