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Lentil Soup: Van Gogh’s Table

“First coffee and black bread, then just black bread, then plain water, then fever, exhaustion and delirium.”

Vincent van Gogh, “Dear Theo”


I have only myself and the Read Café to thank for a depressing week this spring. On my way to the dentist, I retrieved Lust for Life out of a box of free books that the Read had placed on the sidewalk—whether carelessly or maliciously, I don’t know. After all, this is a neighborhood full of painters and what is every painter’s worst nightmare? To live the life of van Gogh. Reading the Irving Stone version—oh so romantic!—a painter is pinched in a vise. On the one hand, you are forced to admit that you’re not as passionate about painting as Vincent was and, on the other, that if you are, you’ll be starved, isolated, driven to madness and shoot yourself in the head. Some ironic consolation may be felt about the millions your paintings will fetch. Still, Lust for Life should be banned and burned.

I recovered from my depression by rereading van Gogh’s letters and seeing the show of his portraits of the postman Roulin at MoMA. The letters provide a beautifully written account of the way van Gogh thought as a painter, educated himself, and chose his subjects as well as the techniques he used. They are full of inspiration and thought-provoking advice such as, “It is the painter’s duty to be entirely absorbed by nature and to use all his intelligence to express sentiment in his work so that it becomes intelligible to other people.” Does the painter have a duty? What is encompassed by nature? How does one use one’s intelligence to express sentiment?

And he writes, “If one has more ambition and love of money than love, in my opinion there is something wrong with that man. If a man has only love and does not know how to earn money, there is something wrong with him also.” Reading the letters, I experienced a familiar anxiety along the lines of, “If I could only paint thirty paintings, and I already have five, and then show them and sell them for two francs a piece, then I’d…” But van Gogh is not at all romantic about poverty. He states, “I sometimes think that if my life was somewhat easier, how much more and how much better should I then be able to work.”

It is wonderful that van Gogh wrote his life in letters and made six portraits of a postman. The five that were on view at the MoMA this spring both from a psychological view, as they were all painted in his last two years, and as an opportunity to see the way his work developed during that time. And this development was made clear because the show focused only on those works. The intense subjectivity of paintings makes it possible that a series of portraits like these are about the artist, the subject, and the relationship between them.

Roulin was a neighbor who became a friend to van Gogh and helped him through his nervous breakdowns. All of the portraits show Roulin in his postal uniform and cap. One of van Gogh’s letters mentions that he wore it night and day. In the first painting, he appears as an interesting type, seen at a distance and three-quarter length. His hands are awkwardly placed and he models self-consciously. The rest of the works show only his head and shoulders—he has moved front and center in the picture plane. The second has a clear cerulean ground against which the blue-black of his uniform is in striking contrast. The beard is carefully and realistically painted. He is open and uptight and has clearly now become a friend.

At this time, van Gogh wrote about him as “a man who is neither embittered nor sad, nor perfect, nor happy, not always irreproachably just. But such a good soul and so wise and so full of feeling and so trustful.”

The third portrait disturbs me. The palette is more Gauguin than van Gogh. The ground is a harsh yellow and the head is slightly turned and locked into it. One red ear is revealed. The beard is stiffly painted and further imprisons the face, which has a look of anguish and confusion. Gauguin visited during this time and upset van Gogh, who cut off his ear at the end of the visit. This is pure speculation on my part, but I think one might have difficulty being the friend of both Roulin and Gauguin.

In the fourth and fifth portraits, the ground is a very active flowered screen with the head more settled into it—not locked in as it is in the third, but resting in it. the beard becomes a series of flowing arabesques and the paint strokes do not follow the forms of the face, as is usual with van Gogh, but instead radiate from a central point. In the fourth, the expression emanates benevolence and a sanity to which one could cling. In the fifth, Roulin still appears benevolent but with a god-like indifference. White outlines suggest van Gogh’s heightened, emotionally disturbed state of mind. That van Gogh was able, even on the verge of a nervous breakdown, to control his materials enough to successfully paint this state of mind comes as a bit of a shock.

* * * * *

There is a cookbook called Monet’s Table—the table being in the French sense of one’s daily menu. Van Gogh didn’t have a table. My father would say, “He was so poor, he didn’t have a pot to piss in…” (pause) “…or a window to throw it out of.” He also didn’t have a day job (like I do). He once wrote to Theo that he had chosen to spend his money on wine and tobacco instead of food because they heightened his sensibilities and he couldn’t afford both. I admire the strength of that constitution!

With the hope that you will be able to afford both and the time to paint as well, my friend Haleh Atabeigi offers her recipe for lentil soup. Wash half a bag of dried lentils and throw them in a pot with one coarsely chopped onion. Add enough water to cover an inch higher than the beans. Bring to a boil uncovered, skim off the foam and simmer for a few minutes. Put in salt, 2 whole cloves, some cinnamon and simmer for half an hour. Squeeze in half a lemon and simmer for another hour or until the lentils are soft, adding extra water if needed. Variations include adding fresh chopped garlic, a cilantro garnish, putting yogurt on top, or adding cayenne or chili powder and a splash of olive oil.

This dish will serve three people or last you for three days. A bag of lentils costs 50 cents, an onion is 25 cents, half a lemon is 15 cents, half a pint of excellent yogurt is $1.25, and a nice New York strip steak at Tops costs about $7.00.


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