“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” ~Vincent Van Gogh
Our first featured artist is one who is, for many, the epitome of the iconic “tortured artist.” His influence on 20th Century art is undeniably widespread, but, he produced all of his drawings and paintings in the ten years before his death at the age of 37. While he produced over 864 paintings and 1,200 drawings that survive to this day, he only sold one painting during his lifetime. His life was full of tragedy and he is considered one of the most influential artists produced by the Post-Impressionist period.
Vincent Van Gogh was born March 30th, 1853, in the Netherlands. Initially he aspired to become a pastor, but failed the entrance exam to study theology formally in Amsterdam at the age of 25. Even though he attempted, but again failed, to complete another three month theology course at a school in Belgium, Vincent took a missionary position in Petit Wasmes, Belgium, in January of 1879. Though he had an interest in art since a young age, it was there amongst the coal miners that his artistic career truly began.
Vincent was dismissed from his position as a missionary for choosing to live in the same poor conditions as the miners. He returned home to his parents for a short time, but was unable to overcome the issues he had with his father, Theodorus, who, as a result of their conflicts, made inquiries about having Vincent committed to an insane asylum. Vincent’s younger brother Theo, an art dealer, saw Vincent’s increasing fascination with drawing and suggested he became an artist.
Even though Vincent’s relationship with his father was volatile, he grieved very deeply after Theodorus’ death in 1885. Vincent subsequently moved to Antwerp and Theo began sending him money to help support him, but Vincent preferred spending that money on art supplies. His health deteriorated rapidly as his diet consisted mainly of bread, coffee, cigarettes, and absinthe. In 1886 he moved to Paris to stay with Theo while studying at Fernand Cormon’s studio. While there he met and befriended well-known artists, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin.
However, it wasn’t until his move to Arles, France, that he developed the bright, vibrant style for which he is so well-known. His move to southern France was precipitated by poor health brought about by excessive drinking and smoking. In 1888, Gauguin came to stay with Vincent, but, by December Vincent was certain his friend was going to desert him after long periods of tension and fierce arguments. His poor health and increasing exhaustion eventually resulted in an explosive incident where Vincent threatened Gauguin with a razorblade. After panicking he ran to the local brothel, cut off either a portion of or his entire left ear (depending on which conflicting reports you follow), wrapped it in newspaper, gave it to his favorite prostitute named Rachel, asked her to keep it carefully, made his way back home and collapsed on his bed covered in blood.
While in the hospital recovering, Vincent repeatedly asked for Gauguin to visit, but his friend refused, afraid that his presence might cause further incidents. Gauguin did, however, stay in Arles to keep track of Vincent for a time. Vincent’s antics while in the hospital became increasingly bizarre and Gauguin wrote that, “His state is worse, he wants to sleep with the patients, chase the nurses, and washes himself in the coal bucket. That is to say, he continues the biblical mortifications.”
Vincent returned to his home in Arles for a short period of time, but, while there he experienced hallucinations and paranoid delusions of being poisoned. After only a month the police evicted him when thirty townsfolk signed a petition to close down his house. Vincent spent the most of the last year of his life at an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He continued to paint and, while there, produced one of his most well-known works: Starry Night.
At the age of 37, on the 27th of July, 1890, he walked into the wheat field he had recently been painting and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. The bullet was apparently deflected by a rib, passing through his chest and missing most of his internal organs, where it is thought to have been stopped by his spine. He was able to return to his lodging house, the Auberge Ravoux, in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. The doctors called to examine him did not have the ability to remove the bullet. He was left alone in his room, smoking his pipe, to convalesce while Theo was notified. Theo arrived the next day to find Vincent doing well, but, his condition rapidly deteriorated and Vincent Van Gogh died on the 29th of July, 1890. His last words to Theo were, “The sadness will last forever.”
Vincent Van Gogh’s influence on later art is widespread and artists have been using his work as an inspiration for the last 122 years. Though he is widely known now, his work was only just beginning to be recognized at the time of his death and he only sold one painting, The Red Vineyard, during his lifetime. The fascination we have for Van Gogh is fueled by his bright, whimsical, vibrant style of art, as well as his larger-than-life personality and struggles with mental instability. We know so much about his life and his thought processes from the hundreds of letters that survive between him and Theo, as well as his parents, Gauguin, and other correspondents.
The biographical novel Lust for Life (1934) by Irving Stone details Van Gogh’s life and was also made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas (1956). Check out your local library for more details.
In 2010 the BBC aired “Painted with Words,” a documentary starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Van Gogh. All of the actors’ dialogue are taken directly from Van Gogh’s correspondence. Click here!
The Van Gogh Gallery has a virtual gallery with Vincent’s work and information about his life.
You can even follow Van Gogh on his blog!