At 53, if someone had asked me who Vincent Van Gogh was, I’d have said, “he’s the guy who cut off his ear.”
Shortly after my first divorce, I took a lady on a date to the Getty; see some art and go to dinner. We looked at paintings of famous old dead men and pretended nuance was part of the experience.
Walking into one of the impressionist rooms we followed the other viewers counter-clockwise, taking time to let the impressions flow over us. Stepping in front of Vincent’s Iris painting, some form of gravity gathered me in. The foreground is brown, for dirt, but one brush stroke is red, probably to suggest clay. For an instant I saw the brush move forward and touch the canvas. I started crying—not bawling or simpering—just tears.
My date was self-conscious. I told her I didn’t know what was wrong. But I sat down, gathered myself and circled the room again. This time, in front of Vincent, I just smiled and let the tears flow.
A couple years later while visiting Europe, I made a day trip to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I expected to spend a few hours in some sort of undefined reverie. I was emotionally devastated and lasted just over an hour.
Since then, I’ve visited the Musee d’Orsay, twice, specifically to stand in a room with seventeen Vincents.
All of his paintings affect me, but his self-portraits auger holes in me. I know him.