Follow the troubled path to creative genius of Dutch art's favourite son in this extensive Van Gogh biography, which tracks his family life, the key periods of his development and also the artist's that influenced his own unique style.
"It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done."
Vincent van Gogh is arguably one of the most brilliant artists who amassed tremendous accolades while others perceiving him as the 'mad' artist. He created artistic works, simple by nature but uniquely tormented the soul. Most of his works were merely perceived as basic manifestations of a man who was troubled in the head. Even though this might not be far from the truth, his works have inspired many great artists and to date, his works remain unique in their own ways.
Vincent van Gogh was born Vincent Willem van Gogh on March 30th 1853 in the small town of Groot-Zundert, a region in Brabant that was near the Belgian border in Netherlands. Vincent was a son to Anna Cornelia Carbentus (1819–1907) and Theodorus van Gogh (1822–85)-Reverend of the protestant church. Vincent had two brothers-Cornelius Vincent (1867–1900) and Theo (1857–91) and three sisters - Willemina (Wil) Jacoba (1862–1941), Anna Cornelia (1855–1930) and Elisabeth Huberta (1859–1936).
A greater part of a younger Vincent was spent quiet since he was a calm and collected young boy who had seemingly no interest or ties to the artistic world. Vincent's sister, Elisabeth, regarded him as a sensitive and serious young boy who often preferred to be by himself rather than spending time with his family. As a young boy, he wore clothes and behaved in ways that made him appear strange when compared to his peers from a very young age.
In the general run of things, Vincent was a good student in school. He attended a village school just in his locality to pursue his academics and parsonage for religious education between the years of 1861 and 1864. Afterwards, from 1864 to 1866 he moved to a boarding school in Zevenbergen where he pursued French, English and German just before he transferred to another school in Tilburg. He was not to stay long in the school because of probable financial constraints that his middle-class family could not afford.
After his rather sketchy period of education, a 16-year old Vincent was sent to a gallery in Hague to work as a junior clerk on July 30, 1869. The gallery, Goupil and Company, was an internal corporation that specialised in the 18th and 19th century art, photographic prints, reproductions and contemporary works.
Mental Health Troubles
From his early life, Vincent was not like any other young boy. What followed were years of troubles and tribulations but there have been seemingly no consensus on the certainty of his health status. There have been numerous hypotheses that have been advanced by different scholars concerning what he was suffering from including:
Lead poisoning: Vincent often used lead-based paint as his painting medium. This is the reason why some scholars still argue that he might have suffered from lead poisoning because of his continued exposure to paint. At some point, Dr. Peyron said that in one of his occasional attacks, he tried poisoning himself by drinking paint, which caused his retinas to swell. This is one of the symptoms of lead poisoning. The effect is that one starts to see light in form of halos, clearly evidenced in some of his works like The Starry Night.
Bipolar disorder: Van Gogh had two extreme and competing personalities, that which loved art and the other religion. This was a clear condition since this enthusiasm levels concerning these two interests that were often followed by exhaustion and incidences of depression.
Temporal lobe disorder: In his everyday life, Van Gogh used to experience seizures which Dr. Peyron and Dr. Felix Rey attributed to temporal lobe disorder. His prolonged use of absinthe, an infamous toxic alcoholic drink, aggravated his brain lesion, a condition which he was born with that also caused his epileptic condition.
Hypergraphia: Vincent wrote a collection of over 800 letters over his lifetime since hypergraphia is a condition that is said to be symptomised by one feeling the need to continuously write something and specialists link it to epilepsy and mania.
Sunstroke: In his time, he loved Realism painting and that means he spend most of his time outdoors while in the South of France. In his letters, he claims that his bad stomach, cases of nausea and episodes of hostility were as a result of the effects of sunstroke.
Vincent van Gogh, in the fall of 1880, moved to Brussels on his quest to become an artist. By this time, he had no formal education in the field of art but his brother Theo came to his aid and supported him financially to further his dream. As committed as he was, a young Vincent first began with studying on his own embracing such books as Cours de dessin by Charles Bargue and Travaux des champs written by by Jean-François Millet. He drew great inspiration from these books even in his early works.
Art was an escape for him because they seemingly played an instrumental role in helping him stay emotionally afloat and balanced. Later in 1885, he broke ground and started working on Potato Eaters, which is still being considered as his first masterpiece. His brother Theo, who by the time was living in Paris, was strongly convicted that Vincent's art would not get proper accolades in Paris since the French capital dwellers had increasingly embraced Impressionism.
In 1886, Vincent packed his things and showed up on Theo's house in the French capital uninvited and he was welcomed in the small apartment. This is where he came to first experienced Impressionist art that had him fascinated especially by how artists used colour and light to create impressive pieces. This motivated him to begin studying with Camille Pissarro and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec among other great names.
Since money was quite a challenge, Vincent and his friends posed for each other and painted themselves instead of hiring models, an endeavour that they could not afford. He was a passionate young painter and always engaged in critiques with other painters but at the same time in stayed away from anyone who seemed tired of his constant bickering.
In just a span of a decade (1880-1890), Vincent had achieved what many other artists had not achieved in their entire lives, starting from just drawings and water colours in the first four years of his career. He often liked working by himself but the difficulty of self-training soon caught up with him and he started perceiving the need for seeking guidance from other experienced players in the industry. That is he ended up working with Anton Mauve, a renowned Dutch landscape painter in 1881.
In the summer of 1882, Vincent started visiting museums where he met other great artists, which enabled to expand his knowledge extensively while experimenting with oil paints. However, when 1883, he developed the urge to be alone with peasants and nature and this journey led him to an isolated northern Netherlands town of Drenthe. This small town was largely frequented by the likes of Mauve and he spend three months there till the time he thought of going back home, Nuenen.
For the greater part of 1884 and 1885, Van Gogh spent his time in Nuenen which saw him improve his craft, becoming bolder and more assured. He specialised in painting landscape, figure and still life. He derived his inspirations for his artworks from the daily lives of peasants and the hardships they were passing through. This period saw him improve his techniques and his understanding of the possibilities of painting rapidly grew.
Van Gogh studied Hals, which helped him cultivate the freshness of a visual impression which he incorporated with what he picked up from Eugène Delacroix and Paolo Veronese. These two painters inspired him to use colour to express an object by itself, which further made him embrace Peter Paul Rubens works with enthusiasm that led him to suddenly leaving for Antwerp, Belgium where he could study Rubens' works. Apart from just learning the decisiveness effect resulting from combining colours, he also learned a lot about Impressionist painting and Japanese prints. These were more than he even learned while attending an academy he had enrolled in Antwerp.
His impatience of rules being dictated to him led to him leaving for Paris to join his brother Theo. By this time, he was ready to for lessons from Camille, Henri and Georges Seurat who were a group of Impressionist artists between 1886 and February 1888. This learning period led to the discovery of his own style of brushworks with his palette full of colour, less traditional vision and lighter tones. In 1887, he was painting in much more paintings in pure colours and his Impressionist style crystallised in early 1888. His masterpieces Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel and Portrait of Père Tanguy were as a result of his Impressionist style plus other Parisian suburbs landscape paintings.
February 1888, Vincent grew tired of the city life and Arles, Southern France, "to look at nature under a brighter sky." The following 12 month of his career were full of paintings depicting blossoming fruit trees, self-portraits, views of the towns and portraits of Roulin the postman among other friends, landscapes and sunflowers. His style grew more instinctive and spontaneous from his traditional styles with great intensity and speed. His hopes of forming a separate Impressionist group in Arles with Henri, Gauguin and others fell into shambles since most of their ideas temperamentally incompatible and opposing. However, in the span of two months, they were able to learn and influence each other. The highlight of this falling out was Vincent snapping under the strain and argued with Gauguin and sources have claimed that he chases him around with a razor and ended up cutting the lower half of his own left ear in the Eve of Christmas, 1888.
Van Gogh returned home two weeks later to continue his work where he created works like La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851-1930) and Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe plus many other still lifes. His mental illness caught up with him again and finally asked to be temporarily shut up in a Saint-Rémy-de-Provence asylum to be under medical supervision. After 12 months of horror and recurrent haunting attacks, he produced great works such as The Starry Night, Cypresses, Les Alpilles, Trees, Garden of the Asylum among others.
This marked the end of his career mostly because he was oppressed by homesickness. This made him leave for home in 1890 since he longed to see his brother Theo. He feared that he could eventually become unable to overcome his loneliness and chose to take his own life by shooting himself but did not die immediately. He remained stubborn even when interrogated by the police saying "I shot myself... I only hope I haven’t botched it" and "What I have done is nobody else's business. I am free to do what I like with my own body." Unfortunately, he passed away just two days later.
Catalogue of Vincent van Gogh's Paintings
Below are some of notable artworks by Vincent van Gogh, an overview of his greatest highlights and achievements:
The Potato Eaters (1885)
The Courtesan (after Eisen) (1887)
Café Terrace At Night (1888)
Fourteen Sunflowers in a Vase (1888)
The Bedroom (1889)
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)
Starry Night (1889)
Church at Auvers (1890)
Paul-Ferdinand Gachet (1890)
Legacy: Paintings Related to his Work
Vincent's style of work was not unique, other great names also painted using styles similar to Van Gogh’s. Here are some of the most notable works related to his work.
Boulevard des Capucines (1873)
This is a painting by Claude Monet which captures the hustle of Parisian life as he sees it from his friend's studio. His style is similar to Van Gogh because his speed and intensity were similar, utilising short and quick brushstrokes creating an impression of people in the French capital.
The Wave (1870)
A painting by Gustave Courbet which was clearly influenced by the early Japanese prints and he was arguably one of the first to embrace this style, just like Vincent van Gogh. He seemingly takes cue from the Easter prints in this painting showing viewers a slice of water that is closed off from the view of the large space. This painting is a general representation of Courbet's style of art that were seemingly composed of broken patches especially in the light and dark segments. This style was embraced by Van Gogh in his early stages of painting.
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867-68)
Painted by Édouard Manet aiming to express the shock experienced by French men by the execution of Maximilian of Austria on June 19, 1867. As a painter he strove to record all contemporary events and he did this by utilising Romanticism and muted tones to bring out a scene that was distinctly somber. Vincent also made use of muted tones in his paintings to arouse the feelings in his paintings, a style that made many critics perceive him as a troubled painter.
Painters Vincent van Gogh derived inspiration from
His move to the French capital in 1886 had a lasting effect on his work as a painter. His Impressionism and Post-Impressionism styles were greatly influenced by individuals like Pissarro, Gauguin, Bernard and Monet. His close ties with Gaugin was his greatest inspiration since their first meet in 1887. The painter greatly influenced Vincent's style of painting and the themes in their paintings were oddly similar. Aprt from Gauguin, Jean-François Millet Gruchy was another source of inspiration to Vincent. Millet's work as a missionary and identifying with people of the lower class made Vincent derive great admiration. His early depictions of peasants in paintings inspired Vincent's earliest works as a painter. Other artist who profoundly inspired him were Rousseau, Rembrandt, Daumier and Delacroix.
Painters Vincent van Gogh Inspired
Van Gogh unique brushwork technique was widely received and inspired a lot of great painters who followed in his footsteps. Such artists like Matisse, Derain, Bacon, Gauguin and Pollock adopted some of Vincent's artistic elements in their works. Even after his death, he inspired many artists who adopted his brushwork techniques and seemingly depicted similar subject matters to Van Gogh's paintings. These artists included Maurice de Vlaminck, de Kooning and Paul Klee.
Considered as one of the greatest artists to come out of Netherlands part from Rembrandt and still remains one of the world's greatest Post-Impressionist painters till today. He remains an iconic painter despite his troubled life, a condition that played a crucial role in conveying his spiritual and emotional state characterised by densely laden canvas and unique brushstrokes.
"It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to, the feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures."
Vincent van Gogh
Hi, I'm Tom!
I'm the writer and founder of TheHistoryOfArt.org. I have studied different art movements for over 15 years, and am also an amateur artist myself! Read my bio here.