Vincent van Gogh painted a portrait of his mother in October of 1888 during his stay in Arles, France. This was an autumn of turmoil for Vincent; Paul Gaugin visited him in Arles, they quarreled, and the visit finally ended with the infamous ear-cutting episode.
It seems that Vincent was missing his mother, whom he had not seen in years. He wrote to his brother Theo that he was painting his mother for himself. He had received a black and white photograph of her, and couldn’t bear to look at it. So he painted her in the soft glowing colors in which he remembered her. I wish he could have visited her. I think that her gentle actual presence would have helped him at this point in his life.
Vincent’s mother, Anna Carbentus van Gogh, raised six children: Vincent, Theo, Anna, Elizabeth, Wilhelmien and Cornelius. Vincent was the oldest, although an earlier son, also named Vincent, had died. Anna van Gogh was a pastor’s wife, tirelessly serving rural communities. Still, she found time to paint in watercolors, especially flowers and nature subjects. She shared her love of flowers and painting with her children. As he accumulated finished canvases, Vincent used to send flowers to his mother in the form of paintings. He sent, he wrote, “great bouquets of flowers, violet-colored irises, great bouquets of roses.”
Vincent’s parents had conservative and conventional religious views. They were dismayed when he turned away from the institutional church and developed his own mystical religious view of the world, in which the divine was present everywhere at all times. They could not approve of his stubborn poverty for the sake of his art, and they certainly could not approve of his unconventional love life. But I love to think of Vincent’s mother, at her modest home in the Netherlands, unrolling a canvas from her son and finding a glorious bouquet of irises.
You can see van Gogh’s portrait of his mother at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. It’s one of my very favorite small museums in the world, worth going a little out of the way to visit on any trip to Los Angeles.
Happy Mother’s Day to all moms! Join me next time for more explorations into the art, artists and history of Europe.