Vincent van Gogh's painting, Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity) is a moving depiction of an old man, sitting beside a fire, his head clutched in his hands. It is an image he repeated over a period of eight of the ten years van Gogh spent dedicating himself to art. He made the first drawing and lithograph of this subject in 1881 and he painted his last version in 1890, shortly before his death. He died in January 1891.
He said, in a letter to his brother that his intention was, “to express the special mood of Christmas and New Year." This may explain the contradiction in the title, “sorrow" and the phrase “threshold of eternity," His letter went on to say, “I can fully share in it and even feel a need for it, at least in the sense that, just as much as an old man of that kind, I have a feeling of belief in something on high even if I don’t know exactly who or what will be there." A message of hope and a new beginning, something he needed in 1890.
It was in 1888 he had cut off his ear lobe after a quarrel with Gauguin and in the following year he had been in the asylum at Saint-Rémy suffering a protracted psychotic episode lasting from February to April. He experienced terrifying hallucinations and complained bitterly of the religious content of these episodes and wanted to get away from the nuns who cared for him. During this period he produced 300 pieces of art including Starry Night.
Before he became an artist van Gogh had followed a religious calling, a choice which had ended badly. He'd studied theology but failed his exams. Undaunted he accepted a temporary post as a missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. The poverty and hardship he saw affected him deeply. Rather than take the 'easy option' he became involved in the lives of those he preached to, people who he liked. He shared their poverty and gave them his belongings. Sleeping on a straw pallet in a hut behind the baker's house he was often heard weeping at night. Eventually his sponsors sacked him from his post and accused him of undermining the dignity of the priesthood. He suffered further condemnation for his lifestyle and life choices, such as setting up a home with his mistress and her daughter, condemned also by his father who was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Old Man in Sorrow shows Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland, a favourite model of the artist from his Hague period. He wears a patched bombazine suit and worn boots. The fireplace he sits beside is stylised and understated, almost flat like a Japanese print. It shows a wood fire with flames drawing vigorously. There are two tiny shapes like gates within the firebox, echoes of the fireplace itself. One flame rises towards a cross framed within one of the gates. Other flames stream towards a similar shape and tracing the line of the old man's leg and knee. These marks echo the shape of the under-mantel and pillar drawn boldly in indigo. It is as if the old man's sorrow burns like the flames disappearing into eternity.
Passion and conviction marked out van Gogh. He believed that painting was his job of work but not to workaday ends. He believed he must become the very best artist he could be in his search of the ultimate ` truth` and feeling "the positive consciousness of the fact that art is something greater and higher than our own adroitness or accomplishments or knowledge".
He was not certain that it was necessarily Christian, for as he said,
"I was trying to say this in this print but I can’t say it as beautifully, as strikingly as reality, of which this is only a dim reflection seen in a dark mirror - that it seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of 'something on high' in which Millet believed, namely in the existence of a God and an eternity, is the unutterably moving quality that there can be in the expression of an old man like that, without his being aware of it perhaps, as he sits so quietly in the corner of his hearth. At the same time something precious, something noble, that can’t be meant for the worms. ... This is far from all theology -- simply the fact that the poorest woodcutter, heath farmer or miner can have moments of emotion and mood that give him a sense of an eternal home that he is close to."
Although van Gogh died by his own hand unsuccessful and unacknowledged, he achieved the status of one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century and fulfilled his own wish had he but known it:
“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say 'he feels deeply, he feels tenderly.’"