Carol A. Berry’s book, “Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life,” stems from Berry taking classes with the Dutch theologian Nouwen at Yale Divinity School. Nouwen focused on the spiritual life of the van Gogh in his course on compassion, and Berry has continued that study since 1979.
I thought I knew a lot about Van Gogh, but I had no idea that he was a minister and missionary before he was an artist. He immersed himself with the poorest of the poor to the point that many, including his parents, thought he was becoming insane.
And indeed that may have been true. The one issue I have with this book is its tendency to gloss over van Gogh’s mental illness. As an advocate for people with mental illness, I find this inappropriate. People with mental illness are some of the most compassionate people that I have ever met.
Nonetheless, people who love Nouwen’s work and people who love van Gogh’s work both should read this book for the insights it provides. Another big aha for me from the art side of the equation: Impressionism in Europe really developed from Japan opening itself to the world in the mid-1800s so Europeans saw its artwork for the first time.
It’s a quick read, well illustrated with pictures of van Gogh’s work as he became an artist after his experiences as a missionary to the poor.