The title Rembrandt is in the Wind is a play on words. It refers to Rembrandt’s painting Storm on the Sea of Galilee, in which he paints himself as one of the disciples in the boat—the one in the center of the vessel looking out at the viewer. So in the painting of the storm, Rembrandt is, quite literally, in the wind. But this painting was also stolen in 1990 and has not been seen since, so in the criminal sense of the term, the canvas itself is “in the wind.”
I wanted to write a book about art that overcame a perceived inaccessibility to the subject. Rembrandt is in the Wind is part art history, part Biblical study, part philosophy, and part analysis of the human experience; but it’s all story. It’s an invitation to discover some of the world’s most celebrated artists and works, while presenting the beauty of the Gospel in a way that speaks to the struggles and longings common to people everywhere. For anyone who has stood in front of a work of art and liked it, but felt a barrier to truly understanding it, this book will set them free to simply love and appreciate art, while modeling the slow approach to learning to love art more deeply over time.
The opening chapter frames everything to follow, highlighting the Biblical significance of goodness, truth, beauty, work, and community, focusing especially on why beauty matters and what it does.
The rest of the manuscript features studies of nine different artists and the stories behind their work, incorporating analysis of related Scripture, all told in a storyteller’s voice.
Excerpt from Chapter 1: Beautifying Eden
If you know anything about Vincent van Gogh outside of his art, perhaps you know he was a tortured soul. Vincent suffered from depression, paranoia, and public outbursts so disconcerting that in March 1889 thirty of his neighbors in his little village of Arles, France, petitioned the police to deal with the “fou roux” (the redheaded madman), which the officers did by removing him from his rented flat—The Yellow House made famous in his painting The Bedroom.
Shortly after his eviction notice, Vincent admitted himself into an asylum for the mentally ill—the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Back in those days, most psychological maladies were simply called “madness.” Debilitating depression, bi-polar disorder, paranoia, even acute epilepsy all fell under the umbrella of the diagnosis called madness. Treatment for madness often involved stays in an asylum. Labeled as such by his own community, the “redheaded madman” checked himself in and remained in Saint-Rémy for a year, from May 1889-May 1890.
What did Vincent do with his humiliation as a patient at Saint-Rémy? . . . What did Vincent do while he was recovering during that hospital stay? He painted, and at least two of those 140 works were self-portraits with his bandaged ear showing. He captured the moment of his greatest shame.
It is hard to render an honest self-portrait if we want to conceal what is unattractive and hide what’s broken. We want to appear beautiful. But when we do this we hide what needs redemption—what we trust Christ to redeem. And what’s redeemed is beautiful.
Rembrandt is in the Wind is part art history, part Biblical study, part philosophy, and part analysis of the human experience; but it’s all story.Russ Ramsey
Van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear indicts us. How willing are we to lead with the fact that we’ve got a lot of things in us that aren’t right? Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear hangs in my office to remind me that if I’m drawing the self-portrait dishonestly—pretending I’m okay and not in need of any help—I’m concealing from others the fact that I am broken. The truth is my wounds need binding. I need asylum. And if I can’t show that honestly, how will anyone ever see Christ in me? Or worse, what sort of Christ will they see?
In Vincent’s case, there is a sweet bit of irony. Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, in which van Gogh willingly captures the moment of his own spiritual and relational poverty, is now worth millions. That canvas faithfully captures a defining moment of shame and need for rescue by showing the bandaged side, and it has become a priceless treasure.
This is how God sees his people. We are fully exposed in our short-comings, and at the same time we are of unimaginable value to him. Because this is so, this is how we should see others, and it is how we should be willing to be seen by others—broken and of incalculable worth.
In this book, we’ll explore the lives of nine artists in particular, and many others by way of their connection to the nine. Each of them gave the world beautiful works of priceless art, but some of their stories are filled with a surprising measure of brokenness and in some cases, even violence and corruption. Madeleine L’Engle reminds us that God often works through the most seemingly unqualified people to reveal his glory. So does Scripture. There is beauty in the brokenness. That’s what this book seeks to uncover. And beauty matters.
Selected Works for Further Reading on Artists featured in Rembrandt is in the Wind
Bailey, Anthony. Vermeer: A View of Delft. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.
Etinde-Crompton, Charlotte and Samuel Willard Crompton. Henry Ossawa Tanner: Landscape Painter and Expatriate. New York, Enslow Publishing, 2020.
Gayford, Martin. The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence. New York: First Mariner Books, 2006.
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Caravaggio: A Life of Sacred and Profane. New York: Norton and Co., 2010.
Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Marley, Anna O., Ed. Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012.
Paolucci, Antonio. David: Five Hundred Years. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing, 2005.
Rockness, Miriam Huffman. A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter. Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 2003.
Schneider, Norbert. Vermeer: The Complete Works. Cologne: Taschen, 2006.
Snyder, Laura J. Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2015.
Strand, Mark. Hopper. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1994.
Trotter, I. Lilias. Parables of the Christ-Life. New York: Start Publishing LLC, 2013.
Updike, John. Still Looking: Essays on American Art. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).