Quick: Think of a van Gogh depicting the son of God. Stumped? Cliff Edwards ’54 can explain.
By Mary Jo Patterson
In the summer of 1888 Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh was living and furiously painting in the south of France. In one of many letters to his brother, Theo, that summer he reported that he had painted, and then destroyed, an image of Christ. Two months later van Gogh told his brother he’d done it again.
“For the second time I’ve scraped off a study of Christ with the angel in the Garden of Olives,” he wrote. “I can’t, or rather, I don’t wish to paint it without models. But I have it in my mind with color—the starry night, the figure of Christ blue, the strongest blues, and the angel broken lemon yellow.”
The $500,000 Etching
Cliff Edwards was waiting to meet with the president of Virginia Commonwealth University about 10 years ago when he spotted a “strange dark little frame with someone in it” in a dim corner of the room. Sensing something familiar, he walked toward it. Immediately he recognized the melancholy face of Paul Gachet, Vincent van Gogh’s physician. One of van Gogh’s last works was an etching of his doctor. Many of the impressions had disappeared, but others hung in museums around the world. “I pointed it out to people in the building and said, ‘Please take care of this,’” Edwards recalls. VCU sent it to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which authenticated it. The etching had been donated to the university decades earlier by a former president. “My guess is that it simply fell through the cracks,” says Edwards. “Ever since, it’s been in a safe and only comes out for occasional viewings. It’s worth a half million or more.”–MJP
The paintings, obviously, don’t exist. And their subject matter was not characteristic of van Gogh, who is known for his landscapes, portraits and sunflowers. Yet the phantom canvases are the subject of a new manuscript by Cliff Edwards ’54, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has published three books examining van Gogh’s spirituality. He calls the works van Gogh’s “ghost paintings.”
Edwards believes the artist’s decision to scrap them was a turning point in his career. “Never before, and never after, did he choose a subject from the life of Jesus, and he then destroyed it. The mystery is, why?” Edwards asked in an interview.
“My view is that, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Vincent was trying to make a decision about what to do with the rest of his life. There was a real interest in religious art at the time—it was something that could sell. He was trying to decide, do I do religious art? He made a decision that he would not. Van Gogh believed that spirituality is in everything, and that painting what’s here and now is what’s important.”
Before becoming an artist, van Gogh, a pastor’s son, had attempted to become a minister but failed. After taking up art he sold only one painting, and committed suicide in 1890, at age 37. But his letters to Theo, who supported him financially, created a “unique record of a creative person,” according to Edwards. “He’s the only artist in history who has written every day about what he was doing, and what he was painting, and what it meant to him.”
Edwards’ interest in van Gogh was kindled 40 years ago while he was living and teaching at a Buddhist monastery in Japan. At the time, van Gogh’s art was popular in Japan. “When I was in Japan, I got very interested in their arts. I asked my Zen master to show me a very famous Zen work of art at the monastery. He said, ‘I’ll show it to you, if you answer this question: You’re interested in Oriental art. Why are all the Japanese interested in van Gogh’s sunflowers?’”
Seeking an answer, Edwards traveled to Amsterdam to view van Gogh’s paintings. He also immersed himself in his letters and learned that van Gogh had been interested in Japanese art and Buddhism. Edwards’ lifework had begun. “It just sort of took over,” says the Southampton, N.Y., native, a history major at Drew who later studied all over the world. “It was everything I love—seeing art, analyzing texts and bringing together East and West.”