Vincent van Gogh: A Complex Character
Van Gogh cut a striking figure. Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who became acquainted with Vincent in 1890, described him in her introduction to the 1914 letters edition as ‘a robust, broad-shouldered man with a healthy complexion, a cheerful expression and something very determined in his appearance’. Small in stature, he had green eyes, a red beard and freckles; his hair was ginger-coloured like that of his brother Theo, his junior by four years. He had a facial tic, and his hands seemed to be in constant motion. He was rather unsociable, which made him difficult to live with. People were often afraid of him, because of his wild and unkempt appearance and his intense manner of speaking. The way he looked and acted alienated people, which did not make life easy for him.
Van Gogh was almost always convinced that he was right, and this made him quite tiresome. He was a passionate, driven man, whose tendency to act like an egocentric bully made many people dislike him. They saw him as ‘a madman—a murderer—a vagabond’. Van Gogh refused to let this upset him: ‘[B]elieve me that I sometimes laugh heartily at how people suspect me (who am really just a friend of nature, of study, of work—and of people chiefly) of various acts of malice and absurdities which I never dream of’. He did not avoid confrontations, nor did he spare himself. Theo described him in a letter of March 1887 to their sister Willemien as ‘his own enemy’.
Van Gogh was strongly inclined towards introspection: he never hesitated to explore and record his mood swings, or to redefine his moral position. He did this mainly because he had few people to talk to. Examining his own state of mind, he saw a ‘highly strung’ individual. At the age of twenty-nine, he sketched a merciless picture of himself:
Don’t imagine that I think myself perfect—or that I believe it isn’t my fault that many people find me a disagreeable character. I’m often terribly and cantankerously melancholic, irritable—yearning for sympathy as if with a kind of hunger and thirst—I become indifferent, sharp, and sometimes even pour oil on the flames if I don’t get sympathy. I don’t enjoy company, and dealing with people, talking to them, is often painful and difficult for me. But do you know where a great deal if not all of this comes from? Simply from nervousness—I who am terribly sensitive, both physically and morally, only really acquired it in the years when I was deeply miserable.
These last words refer to the years immediately before he embarked on his artistic career.
However impulsive Van Gogh was, he generally set to work only after much deliberation: ‘For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together’. Time and again, it was willpower and hard work that enabled Van Gogh to raise his low spirits. He repressed his feelings of guilt towards Theo, his dearest friend and confidant, and the only one who could cope with his difficult character. Vincent was well aware that his brother was investing a great deal in him, and the knowledge that he would never be able to repay Theo occasionally made him despair.