Although he died 126 years ago, Vincent (as he preferred to be called) remains the poster child for tortured artists everywhere. The icon of tormented genius, he sacrificed everything for his art – his health, his sanity and even his life – earning next to nothing while alive. A labyrinthine creative, he held specific ideas about sacrifice, torment and suffering, values that were grounded in his deeply religious youth. His visage of the archetypal tortured artist was not that man in his mirror but rather, Jesus Christ; whom he tried lifelong to imitate.
Rembrandt – sad hospital filled full with murmurings
Decorated only with a great crucifix
Where the tearful prayer exhales from the filth,
And brusquely traversed by a ray of winter.
This quatrain by 19th-century Symbolist pioneer Charles Baudelaire began a heated discussion between Vincent and his pen pal, the artist Émile Bernard. The discourse would ultimately disintegrate their friendship. Bernard, who was less talented with brush and palette than those comrades of the Petit Boulevard (Vincent, Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec and others), was arguably the greatest theorist and innovator, laying claim to originating two artistic movements: Cloisonnism and Symbolism. Vincent’s interpretation of Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox, with its multiplicity of metaphors, reveals his syncretic ideation of Symbolist art – a definition that won’t please pedantic art critics – but should illuminate how he perceived and worked within the movement.
Vincent’s reaction to the quatrain was seething and contemptuous:
Ah… Rembrandt… all admiration for Baudelaire aside — I venture to assume, especially on the basis of those verses…. that he knew more or less nothing about Rembrandt […] But see, have you ever looked closely at ‘the ox’ or the interior of a butcher’s shop in the Louvre? You haven’t looked closely, and Baudelaire, infinitely less so.
Art historian Kenneth Craig published the most compelling interpretation of the Slaughtered Ox, explicating it is a religious painting by demonstrating Rembrandt distilled the essence of a storied Flemish vanitas tradition that depicted the Prodigal Son parable by prominently featuring a flayed carcass as allegorical of Christ’s crucifixion. He concluded:
The killing of the fatted calf at the joyous return of the Son is the symbolic equivalent of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Sermon after sermon as well as innumerable commentaries on Luke 15 make this point: the ox stands for Christ.
Craig uses the “fatted calf” and “slaughtered ox” interchangeably here and several other times. And so it begs the question: does the calf stand for Christ or is it the ox, or is it maybe both?
Digging into the various lexical histories doesn’t really solve the problem. The original Greek word from the parable is “moschos,” in the Latin Vulgate it’s “vitulum” and in the 1637 Dutch Bible, it’s “kalf” and all clearly denote a young bovine, not an ox. While there appears to be a conflation, dating back thousands of years, perhaps the argument should be made that the calf stands for the infant Christ and the ox, His passion.
Vincent, in all likelihood, embraced this crucifixion representation. However, he also perceived a lost interpretation heretofore unpublished by art historians. He explained to Bernard:
The symbol of Saint Luke, the patron of painters, is, as you know, an ox; we must therefore be as patient as an ox if we wish to labor in the artistic field.
The ox also stands for Luke, an important nuance, especially when we consider Luke is also the patron saint of butchers, compounding the correspondence within Rembrandt’s depiction all the more richly. Correspondences, or, multiplicities of metaphors are a cornerstone of Symbolist art. Interestingly, a similar tradition was practiced by Vincent’s Dutchmen. Bijschriftenpoëzie, or “imagepoetry” is the marriage of poem and picture, in which a theologian would take a reverent image and ascribe to it, poetic thoughts, typically from the scriptures, or hymn books of his day. The idea is that a poem is a picture, and a picture, a poem. Artistic lines between genres are blurred, ideally, synesthetically. This was also an important tenet of Symbolist art: to evoke a state of mind within the viewer in which the senses are completely bedazzled.
Vincent’s beliefs about St. Luke illustrate his feeling that the artist’s plight begins with labor. About his own laborious, artistic endeavors, he lamented, quoting Delacroix, “Art is jealous and demands all our time, all our strength,” echoing this sentiment from Flaubert in a later letter, “‘talent is long on patience’ – and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” Art takes strength. Art takes patience. In short, art takes work. It takes all the exertion of an ox to become a great artist, the greatest of whom, in Vincent’s opinion was not Rembrandt, Michelangelo or St. Luke, but Christ; as he explained to Bernard, “he made neither statues nor paintings nor even books….. he states it loud and clear.. he made.. living men, immortals.”
As the ox struggles ever through the field, labor leads to suffering. This doubleedged sword for Vincent was reflected in his mantra to be “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” and illustrated in his view that artists were beasts of burden, including his several references to “the poor Impressionists” as “Parisian cabhorses.” His friend and rival, Paul Gauguin wrote him during this nascent creative period:
The artist’s life is one long Calvary to go through! And that’s perhaps what makes us live. Passion enlivens us, and we die when it has nothing more to feed on. Let’s leave these paths full of thorny bushes, but they have their wild poetry all the same. I’m studying young Bernard, whom I don’t know as well as you do; I believe you’ll do him good, and he needs it. He has suffered, of course, and he’s starting out in life full of bile…
These artists embraced as a prerequisite that one must suffer to create art. It follows that the greater the suffering, the greater the artistic output. Which artist had suffered the most? He whom had earned the symbol of the ox through His passion, Christ. The result of which – according to Vincent – was the creation of humanity and immortality for all those who believe in Him.
“These artists embraced as a prerequisite that one must suffer to create art. It follows that the greater the suffering, the greater the artistic output.”
When Vincent fled to the south of France, he had given up hopes of a wife or children, empathizing with his brother, “we try to create thoughts instead of children; in that way, we’re part of humanity all the same.” Humbled in the Arlesian brothels, Vincent felt impotent in the physical world, “creating thoughts instead of children.” Oxen, castrated, are also unable to procreate. The abandonment of the physicality for the creative, was now Vincent’s destiny. But he was in good company. Those beasts of burden, St. Luke and Christ had been celibate, rejecting their physical selves in favor of discovering their spiritual perfections.
“labor, suffering, castration, and crucifixion”
From the asylum at St. Remy, a year after lambasting the Baudelaire quatrain, his relationship with Bernard and Gauguin all but dissolved; Vincent derided their attempts at Symbolist art as rife with crude Catholic iconography, exhorting, “in order to give an impression of anxiety, you can try to do it without heading straight for the historical garden of Gethsemane.” His point was to be more subtle, was to be more sublime. The greatest artists challenge their viewers to discover elusive, symbolic meanings, as evidenced in the myriad of epiphanies experienced while closely examining the Slaughtered Ox. Thus, Vincent interpreted the Rembrandt as an allegorical self-portrait and mirroring of the artist’s plight and destiny: labor, suffering, castration, and crucifixion, but ultimately, salvation.
Image | Rembrandt – Slaughtered Ox Wikipedia