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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Although famous for his bold, colourful paintings, Vincent van Gogh left behind an impressive collection of more than one thousand sketches and drawings. These often provide important clues to his personality, the influences that inspired his distinctive style and how he developed his artistic skills.

Early Artistic Inspiration

Born in Groot-Zundert in the Netherlands on 30th March 1853, Vincent Willem van Gogh's passion for art began early in life. He was educated along with his five younger siblings at the family's comfortable home. During his lessons his mother, Anna, taught him how to draw and awoke in him a life-long interest for art. Shocked to be sent to boarding school in Tilburg at the age of eleven, van Gogh became dejected and appeared to gain little from the lessons taught by the famous artist, Constant Cornelis Huijsmans. Vincent van Gogh later became an apprentice art dealer but his restless personality caused him to drift through many brief occupations including becoming a missionary.

Beginning an Art Career

While working as a missionary in Borinage in Belgium and lodging with a poor mining family, van Gogh began to draw again to alleviate the mental anguish he felt. He wrote to his brother, Theo, that he felt as though he was in the deepest misery and announced his intention to resume drawing in pencil to alleviate his despondency. He often included pencil sketches in his letters to help him describe the people and rural scenes he saw. In 1880 at Theo's suggestion, van Gogh studied art for a year at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Later that same year van Gogh wrote to Theo of how elated he felt to have resumed a passion for drawing. He sketched many neighbours during this episode including the daughter of Jacob Meyer in a drawing dated October 1880. He also continued to study perspective and art techniques such as impasto through reading books.

Early Drawings

Yet in spite of the progress he made in his studies, van Gogh was continually restless and ill at ease. He worked at a furious pace and believed that quickly drawing sketches could help him to capture light and the emotion of a moment in time. One such sketch is Landscape with Trees from June 1881 of an orchard in Etten which shows great depth amongst its shadows. Another is a gaunt, gnarled tree with its twisted, leafless branches which was completed in April 1882. Often short of money, van Gogh found drawing far less expensive than painting and although he used art paper such as woven, laid and Ingres, he also resorted to everyday materials such as an envelope for his sketch entitled Peasant Woman, Half Figure. In 1882, he used watercolour paper to produce a pencil sketch of an impoverished, middle-aged man he called Worn Out. It now forms part of a collection held at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Favourite Sketches

The sketch of the man sitting on a chair but bending with his head in his hands, became a favourite pose and later inspired the Sorrowing Old Man At Eternity's Gate painted in 1890. In 1883 while visiting The Hague, he completed several sketches of local fishermen. The majority of his drawings were completed in pencil but he also began to use a variety of mediums such as charcoal, reed pen with ink and chalk in blue, red and black. Young Man with a Pipe was completed using pencil overlaid with a thin watercolour wash. For his sketch, Bent Figure of a Woman, van Gogh used a mixture of pencil, ink and a sepia tinted watercolour applied with a brush. Cottages With Peasant Woman Working in the Foreground is a fine example of how he blended blue pastel crayon with black and white chalk and finished with highlights of ink from a reed pen.

From Drawings to Paintings

Drawing suited van Gogh's hurried style and proved ideal for planning his astonishing number of paintings. During a two year sojourn in Neunen in North Brabant from 1884, he worked tirelessly visiting the cottages of peasants and drawing in the open air to capture the essence of their humble lives with his pencil. Consequently, many sketches depict fields, farm labourers and churchyards covered in winter snow. Of the countless sketches and more than two hundred paintings van Gogh produced during this phase, the most famous is The Potato Eaters of 1885. The painting with its dark, sepia tones depicting a group of peasants and their meagre meal is not too dissimilar to the sketches he made. Other detailed sketches made on his walks around the region contributed to similar mono-tone paintings such as Peasant Woman Digging which is sometimes known as Woman with Spade and Seen from Behind was completed in 1885. He was also inspired by the work of the impressionists working in Paris at the time such as Monet and Pissarro.

Oriental Influence

During November 1885, van Gogh became entranced by an exhibition in Paris of traditional Japanese artwork which he believed instantly raised his spirits. He busily wrote to Theo that he considered the bold colourful scenes of figures, twisted trees and flowers made him feel more cheerful and happy. He liked the way Japanese art used an unconventional perspective where foreground objects appeared larger than necessary. He noted the middle distance was left empty and images were only partly visible at the edges. He began collecting Japanese prints and displayed many of them on the walls of his studio as he found their scenes a welcome diversion from his troubled thoughts. His subsequent sketches began to accommodate the oriental style in landscapes as illustrated in the following examples of his sketches.

Rare Art Discovery

As recently as 2018, there was great excitement in the art world when two pencil sketches by van Gogh were discovered in a private collection. They were subsequently displayed at the van Gogh Museum. Both were drawn in 1886 during van Gogh's travels to Paris where he often worked at the studio of Fernand Cormon, a celebrated French artist. One of the sketches is entitled The Hill of Montmartre and depicts a treeless landscape with rows of houses and several windmills on the top of the hill. The second sketch known as The Hill of Montmartre with Quarries was originally given by van Gogh to his sister-in-law, Johanna. It shows the typically hurried lines of van Gogh's pencil work in the steep, quarried hillside and finishes with a glimpse of cottages and a windmill at the summit.

The Beginning of an Unconventional Art

During his work in 1886 van Gogh was constantly troubled by a lack of confidence in his skill as an artist. His constant stream of letters to his brother, Theo, often refer to his artistic endeavours as stretching his abilities beyond their limits. His state of mind suffered further by the criticism of his work from Neunen as lacking the fashionable, vivid colours of the Impressionist painters. Consequently, his paintings were impossible to sell. One example of his detailed drawings at this time which eventually became a painting is Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette of 1885–86. Although it is an image that would not be out of place in today's contemporary art, it shocked those who saw it on completion.

Letters as Works of Art

In spite of being faced with self-doubt, van Gogh continued to view his art as a relief from the bouts of depression interspersed with heavy drinking that he was to suffer for the rest of his short life. All of van Gogh's letters which are now considered to be artworks in their own right, were kept by his brother and were eventually published by Theo's widow Johanna. Throughout his short career, van Gogh constantly made preliminary sketches and detailed notes regarding sunlight and atmosphere ready for oil paintings he would later complete. He also sketched finished paintings to illustrate them for his brother, Theo, who regularly used them to show prospective buyers in the hope of selling van Gogh's work. One fine example is a sketch in a letter dated June 1890 of Margeurite Gachet sitting at her piano. The drawing quickly became an oil painting which is now held at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland. Another example is entitled Starry Night.

Development of a Distinctive Style

In 1888 van Gogh's drinking and relentless anxiety caused his health to deteriorate and he moved to Arles in the South of France in search of solace. He invited the artist Paul Gauguin, whose work he admired immensely, to join him in his artists' retreat. They could only manage a short collaboration of artistic projects before they had to abandon the idea due to severe arguments and an incompatibility of temperament. However, during this episode, van Gogh produced a large number of pencil drawings including Landscape with a Tree to the Foreground and Lawn with Weeping Tree. He also sketched local residents such as Joseph Roulin sitting on a chair. La Mousmé is another sketch depicting a seated lady.

Tracing van Gogh's Style

The vast collection of van Gogh's letters, sketches and drawings often chart with accurate dates, the progress of van Gogh's work, highlighting the development of his style from anatomical and detailed to free-flowing and unconventional. Although van Gogh created paintings at an incredible pace, including seventy in the last ten weeks of his life, his letters show the effort and planning he put into so many of his compositions. However, his methodical, painstaking approach continued to be tempered by feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and a sense of urgency. By the late 1880s van Gogh's style had slipped into the vivid, bright landscapes and still life portraits in oils which made him posthumously famous.

Final Sketches

However, some of his last pencil sketches depict an imaginative selection of cottages and trees with unrealistic wavy tree trunks and swirling clouds. Others such as Four Men on the Road with Pine Trees, Peasants Digging and Field with a Seed Sower which were all drawn in April 1890, show a carelessness of style and a distinct lack of detail and form. Finally overcome by a mixture of despair, anxiety and depression exacerbated by heavy drinking, van Gogh now aged thirty-seven, shot himself on 29th July 1890. He was to die of his wounds two days later. Many early twentieth century artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky were inspired by van Gogh's unconventional approach to art leading the way to experiments with modern art.