Seven or eight years ago, I received a letter from a longtime friend, a remarkable woman who first came into my life more than four decades ago as my 12th grade English teacher. The letter told a story, one that speaks volumes about the power of art to touch us deeply, unexpectedly, even inexplicably.
The setting is the highly regarded Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Phyllis Levitt, the retired teacher whose story it is, went on what she assumed would be a pleasant but routine cultural outing.
That’s pretty much what it was, she wrote afterwards. Until she turned a corner and one painting stopped her in her tracks.
She wrote that an unexpected wave of emotion immediately overcame her. She found herself bursting into tears, even before she was near enough to see the roughly 28×36-inch oil painting clearly.
She couldn’t say why she reacted that way, or where that extreme emotion came from. She was reluctant to embrace the easy, mystical explanations that might have come to mind when she moved closer to the painting and realized what she was seeing:
“Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky” was painted in July 1890, making it one of the last works created by Vincent Van Gogh. He committed suicide that same month.
Of course, one way to understand all this is that Phyllis had somehow tuned in directly to Van Gogh’s emotional state when he painted the picture. But there’s another way of thinking about it.
The popular image of Van Gogh is that he was a “mad genius,” and that both his life and his art were consumed by his madness. The reality is he was a disciplined artist with a mastery of color, composition and paint.
Looked at the second way, the emotional intensity of his work was anything but a byproduct of a troubled mind. It was the intended impact of a skilled artist whose vision was matched in every regard by his command of his craft.
In its own way, I think, that explanation of the power of the painting is every bit as “magical” as the first. What do you think? When was the last time you saw or heard a work of creative genius not with your eyes or ears, but in your marrow?
“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say, ‘He feels deeply, he feels tenderly.’”
–Vincent van Gogh