Vincent Van Gogh has been airbrushed by the secular arts media. I have not yet seen the new exhibition at Tate Britain about his London years, so I can only comment on the publicity I have read and heard. This arts chatter downplays, or even ignores, the central feature of his life at this time: his religious zeal. It gives the impression that he was dedicating himself to art, gearing up to be the archetypal creative genius. In reality he did not take art fully seriously in the mid 1870s: though he worked for an art dealer, his real passion was religion. This is not mentioned in the articles about the show I have seen, nor was it mentioned on a radio discussion I heard: instead we hear about his immersion in Dickens and George Eliot, and the possible influence of certain English painters on his later work.
His letters to his brother from England are relentlessly religious; he relates his desire to be a preacher, he shares bits of scripture that he finds compelling. This is embarrassing to the secular arts world, which wants a secular saint, a martyr to art. The truth is more complex: his courageous dedication to his art emerged from his sense of religious calling. He was not a pure aesthete but someone who needed to give visual expression to his Christian faith. He needed to enact his sense that the world is charged with the glory of God, that beauty is a vehicle for grace, an antidote to despair. To see his faith as a curious background detail is to misunderstand him. If any other sort of philosophy underlay his art you can bet we’d be told all about it.
In one letter from this time he tells his brother Theo not to be too overawed by the beauty of nature or art, ‘which isn’t the same as religious feeling’ (17th September 1875). It was religious feeling that mattered: his approach to art was determined by this. Don’t expect any real consideration of this from the current exhibition or its surrounding chatter.