Imagine my pleasure in coming upon this "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena. I hadn't realized it was there, and suddenly face to face with it I was reminded of the deep affection between Vincent and this remarkable woman.
Though there was little affection between him and his evangelist father, he felt perpetually homesick for the warmth and security of the courageous woman whose temperament, stubborn and determined, was so like his own. Each was blessed with a homespun sense of humor and a practical tolerance for hardship. Each had a large capacity for love.
Anna Cornelia Carbentus van Gogh, the daughter of a bookbinder, was herself something of an artist.She had produced some creditable watercolors before her marriage. An excellent needlewoman and a lover of nature, she encouraged her young son to make copies of her own paintings and to copy pictures from the family Bible. The practice od drawing that she initiated flowered throughout his life, so that even at 30 he wrote to his brother that "six months have passed that have been quite devoted to drawing." By September 1888, however, the time of this portrait, he was writing, "Ah! portraiture, portraiture, with the thought, the soul of the model in it, that is what I think must come." He told his brother that he tried "to develop the best and most serious side of art," which to him was portraiture. In his 40 self-portraits and those of numerous acquaintances he went far beyond physical likeness to the very skeleton beneath, with starting discernment revealing the character of his subject.
I was impressed by the tranquil, softly modulated background in his "Mother" portrait. In mid-August of 1888 he was using burning colors with demoniac intensity. Intoxicated with ultramarine, emeraude, and cadmium, he discussed other portraits with Theo, writing, "Beyond the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive." And about another work, "I used orange, shades like storm flasehes vivid as red hot iron."
But for his mother there is soft blue light and tender opalescence laid on with strokes different from his usual swirls of impasto.I went up close and found in two places of the background some flat brush marks, scarcely discernible, defining a small four-petaled flower. Only in the severe dress and ruffled hat did I find the parallel strokes of his 1888 landscapes.These serve to define the textures. His proportionate use of light and dark masses reflect his admiration for Japanese prints, while he enhances his mother's strength by allowing little space back of her. As always there is his secure outline, firmly expressive though veiled with color.
He cared deeply for this mother of the burning eyes and valiant lips who lived her long life in bondage to the proprieties.
I kept asking myself, Did Anna represent security to her difficult son? He wrote Theo in the year of this portrait that he hoped to have "a home of my own which frees the mind from the dismalness of finding oneself in the streets." He always returned home after a frustrating experience when, as an art salesman at Goupil's in Paris, he was angered by the boss and he dropped everything to go home at the height of the Christmas season. Later, back in Paris, he wrote: "I keep thinking of Holland and across the two-fold remoteness of distance and time gone by, these memories have a kind of heartbreak in them." After each disastrous love affair he returned home saying he "wanted to be near Father and Mother."
But there was never any real closeness between father and son. Was he criticizing his father when he wrote, "He who tries . . . to remain honest can scarcely altogether lose his way . . . and I think it will give him a deep feeling of pity and benevolence, broader than the narrow-mindedness which is the stock-in-trade of clergymen."
Again, after his short attempt as an active evangelist at Wasmes in South Belgium, Van Gogh wrote: "I want to give peace ot poor creatures and reconcile them to their existence here on earth." His efforts to help mankind misfired, and I wonder if he ever came face to face with his ineptitude and lack of tact, preaching with gloomy itensity about the hardness of man's lot on earth.The peasants in the Borinage couldn't stand it. They knew all about that.
With his curious mixture of idealism, eccentricity, masochism and art, he found release only when painting. His love for everyday people and everyday life blossomed on canvas, expressed by a farmer's bent back, a sower's heavy legs, a huge lump of an old woman doubled over to seize cabbages and celery from the earth. In These paintings he used color to such an extent that it becomes almost anthropomorphic.
We know that even in Arles he was often desolate for companionship. And he was surely aware of his mother's endless patience with the fanaticism that constantly tore at him. In his last year he wrote her often, and once told Theo that he was recalling every room in her house.
Perhaps this gentle portrait was a kind of visit with her. After he read an article about Richard Wagner titled "Love in Music," he commented to Theo, "How one needs the same thing in painting." Some of his last words were, "I wish I could go home now."