In 1878 van Gogh came to the Borinage, a coal mining region in southern Belgium, where he had been assigned to minister to the people of the village of Cuesmes. At twenty-five, Vincent's trajectory in life seemed to be heading determinedly downward. The eighteen year old who had shown such promise as an art dealer at the prestigious firm of Goupil et Cie in Paris erred by revealing his wealthy clients his candid opinions of the works he was selling. He liked to read so he tried his hand at bookselling in Amsterdam but ignored potential customers. Then, thinking he could follow in his father's footsteps by becoming a minister, Vincent only succeeded in putting his parishioners to sleep. And so he was consigned to the lowest work the church offered, as a missionary to the poor coal miners of Cuesmes.
Persuading an elderly miner to take him down into the mines, van Gogh entered a living hell, a bee hive of cramped chambers where entire families labored because women and children were smaller than the men, and could navigate the narrow passages more efficiently. Emile Zola's masterpiece Germinal, published in 1885,describes their plight in harrowing detail while Misere au Borinage, a famous documentary made in 1933, showed how little had changed since van Gogh's time.
While conducting bible studies in the homes of the miners, van Gogh was stricken by their squalid living conditions. He became obsessed with the desire to share their plight, giving away his clothes and food and even going so far as to give up bathing so that his skin would be permeated by the grime that the miners could never seem to wash off. Vincent's identification with the suffering of others lacked boundaries and so it would be, sometimes, with ruthlessness. The same Vincent was capable of killing a butterfly the better to paint it.
When a church official named Rochedieu (means Rock of God - a name fit for Pilgrim's Progress!) came from Brussels on an inspection tour, he was horrified by van Gogh's condition and sacked him on the spot. Losing yet another job when he yearned to give of himself to others devastated Vincent. (It was the inability of his French-speaking superiors to spell van Gogh correctly that led the artist to refer to himself as Vincent.
Van Gogh had been living in a little miner's house where he retreated in despair for a year. It took another year of struggle for him to assemble a group of drawings to take with him to Brussels; his letters to his brother Theo describe how, through his anguish, Vincent found his vocation.
Vincent took his drawings to Brussels in 1880 where he showed them to his mentor, Reverend Peterson, who saw something in them that transcended Vincent's lack of formal training and so Vincent persevered.
1. Jean-Paul Grandmont - The house where Vincent van Gogh lived in Cuesmes, photograph, 2005. (Note: the Miason van Gogh is now a museum)
2. Vincent van Gogh - Coal Miners, September, 1880, pencil on paper, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.