Vincent van Gogh hung two paintings in his bedroom: a portrait of a lover and one of a poet. What can these two artworks tell us about his life?
On Mondays, I write about one of the paintings that illustrate my picture book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, which is an adventure story about Vincent van Gogh for ages 4 and up. These posts are primarily for parents and older children interested in learning more about van Gogh’s artwork and life. Today’s painting, The Lover (Portrait of Milliet, Second Lieutenant of the Zouaves), appears two-thirds of the way through the tale. As young Vincent and Theo are returning home from their adventure, Vincent thinks about what he might become when he grows up. In my book, Vincent thinks about eight possible occupations. Today’s painting illustrates one of the seven possibilities–“being a lieutenant in a distant army”–that Vincent considers before thinking about being the painter he would become.
The painting itself is interesting for at least two reasons. First, the portrait is about someone significant to van Gogh. In 1888, Paul-Eugène Milliet became one of van Gogh’s few friends in Arles. He became Vincent’s painting and drinking companion. A soldier with an interest in art, Milliet took drawing lessons from van Gogh and the two went on painting forays together. At one point, he was entrusted with 36 of van Gogh’s works to carry to Paris and give to van Gogh’s brother, Theo. When he returned, he hauled home Japanese woodcuts for Vincent from Theo.
But why did van Gogh want to paint Milliet’s portrait? It was not because they were drinking buddies or teacher and pupil; he wanted to do the portrait because Milliet appeared to be the epitome of a lover in van Gogh’s eyes. Writing to Theo, van Gogh explained that he wanted to paint Milliet “because he’s good-looking, very jaunty, very easy-going in his appearance, and he’d suit me down to the ground for a painting of lovers.”
Van Gogh’s relationships with women were difficult, to say the least. His life was full of unrequited love, setbacks, and rejections. He admired Milliet’s romantic escapades. Van Gogh wrote his brother, Theo, that “Milliet’s lucky, he has all the Arlésiennes he wants, but there you are, he can’t paint them, and if he was a painter he wouldn’t have any.” [For your consideration, here are two scholarly books about van Gogh’s relationships with women: Van Gogh and Love by Hans Luijten and Van Gogh’s Women: His Love Affairs and a Journey into Madness by Derek Fell.]
But, back to the painting. The second reason why it is interesting is that it is one of the two paintings Vincent hung over his bed. You can see it in the first version of Vincent’s famous paintings of his bedroom. In the first version, Vincent painted his actual room, with the portrait of Milliet and another of Eugene Boch. In the second (shown below) and the third versions, the portraits are replaced by two different pairs of a self portrait and an imagined women. Interestingly, there are always two pillows on Vincent’s bed, suggesting that the artist did not want to be alone.
One has to wonder what Vincent felt. His admiration of Milliet as the epitome of a lover, the portrait’s placement in his bedroom, and his inadequate experiences with women, combine to make me think of Foreigner’s haunting lyrics:
In my life there’s been heartache and pain
I don’t know if I can face it again
Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far, to change this lonely life
I want to know what love is, I want you to show me
I want to feel what love is, I know you can show me
Foreigner – I Want To Know What Love Is Lyrics | MetroLyrics
Vincent, according to the Van Gogh Museum, eventually accepted that he was unlucky in love and turned to his ‘requited loves’ – art, nature and his brother Theo. Still, I wish he could have found a women with whom he could have known a deep and satisfying love.
Several artists have recorded “I Want To Know What Love Is.” Here is Mariah Carey’s beautiful 2009 performance:
The appearance of the gospel choir near the end of Carey’s performance is both true to the original song and important as we think about van Gogh. Mick Jones was interviewed after writing the hit song. In it, he reflected that, while the lyrics started on a personal level, he “ended up putting a gospel choir on it. And you know, realized suddenly that I’d written almost a spiritual song, almost a gospel song.” And spirituality brings us back to van Gogh’s bedroom and the second painting on his wall.
The second painting. Vincent’s painting, The Poet: Eugène Boch (right), was also on the wall of his bedroom. In a letter to his brother, van Gogh said, “I should like to paint the portrait of a fellow artist who dreams great dreams.” The artist was thinking of both love and infinity: “I would like to convey in the picture my appreciation, the love that I have for him. […] Behind his head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of this shabby apartment, I will paint infinity, I will do a simple background of the richest blue, the most intense blue that I can create, and through this simple combination of the bright head against this rich, blue background, I will obtain a mysterious effect, like a star in the depths of an azure sky.”
Vincent was always seeking a connection to the infinite and the spiritual; his work is infused with those themes. I find comfort in knowing that–no matter how his relationships with women went–in his bedroom Vincent also found love in the broadest–indeed, infinite–sense.
I would love to know what you think–leave a comment below if you want.
– Ted Macaluso
Note: There will not be a Painting Mondays post next week as I am going on vacation. I know this may be hard for some, but have faith: the blog will return in two weeks.
If you haven’t yet seen Vincent, Theo and the Fox, you can check it out here.
Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group. All other text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is included.