A friend of Van Gogh’s asked if he thought this piece was “beautiful:”
He wrote to his brother:
My dear Theo,
C.M. asked me if I didn’t find the Phryné by Gérôme beautiful, and I said I would much rather see an ugly woman by Israëls or Millet or a little old woman by E. Frère, for what does a beautiful body such as Phryné’s really matter? Animals have that too, perhaps more so than people…hasn’t life been given to us to become rich in our hearts, even if our appearance suffers from it? — Letter from Van Gogh to his brother, Amsterdam, January 9, 1878
Here in Santa Barbara our local museum currently has a very popular exhibit, “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources.” The focus is not so much on any one work of his, but examples of the art works and writings of others that influenced him. The passage from the letter was displayed on the plaque next to “Phryné, and these words intrigued me: “…hasn’t life been given to us to become rich in our hearts, even if our appearance suffers from it?”
Adjacent to “Phryné” is a piece Van Gogh admired, The Miner by a graphic artist named Matthew Ridley:
The plaque for “The Miner” notes Van Gogh owned this exact print.
Which of these two works expresses “beauty” for you?
Our brains seem wired to quickly assess others by their outward appearance, comparing what we see to whatever standards our culture has created for us. As we know, print and digital media draws on this tendency to capture our attention and motivate us to feel an ongoing need to modify or improve our appearance.
When I see “fashion” magazines, I’m often puzzled why the models’ facial expressions often reflect boredom. When I see the people Van Gogh paints, they seem much more interesting.
“…hasn’t life been given to us to become rich in our hearts…?”
Two stories come to mind.
I had a parishioner, K., who was very conscious and diligent about her fitness and appearance. She and her husband attended a niece’s wedding in Ohio. She hadn’t seen her niece for several years When she first saw her at the wedding, she was taken aback by how much weight her niece had gained. The groom was “big” as well, and K. confessed their appearance made her uneasy. At the reception, the time came for the bride and groom to dance. As they did, K saw how much in love they were and was transfixed by their deep mutual affection. She saw beyond the surface to the reality that was within.
I heard the second story at a week-long seminar I attended years ago with the Biblical scholar Marcus Borg in Berkeley. Borg was an excellent writer and presenter…well-organized, calm, reasonable, always writing and speaking with humility and conviction. Towards the end of the week one of the students asked him if he had ever had a “spiritual” experience. He seemed reluctant to share. But the student pressed him, and he recounted what he’d experienced once on an airplane flight.
He and his wife were returning from Israel. As they boarded the plane, Marcus remembered settling into his assigned seat and assessing his surroundings. He noticed how sterile the plane’s interior seemed. He looked at the back of the seat in front of him and thought how lifeless the plastic fabric appeared. He watched people stepping into the aisle and noticed one man who had particularly unattractive facial features. All these observations seemed routine and trivial.
The plane took off and passengers settled into their activities.
A little later, something unusual began happening. Light began filling the airplane cabin. In this light, everything was transformed. The back of the seat in front of him now looked beautiful in its sheer existence. The same was true for the entire interior of the plane. Ordinary people were illuminated with a light that made them fascinating to look at. And the man whose appearance had caught his attention earlier happened to stand up: the man was radiating an inner dignity that made his outer appearance irrelevant.
Marcus’s wife noticed something was happening to him and asked if he was Ok. He nodded to assure her but didn’t speak. A few minutes later, the experience began to fade, and everything appeared as it had before. But he never forgot what he saw.
We might say “he came back to reality.” But which “reality”? The one we create based on surface appearances, cultural standards, and personal prejudices? Or something deep, mysterious, and grand that lies all around us, particularly within the faces of people whose appearance may not reflect some sterile “perfection” but that of living souls which have endured great hardship?
There are many kinds of beauty in this life, and we can celebrate all of them. But I want to remember Van Gogh’s question:
“Hasn’t life been given to us to become rich in our hearts?”