Today, Vincent van Gogh is considered a world-renowned painter and artistic genius. This was not always the case.
Van Gogh lived in poverty and anonymity for most of his life.
He was born on March 30, 1853, one year to the day after his parents’ first child (also named Vincent) arrived stillborn. He grew up poor and left school to help support his family. He worked in galleries and with art dealers but had a habit of falling in love with women who didn’t love him back. After his first heartbreak, he became a teacher and religious evangelist. But when his contract at the church wasn’t renewed, van Gogh turned to painting.
Though clearly talented, van Gogh didn’t achieve fame or wealth for his work while he as alive. He suffered from mental illness and eventually checked himself into a hospital where he completed some of his most seminal works, including “Starry Night” and “Irises.”
But while his genius and talent were second to none, there was one way Van Gogh was just like the rest of us.
He wrote more than 900 letters to his younger brother Theo, a lifelong companion and confidant. Even as his work matured and his talent took shape, Vincent van Gogh’s letters revealed he still felt overwhelmed, inadequate, and anxious, especially when beginning a new piece. That fear is something we’re all familiar with.
But even in his darkest hours, van Gogh fought that fear in order to create.
“You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything,” Vincent wrote to his brother.
“Life itself likewise always turns towards one an infinitely meaningless, discouraging, dispiriting blank side on which there is nothing, any more than on a blank canvas. But however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that. He steps in and does something, and hangs on to that.”
Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils adapted van Gogh’s letter to Theo into a comic story that feels as relevant today as it did in the 1880s.
Like van Gogh, most of us will struggle with feelings of inadequacy and fear at some point.
That’s when we need to step up for ourselves the most.
Whether you’re stressed about work, creative pursuits, or trying something new, it may help to find an accountability partner. That’s someone you know and trust who you can share your goals and fears with, and vice versa. Exchanging hundreds of letters back and forth was van Gogh’s style, but a quick coffee or text of support and encouragement may be just the boost you both need to get started.
Self-care and positive affirmations can also be useful when you need a little push. A study from Carnegie Mellon University confirms self-affirmations can improve problem-solving abilities and protect against stress. So in moments of doubt, extend yourself a little grace and remind yourself just how awesome you are. You don’t have to be perfect. But if it’s something you want, give it your best shot.
Epilogue: So just how and when did van Gogh find success?
In his lifetime, van Gogh completed thousands of sketches, drawings, and watercolor and oil paintings. After his death at the age of 37 and Theo’s death six months later, van Gogh’s sister-in-law Johanna put his artwork on display in Paris. There, his popularity grew, and van Gogh was eventually celebrated as a pioneering painter and eminent Dutch artist.
Happy ending? Not quite. But an ending that wouldn’t be possible if van Gogh hadn’t “stepped in and done something.” And we can hang on to that.
Don’t forget to check out more of Gavin Aung Than’s comics on Zen Pencils.
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