Recently, I’ve developed an interest in Vincent van Gogh. Not just in his paintings — which are tip-top by the way — but also in his strange life. If you’re going to get the bug for a historical figure, you could do a lot worse than van Gogh — his is a ripping yarn, riddled with curiosities. The man took a knife to his own ear, after all. Whatever he was, he wasn’t dull.
In just over 10 years as an artist, van Gogh was mighty prolific, producing nearly 900 oil paintings — and there’s an intriguing tale behind many of them. For example, did you know that the majestic swirling sky he depicted in Starry Night was actually the view from his room in a French sanatorium? Or that while most of his famous sunflower portraits can today be found in major art galleries, one of them resides within the corporate collection of a Japanese insurance firm? If he were alive today, I’m sure he’d be thrilled.
Van Gogh famously sold just one painting during his lifetime, yet achieved immense fame after his death. And his death itself is something of an oddity. Having shot himself in his chest, in a wheat field in France, he passed out for several hours. When he came to, he tried in vain to find his revolver so he could finish the job. He then stumbled back to the inn where he’d been staying, climbed the stairs to his room and took two days to die, during which time he received visitors and smoked his pipe.
It was a bizarre end to a most intriguing life. But the thing that intrigues me the most is the extent to which he travelled around. During his 37 years on earth, Van Gogh lived in 21 different towns and cities around Europe. These range from those places you’d expect to find a 19th-century artistic genius, such as Paris, Brussels and Antwerp, to those where you really wouldn’t, such as Ramsgate, Isleworth and Brixton.
Wherever he went, he threw himself into local life, learning the native language to a high standard. In many ways, you could say he was the poster boy for the European ideal, roaming freely across borders in search of new opportunities and fresh perspectives.
Ultimately, van Gogh’s story is a tragic one, but it occurs to me there’s plenty to envy about the way he lived his life. His was an existence that seems barely feasible today. Bankrolled by his brother Theo, van Gogh moved between some of Europe’s most attractive towns, seeking inspiration in their handsome cafes and churches, among their forests and flower fields. And as I sit here in a dark and dismal office, staring out over a traffic-clogged A road, I can’t help but feel he had it pretty good.
Travel has always served artists rather well, whether it’s poets relocating to the Lake District; painters seeking out the light of Southern France; or even rock stars decamping to the Caribbean to write those difficult second albums. It’s a wonderfully seductive notion — perhaps we should all try it. If these columns ever get too difficult to write, maybe I should hole myself up in the Tuscan hills. Just for the summer season, you understand. Just until inspiration strikes.
For me, the lesson here is to never underestimate the value of a change of scenery. And if full-scale relocation isn’t really an option, we can apply this lesson in smaller, more practical ways. Travel can be a wondrous source of inspiration, not just for artists but for anyone with thinking to do or big decisions to make. And when you get to a certain age (i.e. mine), big decisions seem to be required all the bloody time. Yet I always seem to tackle mine while waiting for a bus or washing dishes. Surely I’d make a better fist of them if I whisked myself off somewhere new for an afternoon, or a night, or even a weekend.
Well, from now on that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to seek inspiration in unfamiliar soil whenever possible. After all, it worked wonderfully for Vincent. Right up to the point where he shot himself.
Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)