Vincent van Gogh
Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life. They include landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and self-portraits, and are characterized by bold colors and dramatic, impulsive and expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art. His suicide at 37 followed years of mental illness and poverty.
Schoolboy, junior clerk at an art firm, teacher, bookseller, student, and preacher: Vincent van Gogh was all of these before he decided at the age of 27 to become an artist. That decision would change the history of art forever.
Vincent van Gogh was born in the Brabant village of Zundert on 30 March 1853. He was not the first child of the Protestant minister Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Carbentus: another son (also named Vincent) had been stillborn on the same date, precisely one year earlier. Happily, the birth of the second Vincent went smoothly, and was followed by that of three sisters and two brothers: Anna, Theo, Wil, Lies and Cor. The Van Gogh family went on frequent walks in the area around Zundert, helping to instil a great love of nature in the future artist
Vincent’s uncle found the sixteen-year-old Van Gogh a job as a trainee at the international art dealer Goupil & Cie. He was taken on at the branch which ‘Uncle Cent’ (short for ‘Vincent’) had set up in The Hague. Vincent’s earliest surviving letter dates from these first years at Goupil. September 1872 marked the beginning of a life-long correspondence between Vincent and his younger brother Theo, who started work for Goupil in 1873, this time in Brussels. Vincent was transferred that same year to Goupil’s London branch.
During his time in London, Vincent visited famous institutions like the British Museum and the National Gallery, where the works he admired included those by ‘peasant painters’ such as François Millet and Jules Breton. He also read everything from museum guides and magazines to literature and poetry. Vincent was transferred to Paris in 1875 – a period in which he became increasingly religious. The letters he wrote to Theo at this time are full of Bible quotes and accounts of church services and sermons. Despite his interest in art, Vincent was less and less enamoured with his job at the art firm. The feeling was mutual, and in 1876 Goupil dismissed him.
Following his dismissal from Goupil, Vincent returned to England, where he worked as an unpaid assistant teacher at a boys’ boarding school in Ramsgate. He later found a salaried position at a private school run by a vicar in Isleworth near London. He was allowed to preach at the school and in the surrounding villages, but the job offered very few prospects. Vincent spent Christmas 1876 with his parents in Brabant, where his father advised him not to return to England. Van Gogh decided to follow his advice.
Uncle Cent came to the rescue again, finding Vincent a job serving in a bookshop in Dordrecht, near Rotterdam, in January 1877. But he was becoming increasingly religious once again, and his parents were by now seriously worried – Vincent was already 24 and still had no clear purpose in life. A few months later, they agreed to his plan to study theology. Van Gogh had not finished school, however, so he first had to sit an entrance exam.
Vincent spent a year in Amsterdam, living with an uncle. Another uncle, who was a minister, helped him prepare for his theology entrance exam. All this family support came to nothing, however, as Vincent lacked the discipline to study. He preferred to wander around the city and take long walks in the surrounding countryside. After a while, his uncle the minister advised him to forget about his studies.
Vincent often included little sketches in the letters he sent his brother Theo and sometimes enclosed a drawing of what he had seen. This eventually led to a turning point in his life, when Theo advised him to concentrate more on his drawing. Vincent now became convinced that he could also serve God as an artist. He moved to Brussels in October 1880, where he began to work on his drawing technique and came into contact with other artists. He no longer had a paid job, so Theo sent him money from time to time.
In the spring of 1881, Vincent moved back in with his parents, who were now living in Etten, also in Brabant. He practised drawing and frequently worked out of doors. In the meantime, his brother Theo had been appointed manager of Goupil & Cie in Paris. He supported Vincent financially so he could focus entirely on his art.
Vincents parents, by contrast, were extremely disappointed that their eldest son had chosen the life of an artist, which in their eyes was synonymous with social failure. It did not help that Vincent had fallen in love with his cousin, Kee Vos. Kee was a widow and wanted nothing to do with him, but Van Gogh persisted. This did not go down well with his family and, following a row with his father, Vincent walked out of his parents’ house on Christmas Day 1881. He found a new home in The Hague.
Vincent took painting lessons in The Hague from a cousin by marriage, the celebrated artist Anton Mauve. Van Gogh felt his drawing technique was not yet good enough, so he also continued to practise fanatically. An uncle gave him his first commission: twelve drawings of city views in The Hague. The series gave him the opportunity to develop his perspective skills. Mauve taught Vincent the basics of painting in watercolour and oils and Van Gogh visited his studio almost every day.
Vincent moved back in with his parents in December 1883. He initially worked in a small studio at the back of the house, but after a few months, he rented a larger space elsewhere in the village. Nuenen was an ideal setting for a ‘peasant painter’. It was home to many farmers, rural labourers and weavers, who Vincent sketched and painted at every opportunity. He proposed in early 1884 that he should start giving Theo the works he produced in return for the allowance provided by his brother.
The idea was that Theo would sell the paintings on the Paris art market, but the plan came to nothing: French tastes ran more to colour, and Vincent’s work was distinctly dark in tone. This would change, but not for a while yet.
Vincent’s parents found it hard to live with their eldest son, who refused to behave conventionally. Shortly after his father died in late March 1885, Van Gogh left the family home and moved into his studio, where he started work on The Potato Eaters. Vincent combined his hard work on “that thing with the peasants around a dish of potatoes in the evening” with chain smoking and a poor diet. Most of his money went on artist’s materials. Later that year, he decided to enrol at the academy of art in Antwerp and left the Netherlands, never to return.
Antwerp had plenty to offer Vincent: good materials, drawing clubs with models, and churches, museums and galleries stuffed with art. The drawing classes he took at the academy were, however, far too traditional for him.
'I actually find all the drawings I see there hopelessly bad — and fundamentally wrong. And I know that mine are totally different — time will just have to tell who’s right. Damn it, not one of them has any feeling for what a classical statue is.'
Vincent to Theo, Antwerp 19 or 20 January 1886
He did not stay in the Flemish city for long. He arranged with Theo to come to Paris and take lessons in the studio of Fernand Cormon – an artist who was very popular with foreign students. Theo began to look for an apartment large enough for him and his brother, but before he could find one, Vincent turned up in Paris unannounced at the end of February 1886.
Theo was the manager of Goupil art dealers (later Boussod, Valadon & Cie) on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris. He introduced his brother to the colourful work of prominent modern artists like Claude Monet. Vincent van Gogh also got to know a new generation of artists at Fernand Cormon’s studio, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard.
All those new impressions and new people had an influence on his own work and inspired him to experiment freely. The dark tones of The Potato Eaters quickly gave way to brighter colours, as in The Hill of Montmartre with Stone Quarry.
Vincent’s work grew steadily brighter in Paris, under the influence of modern art. He used brighter colours and developed his own style of painting, with short brush strokes. The themes he painted likewise changed, with rural labourers giving way to cafés and boulevards, the countryside along the Seine and floral still lifes. He also tried out more ‘commercial’ subjects, such as portraits. Vincent mostly acted as his own sitter, however, as models were relatively expensive.
After two years, Vincent began to tire of the frenetic city life in Paris.
'It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.'
Vincent to Theo, 21 February 1888
He longed for the peace of the countryside, for sun, and for the light and colour of ‘Japanese’ landscapes, which he hoped to find in Provence, in the South of France. Following a train journey that lasted a day and a night, he arrived on 20 February 1888 in Arles, a small town on the River Rhône.
Vincent was delighted with the bright light and colors in Arles, and set to work enthusiastically, painting orchards in blossom and workers gathering the harvest. He also made a trip to the coast, where he painted the boats. His style became looser and more expressive. Vincent corresponded with Theo about his plan to set up a ‘Studio of the South’ in Arles for a group of artists whose work Theo could sell in Paris.
With this ‘artists’ colony’ in mind, Vincent rented four rooms in the ‘Yellow House’ on Place Lamartine. Paul Gauguin was the first – and, as it would turn out, the last – artist to move in with him. Gauguin arrived in late October 1888, but only after considerable cajoling. Theo had to stump up his travel expenses, for instance, but he was glad to do so for Vincent’s sake.
Van Gogh and Gauguin worked hard together and their collaboration resulted in some exceptional paintings. At the same time, however, the two men had very different views on art, which led to frequent, heated discussions.
Gauguin worked mainly from memory and his imagination, while Vincent preferred to paint what he could see in front of him. Their very different characters caused the tension between them to rise steadily. Vincent began to display signs of agitation and when Gauguin threatened to leave, the pressure became too much. Van Gogh became so distraught that he threatened his friend with a razor. Later that evening, he sliced off his own ear at the Yellow House, wrapped it in newspaper and presented it to a prostitute in the nearby red-light district.
The morning after he cut off part of his ear, Vincent was admitted to the hospital in Arles. Theo rushed down on the train as soon as he heard the news. Vincent’s dream of a shared studio had proved to be short-lived. He remembered little about the ear incident and when he was discharged from the hospital in early January 1889, he resumed painting. In the months that followed, however, his mental health fluctuated sharply. Fearing a fresh bout of illness, he had himself voluntarily admitted to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy in May.
Once Vincent had recovered sufficiently at the clinic in Saint-Rémy, he began working again. On his good days, he often painted in the institution’s walled garden and he was later allowed to work outside the hospital too. He was also given an extra room inside the clinic to use as a studio, where he produced a series of works, including copies of prints after paintings by artists like Rembrandt and Millet. Vincent’s mental health continued to fluctuate. During one period of extreme confusion, he ate some of his oil paint, following which he was restricted to drawing for a while. Despite such relapses, however, Vincent was exceptionally productive at Saint-Rémy, where he completed around 150 paintings in the space of a year.
Six of Vincent’s paintings were shown in Brussels in early 1890 at a group exhibition of the Belgian artists’ association ‘Les Vingt’ (‘The Twenty’). The art critic Albert Aurier had already published a positive article about Van Gogh’s work and one of the exhibited paintings, The Red Vineyard, was sold during the show: Vincent’s work was beginning to be appreciated. This was not the first time it had been shown, however: Theo had been submitting his paintings since 1888 to the annual ‘Salon des Indépendants’ in Paris. Ten of Vincent’s works were selected for inclusion in March 1890, and the response was very positive.
Vincent left the mental hospital in Saint-Rémy in May 1890 and headed north to Auvers-sur-Oise, where several artists were already residing. Auvers offered Vincent the peace and quiet he needed, while being close enough to Paris for him to visit his brother Theo. There was a doctor there too, Paul Gachet, who could keep an eye on him. Vincent quickly befriended Gachet, himself an amateur painter, who advised Van Gogh to devote himself completely to his art. He did precisely that, painting the gardens and wheatfields around the village at a feverish rate. Vincent threw himself entirely into his painting in this period, completing virtually a work a day. His health seemed to be improving, too.
No matter how 'healthy and fortifying' Vincent found the countryside, it was to no avail. His illness and his uncertainty about the future became too much. On 27 July 1890, he walked into a wheatfield and shot himself in the chest with a pistol. The wounded artist staggered back to his room at the Auberge Ravoux. Theo rushed from Paris to Auvers and was present when his brother died of his injuries on 29 July. Vincent was buried at Auvers on 30 July 1890. His legacy was a large body of art works: over 850 paintings and almost 1,300 works on paper.