Vincent Willem van Gogh (March 30, 1853, Zundert, Netherlands, to July 29, 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise, France) was a prolific Dutch Post-Impressionist painter whose tragic life was spent coping with mental illness and a lack of financial and critical success. His talents finally became widely appreciated only in the first half of the 20th century.
Attributes of His Works: Like all Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh eschewed the Impressionist focus on realistic proportions and lighting while remaining true to the idea of art that captured the emotional feeling of a subject, rather than a literal interpretation. His broad and frantic brushstrokes gave his paintings a dynamic fluidity and movement that, unfortunately, few appreciated while he was alive. He experimented with pointillism and used color to make an emotional connection with the viewer, achieving recognition as one of the most talented painters to ever live only after his death.
Famous Works:Almond Blossoms, The Starry Night, Wheatfield with Cypresses, The Potato Eaters, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Sunflowers, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Portrait of Père Tanguy
The Early Life of the Artist
Van Gogh came from a religious household as the son of Theodorus van Gogh, a minister, and the devout Anna Cornelia Carbentus. His mother encouraged him to draw and, after a sullen childhood spent feeling alone in boarding school, his uncle found him a job working for Goupil & Cie art dealers, first being trained in The Hague and then being sent to London. This was one of the few times in his life when he felt happy. He was transferred to Paris in 1875, but again grew dissatisfied, complaining about the commodification of art, and was fired not long after. All this time he was becoming more and more religious, but he failed both the theology entrance examination at the University of Amsterdam and a course at a Protestant missionary school. He did get a chance to work as a missionary in Belgium, until he was kicked out for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood" due to his squalid living conditions. Eventually he ended up in Brussels studying with Willem Roelofs, who convinced him to enroll in Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Having been turned down by women he was dearly in love with, including his older cousin Kee Vos-Stricker, he finally took up with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute suffering from depression and alcoholism with a five-year-old daughter. He drew Sien in a series of early sketches and paintings, the most famous being Sorrow (1882, The New Art Gallery Walsall, England). She gave birth in 1882, which made van Gogh happy again for a time, until she began drinking once more and returned to prostitution. He left her and her family in 1883 to pursue his career as an artist and in 1904 she drowned herself in the River Scheldt.
Van Gogh’s first major work was The Potato Eaters (1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Peasants and the underclass were always preferred subjects for van Gogh, and he was inspired to paint his own interpretation of Jozef Israëls’ A Peasant Family at the Table (1882, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). The de Groot family that modeled for van Gogh lived with another family in a house where van Gogh would often work, which he depicted in The Cottage (1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). His early works from his Dutch period were darker than more popular paintings of the time, and later on he would begin to use brighter colors.
After moving to Paris, van Gogh was exposed to many more styles of art, including Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which he included in his Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887, Musée Rodin, Paris). He actually painted three portraits of the art dealer, each one becoming brighter and more colorful, more accurately capturing the character of the jolly man.
In 1887 and 1888, van Gogh made two series of paintings of sunflowers that became some of his most famous and, a century later, most expensive works. He was able to capture the brilliant yellows thanks to new pigments that had been invented, and he considered these works some of the best and they signified happiness to him.
From the Arles journal Le Forum Republicain, December 30, 1888:
“Last Sunday, at 11:30 in the evening, Vincent Vaugogh [sic], a painter of Dutch origin, called at the Brothel No. 1, asked for a woman called Rachel and handed her … his ear, saying: 'Guard this object with your life'. Then he disappeared. When informed of the action, which could only be that of a pitiful madman, the police went the next day to his house and discovered him lying on his bed apparently at the point of death. The unfortunate man has been rushed to hospital.”
Two weeks later, that unfortunate man painted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889, Courtauld Institute of Art). It was a violent episode that he likely didn’t even remember, but it ended his working relationship with artist Paul Gauguin. The portrait is a mirror image (his left ear was bandaged, not his right) and behind him is an easel and a Japanese print.
The Starry Night (1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York) is easily one of van Gogh’s most recognizable paintings. It was done at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole mental asylum after his ear incident, and though it would later be a very famous work, he didn’t consider it very important.
A Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; National Gallery, London; Private Collection) was a series of three paintings also done at the asylum, and was a view from his window.
Dr. Paul Gachet was a physician specializing in artists and had been recommended to treat van Gogh by Vincent’s brother, Theo, although van Gogh’s first impression of the doctor was “sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much.” He eventually came to consider the doctor a friend, however, and painted Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890, Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
Almond Blossoms (1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) is a uniquely composed painting for van Gogh, being a close up of the tree branches. The influence Japanese art had on him can be seen in this work. It has a sense of hopefulness and was painted in celebration of the birth of his nephew and namesake.
On July 27, 1890, Vincent’s depression finally got the best of him and he shot himself in the chest. Having missed any internal organs, he was able to walk to the house he was staying at in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise. Doctors tried to help them as best as they could, but there were no surgeons available. He finally died July 29 due to infection, his last words being “The sadness will last forever.”