Amsterdam, Van Gogh, Self-Doubt


Think back 10 years, and things were different, the circumstances, the mood of the people, in short everything. ~ Van Gogh to his brother Theo

It had been 9 years since the last time I was in Amsterdam, but for the sake of the quote above, we’ll say it was 10.

10 years ago, in May of 2008, I was 36 years old, still living in Boynton Beach, Florida, still working full-time in my construction equipment rental business, I still hadn’t traveled out of the USA yet (and thought I never would), George W. Bush was still president, there was a hysteria that we were on the verge of a second Great Depression, social media was still in its infancy, George Carlin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Osama bin Laden, Robin Williams, my former mechanic Kevin Wagner and Laverne Clarence Gagne, a pro wrestling legend whose signature move was the belly-to-back suplex, were still walking the earth, and no one was saying anything about #metoo, or Fake News, or Brexit, or the Syrian Civil War, or Uday and Qusay Trump.

I shudder to think how much the world – and more specifically my world – will have changed ten years from now. But one thing that will be just the same are the works of Van Gogh. His paintings, especially the late ones – the ones he did in Arles and Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise – weren’t just paintings, his sunflowers weren’t just sunflowers, they were VISIONS.

I found myself thinking about Van Gogh a lot when I was in Amsterdam, and not just in the Van Gogh museum. His spirit was with me everywhere. I imagined him being my older brother in a past life; I imagined him at home battling with our father and against faith; witnessing his beginnings, the humble sketches, the grim paintings of peasants and miners, the letters coming in, his escape to Paris, his discovery of the impressionists and the wild explosion of color in his paintings thereafter; the Japanese influence, Absinthe in the bars, phantasms,  tremors, insanities, the beautiful works born in mental institutions, and the final undoing with a revolver in wheatfields he’d captured so magically in his paintings.


Here’s a quote from Ronald de Leeuw, the editor of Van Gogh’s book of letters.

The linear development of his own life story through the halts, if not the stations of the cross, on his pilgrimage – Brabant, London, Paris, London, The Hague, Drenthe, Nuenen, Antwerp, Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy, Auvers – seems made for literature. The dramatic denouement in Arles and the associated mental crisis, so close on the heels of his artistic achievement, are as potent in their impact as the last act of a tragedy by Shakespeare.

I’ve said it many times before. Technically, Van Gogh was far from perfect. He could even be outright bad at times. But the irresistible charm of his simplicity, his naivety, his sincerity  (which he thought of as a duty); plus his profound expressiveness, the turbulence, the drama, his genius for color – I mean, for FEELING color – a talent of the soul and the gut that can’t be taught, rendered any shortcoming he may have had as completely irrelevant.

If Jesus were to come back as a painter, he’d be Van Gogh, I have no doubt about it. But I can’t talk about him too much here. Anything I say will be incomplete, and I had meant to talk about Amsterdam, which I will do before  wrapping up with one last thing about Van Gogh, the most important thing, the lesson amd moral that all struggling artists should take to heart.

As I was saying, the last time I had come to the city was 9 years ago, and for the first 2 days, I kept trying to find the area I’d stayed at, but with no luck. Everything looked the same – canals, restaurants, bars, cafes, tourist traps, tourists. The city was infested with American tourists, much more than you ever see in Germany, and some were quite old. I wondered if it was their first trip abroad. One thing I told myself long ago, in my 20s, was that I didn’t want to come to Europe for the first time when I was too old to appreciate it. When I was at the Rijksmuseum on my first day, there was an elderly couple standing in the ticket line in front of me, both bent and decrepit. The old man had a hearing aid, and his wife was doing the talking with the clerk. It didn’t go well. Much was misunderstood. Many things were repeated two and three times, and sometimes that wasn’t even enough. But they managed to get their tickets and make it into the museum which was huge and must’ve completely exhausted them. I know it did me, and I didn’t see half of what I wanted to. I saw everything I wanted to at the Van Gogh museum though, despite the insane mobs there. Every painting was THRONGED with people literally breathing down your neck, stepping on your feet, gaping, taking pictures with their iPhones, and I couldn’t help but think of how proud that genius old ginger-haired Christ-figure would’ve been if only he knew. I think in a way he did know – it was faintly anticipated. In a letter to his brother dated 3 April 1878, he wrote this, which explains how he went about his work for the rest of his life:

There was once a man who went to church and asked, ‘Can it be that my ardor has deceived me, that I have taken a wrong turning and managed things badly? Oh, if only I could be rid of this doubt and know for certain I shall come out victorious and succeed in the end.’ And then a voice answered him, ‘And if you were certain, what would you do then? Act now, as if you were certain and you will not be disappointed.’ Then the man went on his way, not unbelieving but believing, and returned to his work no longer doubting or wavering.


This is Van Gogh’s painting Pieta, inspired by Eugene Delacroix, and below are his paints. Both were on display at the Van Gogh Museum.


18 thoughts on “Amsterdam, Van Gogh, Self-Doubt

  1. One of the best museums I’ve been to and one of the most impressive ones in Paris is the Impressionist Museum (Musée d’Orsay). There are 7 versions of Van Gogh’s magnificent sunflowers, one of which is in the Neue Pinakothek gallery in Munich. So, 6 to go.
    His painting is watching me…..

    Kudos for this one, Michael. I really enjoyed it. You have such a way with words. I travel when I read you, both outside and inside.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been to Musée d’Orsay… I went there instead of the Louvre when I was in Paris (just before I went to Amsterdam for the first time) and loved it. I’d definitely go back again (after I finally get to the Louvre). I’m hoping to make a trip there next year. I also wanna get to Munich. I’ve never been there. Can you believe it?

      Glad you enjoyed this one, Bojana. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • As I’ve never been to Berlin. Can you believe that? Make sure you let me know when you do.
        I’m so gad to hear you went to Musée d’Orsay instead of Louvre, which, along with Musée Rodin, interestingly, I loved more than Louvre. I love the old world but I had a slight feeling of disgust in Louvre when looking at what they stole from ancient Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia etc. Whole temples walls, documenting it all nicely. It was customary back then, but why don’t they return it now? Same applies for the British. I’m not going back to Louvre. When I want to see ancient Greece, I go to Greece.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I CAN’T believe you’ve never been to Berlin. You need to get this way, you’d love it. I will definitely let you know when I go to Munich. I’ve wanted to for years, but something else always seemed to come up.

        I know what you mean about the imported walls. There’s one of those at the Bode Museum here in Berlin. Not my thing at all, but I would forgive the Louvre… if only for their Delacroix exhibition. He’s right up there with Van Gogh in my mind, not even so much because of his paintings. His Journals are superb. I’m reading them now and loving it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This blog is superb.
    The word blog does severe injustice.
    Artful and passionate.
    As if I travelled with you in time and place into the life of the great master.
    The artist “where discourses on madness and creativity converge”. (McQuillan, Melissa (1989). Van Gogh. Thames and Hudson. )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Mr Nothing. I think we’ve all gotten screwed by the word Blog… at first it really bothered me, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it’s just a word. The format is great. I KNOW if you were to transport some of the great writers and diarists and essayists and letter writers of the past – Horace, Montaigne, Delacroix, etc. – they’d definitely be blogging. Great quote there. As mad as Van Gogh was, he was always lucid in his letters and art.


  3. …that’s why for a while I played with the anagram ‘glob,’ ‘globbing,’ but hey that sounds like I’m trying to glob someone over the head, whatever that is, and that is probably what I am trying to do, blogging into globdom or vice versa…for all the globs out there, — I have lost it anyway…
    Mein Herr, ich wünsche einen guten Tag!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Cynthia Hilston – Author & Blogger and commented:
    I’m nearly done reading the biographical novel of Vincent Van Gogh’s, Lust for Life. Thus, I’ve been thinking a lot about him: his legacy, his paintings, the way he saw and experienced the world, his passion, the man himself. I am in awe of so much about this amazing man that I cannot even put it into words, but whenever I look at his paintings, that renders my words unnecessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I‘ll have to look into that book. I‘ve only read his letters but I share your admiration for him. Van Gogh was like some great meteorological event that only happens every 20,000 years or so. Thanks for reblogging, Cyndi!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s