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Vincent van Gogh and the Good Samaritan: The wounded painter’s journey by Henry Martin

01 April 2022

Nicholas Cranfield finds a new interpretation of Van Gogh fanciful

THIS book begins somewhat un­­evenly, with an anecdotal survey of the most recognisable faces of the 19th century.

Disregarding Florence Night­ingale, who is identifiable “only if she is holding a lamp”, and all those major figures better known in the 20th century, Stalin, Hitler, even Ghandhi (sic), Henry Martin finds that the red-bearded Dutchman is among the top five.

The current exhibition, “Self Portraits”, at the Courtauld Gallery (until 8 May) will certainly disabuse him of that opinion.

Certainly the brushstrokes may be familiar, but I would defy anyone to recognise him immediately in the Harvard self-portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin (1888), or in the successful bourgeois gentleman, smoking his pipe (1886, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) or smartly turned out in 1887 (Art Institute of Chicago).

But this is not an art-history book, which is no bad thing, since the publishers offer poor reproduction of the one work that Martin pro­­poses to use for a consideration of St Luke 10.26-37.

Van Gogh was very proud of the copy that he finished by 3 May 1890 of an extravagant, almost Baroque, painting by Eugène Delacroix (1849). It is unlikely that the Dutch artist had ever seen the original, which to this day remains in a private collection, but it was known through widely circulated litho­graphs.

And copy it he did, in every meticulous detail of the composition, for his late painting in the famous Kröller-Müller Museum at Otterlo that holds almost 90 paintings and 180 drawings by Van Gogh.

Particulars such as the horse’s hooves, the way in which the Good Samaritan strains awkwardly (not helped by his sabots) to hoist the half dead man into the saddle, even the figures disappearing down the road to Jericho, the rocks, the abandoned chest, the waterfall and the running river are all exactly copied.

It therefore seems somewhat fanciful to suggest that Van Gogh might have identified with any one character in the engraving and some­what ungenerous towards the greater artist whose composition he so slavishly copied.

But this is what the book attempts to do.

The one serious misreading occurs at page 113, where we are told that, in his haste to serve his neighbour, the Samaritan has aban­doned his own riches, leaving them at risk from any further passing robbers.

What Delacroix painted, however, is the trunk that the wounded man had been taking with him. Robbed of its contents, and no doubt of the packhorse that had carried it for him from Jerusalem (a day’s hard walk at the best of times), the man being rescued has no earthly treasures and little left in life.

I found it difficult to understand for whom Martin has written, despite the appended “Questions for discussion”. This is disappointing, since he claimed that Van Gogh never fails to inspire him (Interview, 22 February 2019).

Three years after the first painting Delacroix returned to the subject, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (CAI.63) has his later painting in which the Good Samaritan tends the robbed man on the ground; true compassion at work.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


Vincent van Gogh and the Good Samaritan: The wounded painter’s journey
Henry Martin
DLT £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69

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