Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Van Gogh and the art of living forever

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
September 15, 2013 -- Updated 1616 GMT (0016 HKT)
Van Gogh Museum director Axel Ruger, and senior researcher Louis van Tilborgh, right, unveil the newly discovered painting by Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh during a press conference at the museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday, September 9. Van Gogh Museum director Axel Ruger, and senior researcher Louis van Tilborgh, right, unveil the newly discovered painting by Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh during a press conference at the museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday, September 9.
HIDE CAPTION
Under the cover, a new van Gogh painting
Under the cover, a new van Gogh painting
Under the cover, a new van Gogh painting
<<
<
1
2
3
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Discovery of Van Gogh painting points up immortality of the artist
  • He says Van Gogh struggled with his art--and depression--died young, but art endured
  • He says art in all its forms is like message in a bottle, sent from the mind of artist to the ages
  • Greene: Art, whether Phil Everly or van Gogh, keeps artist's perceptions alive

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- If you're good enough at what you do, it is possible to live forever.

That's a lesson to be drawn from the news out of Amsterdam last week. A painting by the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, which was previously believed to be a forgery, has been authenticated. "Sunset at Montmajour," a landscape painted by van Gogh in 1888, has been painstakingly studied by experts at the Van Gogh Museum, using sophisticated chemical-and-technological analysis. Their conclusion: It's the real thing.

It is said to be the first full-sized canvas by van Gogh to be found in 85 years. In the past, paintings by van Gogh have sold for tens of millions of dollars apiece.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

He has been dead since 1890, when, in one of many moments of despair, he took his own life. He was only 37. Even before he entered the world, there were omens that his might not be a conventional existence. On March 30, 1852, Vincent van Gogh was stillborn in the Netherlands. That was his older brother. A year later -- to the day -- a second child was born. This child, too, was given the name Vincent. He would be the boy who grew into an artist.

He left school at 15. He worked as an art dealer, a clergyman and a bookseller. He never found material success. He battled depression and deep loneliness. His mental health deteriorated. He famously mutilated his left ear; he was confined to an asylum. His attacks of anxiety and bottomless melancholy kept him in his room for months at a time. His brother Theo would write that, very near the end, Vincent said to him: "The sadness will last forever."

Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh.
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh.

Yet what has lasted forever is his brilliance. Because of his artistry, van Gogh has proved to be immortal. He has been gone for more than a century, and we are talking about him today, studying every detail of his work, trying to decipher what it was he was trying to say on his canvases.

Making art, in any of its myriad forms -- music, literature, drama and beyond -- is like sending messages out in bottles. The artists, on the days they drop the bottles into the water, can have no idea where they will end up, or who will find them.

You don't have to be an aficionado of fine art to walk into a public gallery, stand before a painting done by someone long dead, and think: One day, many generations ago, whoever created this work decided that this tiny brushstroke here would be preferable to another, subtly different one; that this shade of red in this corner was the ideal one, instead of a shade more vivid or more muted; that the shadows over on this side of the canvas were what was needed to set the proper mood. And now, all these years later, a stranger standing in front of the painting in a town the artist never visited is thinking about the mind behind those choices.

Vincent van Gogh's lost painting
Watch 7,000 dominoes fall to create art
It's been 125 years since Vincent van Gogh cut off part of his ear in a fit of depression, and today people remain inspired and intrigued by the prolific post-Impressionist Dutch painter. Here, a hot air balloon designed in his image celebrates the anniversary of his birth in Zundert, Netherlands, in March 2003. It's been 125 years since Vincent van Gogh cut off part of his ear in a fit of depression, and today people remain inspired and intrigued by the prolific post-Impressionist Dutch painter. Here, a hot air balloon designed in his image celebrates the anniversary of his birth in Zundert, Netherlands, in March 2003.
Inspired by van Gogh
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
Photos: Inspired by van Gogh Photos: Inspired by van Gogh

Walk into a public library. Pull a book from any shelf. The book can be by an acclaimed author -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, the wonderful writer of Westerns Dorothy M. Johnson, Philip Roth -- or by an author with whose work you are unfamiliar. Flip through the book until you find a paragraph that strikes you as being especially beautifully constructed, a paragraph you immediately esteem.

Linger over it, and consider: This writer chose to put this comma here for a reason, for the desired rhythm and cadence; discerned that this particular combination of words would be most pleasing to the eye and ear of a reader; pondered, at least momentarily, whether a semicolon was the right way to break a thought, or whether a period followed by the start of a new sentence would serve a reader more gracefully. The writer, on that day, may not have known whether his or her book would ever be published. Maybe the book has sat on this library shelf for years without anyone coming along to free it from its hardbound neighbors.

But on this day, someone -- you -- has, in fact, come along, and is thinking about what the writer may have been thinking, alone at a typewriter or with a fountain pen poised over a clean sheet of paper, so many years ago. That message in a bottle: The writer is alive again -- alive still. The work, suddenly, is new once more.

This is artistry's payoff, its greatest reward. During the summer, the singer Phil Everly spoke about an antebellum house that he and his wife had renovated and repaired in Maury County, Tennessee. Everly, 74, told Marc Myers of the Wall Street Journal that "The house makes me feel kind of solid. I like things that are way older than I am and are going to outlast me."

But he is being too modest. The house is not going to outlast the music of the Everly Brothers; eventually and inevitably the house will fall apart or be torn down. The songs that Phil and Don Everly recorded, though, with their gorgeously blended voices, will never die. The brothers themselves, like all artists, will leave this earth, but the harmonies they created will go on and on.

Immortality: Now that van Gogh's "Sunset at Montmajour" has been discovered and authenticated for the world to see, his every artistic choice that reveals itself on the canvas will be peered at and discussed for centuries to come, by admirers hoping to glean further insights into the man he was.

He painted more than 800 canvases and did more than 1,000 drawings and watercolors.

He went to his grave a pauper, knowing that, for all his talent and heart and inspiration, he had been able, in his lifetime, to sell only one painting.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT