EXCERPT FROM “REVERIE” (133-35)  

Self-Portrait on the Road to Tarascan by Vincent van Gogh 1888

Awakened, with the pulsing heat of the summer sun pressing against his face, its intensity suddenly interrupted by a spritely song in the air, the pilgrim inquisitively attunes his ear to the call of the Kingfisher. Only minutes later does he become aware of a pounding disturbance spinning about in his forehead, which he caresses within the cup of his hands . . .

He stares down upon the wrinkles, creases, and abrasions in his shoes. His leathers, like his life, are frayed, worn, and profligate. His strings are loose. He shields his eyes against the rays of the sweltering sun. “Thinking of this, but far away, I feel the desire to renew myself, and to try to apologize for the fact that my pictures are after all almost a cry of anguish, although in the rustic sunflower they may symbolize gratitude” (CL W20).

Wheat Field with Crows by Vincent van Gogh 1890

He rises to his feet, secures his stance, then settles, taking his seat on the stool before the easel. His fingers take hold of his brush, with his elbow at his palette of oils and his eyes surveying the canvas. Continuing to paint, he turns briefly toward an echo from the forest and catches the hiss of the cicada as it bemoans the fever of the noon hour heat constricting the flow of the midsummer air. By late afternoon as a thunderstorm brews and the wind waggles his canvas, the prodigal abruptly seizes the brim of his hat to swat with all his might in the direction of an unwelcome intruder, as he argues vociferously with the bumblebee.

With thunder swelling like the drum-roll of a distant army approaching, Vincent notices that a delicate yellow butterfly, having burst its moribund chrysalis, passes along a broad bed of orange poppies, hovering for a split second, then descending upon the pistil and stamen in search of sweet nectar.

The artist draws his breath, fills his lungs, and releases pent-up tension as the refreshing breeze rakes against his stubbly beard and flushes his furrowed brow. With a piercing gaze he glances across the river and along its bank, long enough to obtain his perspective. He then lifts his brush and dips its tip into bright yellow pigment.

Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin) by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

The storm soon passes without spilling its rain, and the minutes turn into hours as the day wears long and wanes. His stomach growls from emptiness, and the pilgrim asks of himself: What shall come of tomorrow’s foraging of nature? Will yet another mammoth bolder—the ruins, say, of a church, one of the earth’s many dry bones teetering on the pinnacle of the big rock—provide sustenance for this artisan who in his own earthy way still searches for God? Or, will the artist’s eye converge upon that wee poking blade of grass, the tiniest, most glorious of all slender creatures, so delicate yet so common in the ordinary as to be hardly noticed—and dare to believe even when bent in the wind as penitently as the monk is desolate in prayer that this blade of grass is capable of feeding a poor person’s soul?

“What life I think best, oh, without the least shadow of a doubt it is a life consisting of long years of intercourse with nature in the country—and Something on High—inconceivable, ‘awfully unnamable’—for it is impossible to find a name for that which is higher than nature” (CL 339a).

Bulb Fields, The Hague, by Vincent van Gogh 1883

Even so—night is fast approaching and the sun is setting. And “Dame Nature” remains headstrong and recalcitrant, like the beetle on the rose petal or the the mistral on the heath. The cry of a single, solitary reed of grass would make itself audible if it could, alongside the palpable sobbing of a lovely woman saturated in dark blue lament. Both are aching to be heard above the clapping storm of life rumbling into the distance. And the artist who for the moment stands still before his easel is the only person, short of God knows who in heaven itself, to be witnessing these weepings.

Should he, therefore, construe “Dame Nature” in all her moods to possess far more brave beauty in the face of adversity than all her fears and miseries combined could possibly steal from her? And how would he do that? How would he speak to those who someday may stumble upon his dry-rotted pigment—watching, as if there were something higher than nature to see—without his having to scribble its name in the corner of the canvas, which would say about as much of God as the scribble itself? When words have failed, how does an artist give, not a voice, but a face to the unnamable?

Copyright © Charles Davidson, All Rights Reserved