Many have been moved by the art of Van Gogh. Denver painter Clyde Steadman has found deep and lasting significance in one of the Dutch painter’s depictions of old shoes, boots that are both holey and, for Steadman, holy.
Lead Image: “A Pair of Boots,” by Vincent van Gogh, 1887, oil, 12 7/8 x 16 1/4 in. Collection of Baltimore Museum or Art, Baltimore, Maryland
“The first time I saw the shoe paintings by Van Gogh, I was around 10 years old or so,” says Steadman. “It was a sign that art didn’t have to be pretty. I didn’t really get more than that out of it. But it stuck with me. Now it seems emblematic of a way that art can be important, and almost holy. It can be a kind of preserved prayer. There’s something that an artist does when he sits down in front of something and stares very intently at it for three or four hours. That intense concentration has a meditative aspect to it.”
In Steadman’s eyes, Van Gogh’s attention sanctified those boots. “The shoes were actually worthless,” he says. “They were crappy when brand new, worn too long by somebody who couldn’t buy anything better, and they were headed for the trash. But Van Gogh was staring at it and saw something worthwhile. He sat and concentrated on it and left a record of his four hours of intense thought — and prayer. Now we have that. We can see what he thought and it can move us in the way that it moved him. There is power in that. That is something that art can aspire to. That kind of approach is in opposition to a Bouguereau, who made things pretty. That was his special talent — to see something pretty in things. But you don’t leave a Bouguereau changed. You leave a Van Gogh changed, because you see something in a new way. I didn’t think about all this when I was looking at it at age 10. But it presented something, made me see something like old shoes in a different way.”
Steadman says he has come to appreciate virtuosic paint handling, and now he values both the lessons of Van Gogh in terms of the elevation of any subject matter and the way something is painted. “Nowadays the painters that I like the most meld the virtuosic paint handling with serious treatment of subjects,” he says. “I mean people who I didn’t know when I was 10, such as Lucian Freud, Daniel Sprick, Ilya Repin, Egon Schiele. This has implications for us as artists. Painting should never be done carelessly. It should always be treated like it’s something important. The painting is worthwhile regardless of its technical qualities. Think about it — not only was Van Gogh painting something worthless, his painting was worthless. The people who saw good paintings all day in his time did not buy them. They are valued now, but when painted they really were, in a concrete sense, worthless. The worth any painting has, has to be beyond its actual economic value.”