About twelve years ago, I was living in the small town of Tooele, Utah. My wife was a big fan of Vincent van Gogh and decorated our home with a number of his framed posters. In the kitchen she placed "Cafe Terrace at Night," which features a view of a cafe’s exterior beneath a starry sky.
Today, I can’t even remember what I was doing when something about that poster struck me like a bolt of lightning.
"What is that man in the middle of this painting doing?" I wondered.
I walked closer for a better look. The little man in white looked like a waiter. But he was so different from all the other figures who were dark and roughly rendered.
And then, my electrifying experience exploded exponentially.
Quickly, I counted the number of diners… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 (including this one hiding in the shadows… it couldn’t be? Could it!) … but where was the 12th diner? "There has to be a 12th diner!" I peered even closer and behind the little waiter, the little serving figure, was the arm of the 12th diner.
It was a revelation: I was absolutely positive I was looking at Vincent’s version of The Last Supper.
I yelled to my wife, "You have to see this!"
She came downstairs and as we pored over Vincent’s masterpiece we discovered the coup de grace: directly behind the little server is a window, its mullions forming a cross, or crucifix, perfectly framing the waiter, as if he were bearing it. We thought, surely we’re not the first to have discovered this. She had several books about van Gogh and his art. None mentioned him ever painting The Last Supper.
Then, life got in the way.
9/11, our divorce, raising two boys in two homes and all the petty things we too often fill our days with.
She kept all the van Gogh posters, except one. She gave me "Cafe Terrace at Night." I hung it in my apartment and would show everyone who came over. I would lead them, Socratically, like a lawyer with a witness, giving them clues in the hopes that they would make the discovery on their own, somehow sharing in that same revelation that had galvanized a small moment of infinity I shared with the woman I still so dearly loved. Eventually, during some move, I lost that poster and its memory extinguished like a dying candle.
Last year, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam announced a new discovery: one of van Gogh’s self-portraits was actually a portrait of his younger brother, Theo. The spark was rekindled. I sent several emails to the curators at the museum, inquiring about my Last Supper theory. After receiving no reply, I called them on the phone. I was bound and determined to get an answer. Finally, someone replied to an email, writing, "This is a very interesting theory but would be hard to prove as van Gogh never wrote about it in his letters." The curator suggested I study "The Symbolic Language of Vincent van Gogh" but admitted, many at the museum do not believe van Gogh ever used religious symbolism in his paintings.
While I was studying that book, a new book about van Gogh was published, "Van Gogh: The Life." Hailed as the new, definitive biography, the result of ten years of research; the authors were featured on "60 Minutes" because of their claim that van Gogh did not commit suicide. It was then I realized that van Gogh’s genius is still being discovered and I would write a book about his Last Supper.
That’s easier said than done, especially when you’re a window washer, with no degree, living in rural Washougal, Washington. To make a long story short, I decided I must become a van Gogh expert. Like a scriptorial monk, I scrutinized his 800+ letters, devouring over 100 books and scholarly papers about the great artist. But while crafting my book, it became apparent I would first have to prove my theory to the leading experts with a scholarly paper.
I wrote and submitted the paper to a number of art history journals. This was followed by a great number of rejection emails and letters. I queried every art history professor I could, seeking advice, a co-author, anything to publish this theory for the world to determine its veracity. Finally, I got the insight I was looking for: Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette, author of the website www.arthistoryunstuffed.com, explained that those journals rarely consider articles, unless written by a Ph.D. She further explained hardly anybody reads them and if I wanted to be read, I should take my writing career into my own hands and self-publish on Amazon.com.
So that’s what I did. Vincent considered himself a man of the people, who painted for ordinary people. It’s no little irony that this discovery was made by an ordinary person and not by those of the hallowed halls of academia. I think Vincent would have preferred it this way.
I hope you’ll consider the article, Van Gogh’s Last Supper: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008D8PYOS and share in the same moment of infinity.
Jared Baxter is the father of two teenaged boys, living in Washougal, Washington, co-parenting with their mother, who lives in Gresham, Oregon. www.vangoghslastsupper.com
I forgot to add that I rest my theory on the foundation built by UCLA Presidential Chair in Modern European Art, History and Culture, Dr. Debora Silverman’s groundbreaking book Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art. She successfully argued van Gogh painted a Madonna and Child, a picture of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, with no Madonna and no child.
La Berceuse is a portrait of a woman sitting in a chair with a rope looped around her finger. The rope is tied to a cradle that’s not pictured, so the viewer actually becomes the child. In his letters, van Gogh intended the painting to be placed between two of his sunflower still-lives, which he remarked would be like candelabra. But where Dr. Silverman definitively proves her theory, is in the wallpaper behind the woman.
According to the UCLA website, Dr. Silverman discovered “Provencal folk religious paintings, the region’s tradition of special Christmas decorations featuring the Holy Family in miniature figurines, stained-glass windows in Antwerp and a Nativity play that van Gogh saw that winter” all depicted in the wallpaper.
Dr. Silverman’s book convinced me that not only was van Gogh experimenting with religious symbolism and Catholic iconography during his “search for sacred art” but that if he were to paint a Last Supper it would be something exactly like Café Terrace at Night.