Art, Independence and Spirit – Van Gogh, Brenda Ueland


Excerpted from If You Want To Write (1939)
Still in print

If you read the letters of the painter Van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was. It was just this: he loved something—the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them. And that was all there was to it.

When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lampost, a star, and he said in his letter something like this: “It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.” And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.

When I read this letter of Van Gogh’s it comforted me very much and seemed to throw clear light on the whole road of Art. Before, I had thought that to produce a work of painting or literature, you scowled and thought long and ponderously and weighed everything solemnly and learned everything that all artists had ever done aforetime, and what their influences and schools were, and you were extremely careful about design and balance and getting interesting planes into your painting, and avoided, with the most stringent severity, showing the faintest academical tendency, and were strictly modern. And so on and on.

But the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.

The difference between Van Gogh and you and me is, that while we may look at the sky and think it is beautiful, we don’t go so far as to show someone else how it looks. One reason may be that we do not care enough about the sky or for other people. But most often I think it is because we have been discouraged into thinking what we feel about the sky is not important.

And Van Gogh’s little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness he could. You and I might have made the drawing and scratched it off roughly. Well, that would have been a good thing to do too. But Van Gogh made the drawing with seriousness and truth.

This is what Van Gogh wrote about people like all of us, whose creative impulse is confused (and not simple as his was) and mixed up with all sorts of things such as the wish to make an impression (not just to tell the truth) and to do what critics say artists should do and so on:

He said:

When I see young painters compose and draw from memory, and then haphazardly smear on whatever they like also from memory—then keep it at a distance and put on a very mysterious, gloomy face to find out what in Heavens’ name it may look like and at last finally make something from it, always from memory—it sometimes disgusts me, and makes me think it all very tedious and dull.

They cannot understand that the figure of a laborer—some furrows in a plowed field, a bit of sand, sea and sky—are serious objects, so difficult but at the same time so beautiful, that it is indeed worthwhile to devote one’s life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them.

To show that the creative impulse of Van Gogh, a great genius, was simply loving what he saw and then wanting to share it with others, not for the purpose of showing off, but out of generosity, I will tell you a few things he said. I want to show you that what he had in him is just what you all have in yourselves and should let out…

Van Gogh said:

My only anxiety is what I can do… could I not be of use and good for something?… And in a picture I wish to say something that would console as music does.

He said:

We take beautiful walks together. It is very beautiful here, if one only has an open and simple eye without any beams in it. But if one has that it is beautiful everywhere.

He said:

Painters understand nature and love her and teach us to see her…

And this:

The world only concerns me so far as I feel a certain debt and duty towards it and out of gratitude want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures—not made to please a certain tendency in art, but to express sincere human feeling.

You can see how Van Gogh’s simple impulse is in all of us. But in us it is clouded over and confused with notions such as: will the work be good or bad? or would it be Art? or would it be modernistic enough and not academical? and would it sell? would it be economically sound to put the time in trying to do it?…

Yes, it has made me like working to see that writing is not a performance but a generosity…

I think there is something necessary and life-giving about creative work.. a state of excitement. And it is like a faucet: nothing comes unless you turn it on, and the more you turn it on, the more comes.

It is our nasty twentieth century materialism that makes us feel: what is the use of writing, painting, etc., unless one has an audience or gets cash for it? Socrates and the men of the Renaissance did so much because the rewards were intrinsic, i.e., the enlargement of the soul… Socrates and the Greeks decided that a man’s life should be devoted to “the tendance of the Soul” (Soul included intelligence, imagination, spirit, understanding, personality) for the soul lived eternally, in all probability…

And so now I have established reasons why you should work from now on until you die, with real love and imagination and intelligence, at your writing or whatever work it is that you care about. If you do that, out of the mountains that you write some mole hills will be published. Or you may make a fortune and win the Nobel Prize. But if nothing is ever published at all and you never make a cent, just the same it will be good that you have worked.


Brenda Ueland, a prolific Minnesota author and columnist, best known for her book If You Want To Write, died in 1985 at the age of 93. Her father was a lawyer and judge, her mother a suffrage leader. Copyright 1992 by The Estate of Brenda Ueland.

See also Brenda’s The Art of Listening