I love Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. Brimming with anecdotes about daily life, spiritual concerns, and occasional requests for money, the letters are also a rich source of wisdom about being an artist. The following quote is from a letter where Vincent describes a conversation he’d had with a harsh critic. Rather than trying to please the critic, Van Gogh defended his own way of working:
Believe me, in things of art the saying is true: honesty is the best policy – rather more trouble on a serious study than a kind of chic to flatter the public. Sometimes in moments of worry I have longed for that kind of chic, but thinking it over I say: No – let me be true to myself – and in a rough manner express severe, rough, but true things. I shall not run after the amateurs or the dealers, let those who want to come to me. In due season we shall reap, if we faint not!
Of course the quote is striking because have many dealers and collectors did come to appreciate Van Gogh’s work, albeit after his tragic death. The quote wouldn’t land with much force if his work had never become popular, but since it did, Van Gogh’s words here are almost prophetic.
What I find most interesting is that even Van Gogh, a profoundly eccentric and sincere man, occasionally longed for “that kind of chic” that would please the public. I’d like to think he was above such things, but I suspect this longing infects most artists at some point. However pure our motives may seem, there is some part of us that is afraid of telling the truth and that wants to merely flatter the public.
Part of the work of the artist, I suppose, is being willing to tell severe, rough, truths.