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Strokes to the portrait: 7 stories about the life and death of Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh did not like to learn, but easily mastered languages. He adored his younger brother, but all his life he was in conflict with his father. And, despite the extensive correspondence that has been preserved, there are still many secrets concerning his life. Inquisitive biographers even Vincent Van Gogh’s suicide managed to be questioned.
Vincent van Gogh. Still life with Bible
Still life with Bible
Ottobre 1885, 65.7×78.5 cm

Vincent Van Gogh was fluent in four languages. In May 1873, the future artist descended from a ship in the port of London. The 20-year-old art dealer, who promises great promise, was transferred to the local subsidiary of Gupil and Co. A few weeks later, Vincent had already read the books of English authors in the original, giving particular preference to Dickens. With the same ease he mastered at least two more European languages. After his dismissal, Van Gogh got a job at a London school for boys, where his duties included teaching his pupils to write and arithmetic, as well as French and German.

In the short period of religiosity Vincent managed to work as an assistant priest. His first sermon, preserved to the present day, was written and read in perfect English. In addition, in 1877, who dreamed of missionary work, but forced to work in a bookshop in Dordrecht, Van Gogh entertained a simultaneous translation of the Bible into four languages at once - Dutch, German, French and English. The future artist was not given only Greek and Latin, which he needed to master in order to enter the faculty of theology at the University of Amsterdam.
Vincent van Gogh. Plaster female torso
Plaster female torso
1888, 73×54 cm

Vincent Van Gogh hated educational institutions for artists. He didn’t really like to learn and do something on orders. He had his own curriculum and favorite models. In one of the letters to his brother Theo Vincent Van Gogh wrote: “In academies it’s bad that you are taught to draw Louis XV or the Arabs, and not weavers, peasants or tailors.”. It can be said that Vincent entered the Academy of Antwerp for mercantile reasons: there was no shortage of models. At that time, the models of the artist who was always constrained by the artist’s means were of easy virtue, but even in this case it wasn’t necessary to rely on the nude
The nude is the genre focused on the aesthetic aspect of the naked human body. The term traces its origin to the Latin nudus (“naked, bare”) and is cognate with the French nudité (“nudity”). Continua a leggere
nature, for this the prostitutes had to pay extra.

At the Academy, Vincent always wore a traditional blue blouse, complementing the image of a fur hat, and often argued with teachers. One of the fellow students recalled how once, drawing from life the figure of Venus de Milo, Van Gogh depicted her with “wrong” puffy hips. The professor grabbed a drawing from him in horror and began to correct this outrageous fruit of fantasy. Vincent addressed the teacher with an angry speech: “You definitely don't know what a young woman looks like! She must have hips and ass, otherwise she will not be able to bear the child! ”

At the academy, Van Gogh studied for less than two months, after which he left it, without notifying anyone, and left for Paris, forever remaining a talented self-taught person.
Vincent van Gogh. The potato eaters
The potato eaters
Maggio 1885, 81×114 cm

Vincent van Gogh had a terrible relationship with his father. It is unlikely that pastor Theodor, who devoted his whole life to God and cares about his congregation, could be pleased with his mischievous firstborn, who wanted to spit on any responsibility and could quit his job at any moment and go away looking at the call of the soul. The relationship of Vincent with his father could be called more or less equal only in the period when the future artist decided to become a priest. Pastor Theodore even gave his son a place in the faculty of theology at the University of Amsterdam, but he didn’t have much hope that anything would come out of this idea.

The conflict escalated when the pious cleric was informed of his son's connection with the hague prostitute. The artist hid his relationship with Sin from the whole family, except Brother Theo, but the secret was revealed thanks to Vincent's former colleagues. To preserve the honor of the family, Pastor Theodore did not invent anything better than to declare his son insane. He even intended to place Vincent in a psychiatric hospital, but, fortunately, the matter did not come to that. The fact that Van Gogh soon broke up with Sin did not correct the situation. Due to financial difficulties, the artist was forced to once again live in the parental home in the town of Nuenen, where rumor had already spread about his connection with the selling woman. Vincent wrote to his brother that his parents accepted him as if he were "A big dog with dirty paws".

In March 1885, pastor Theodore died. By that time, his relationship with his son had deteriorated so much that they did not even talk to each other. Moreover, it was rumored that Vincent had a hand in the death of his father. Anyway, this tragic event very upset Van Gogh. But at the same time, he allegedly finally freed himself from the eternal paternal oppression. A few days after the death of pastor Theodore Vincent begins to write his first masterpiece - the painting "Potato Eaters".
Vincent van Gogh. Head of a peasant woman with white cap
Head of a peasant woman with white cap
Aprile 1885, 44×36 cm

Vincent Van Gogh was fond of phrenology. Now even ordinary people would laugh at this funny pseudoscience, considering it another fruit of the imagination of "British scientists." But in the first half of the XIX century, phrenology was very popular in various circles. It appeared thanks to the theory of the Austrian physician Franz Joseph Gall, who linked the psychological characteristics of the person and character traits with the shape of the skull. Despite harsh criticism, phrenology found many admirers. She was repeatedly mentioned in the literature, in particular, in the “Hero of Our Time” by Lermontov and “Sherlock Holmes Notes” by Conan Doyle. Of course, portrait painters were not left aside. Many American slave-owners who carried out ruthless experiments on the blacks were keen on phrenology. In addition, in the 30s of the twentieth century, the Nazis tried to revive the pseudoscience to confirm the theory of racial superiority.

At a time when Vincent learned about phrenology, this theory was already completely invalid in all of Europe. Actually, this happened even before the birth of the artist. But it seems that Van Gogh was of little interest. His enthusiasm for this pseudoscience coincided with the beginning of his artistic career and, naturally, was reflected in his works, most of which were then images of ordinary people. This is especially noticeable in the series of portraits of peasants written by Vincent in Nuenen in the winter of 1885. Of course, they could not boast a high level of intelligence or a good education, but the artist deliberately distorted their features, lengthening their noses and cutting their foreheads. The culmination of this cycle was the picture “Potato Eaters”, about the heroes of which Vincent told at all that he wanted to make them as close as possible to potatoes.
Vincent van Gogh. Sunset: wheat field near Arles
Sunset: wheat field near Arles
Giugno 1888, 73.5×92 cm

This Arles had little to do with the paintings of Van Gogh. Every year, many fans of the artist come to this small French city in the hope of immersing themselves in the magical atmosphere promised by the sunniest, brightest and serene paintings of Van Gogh. Those who have never been here can expect one of the most cruel disappointments in life: almost nothing remained of Arles of those times. Those buildings, which were not reached by the locals, were mostly destroyed during World War II.

But in fairness it should be said that even while Vincent Van Gogh lived and worked here, Arles was not at all like that idyllic corner we can see on his most famous canvases. The city was the industrial center of France: trains and cars were produced here. In the letters, Theo Vincent complained about the reigning dirt everywhere. If you look closely at the paintings of the Arlesian period, in the background you can often notice the smoking pipes of the factories. For the rest, Van Gogh painted rather that Arles who lived in his imagination.

By the way, the imagination was the main reason that led the artist to this city. More precisely, the rumor about the most beautiful women of France and portraits beautiful harlezianswho have seen Vincent. Upon arrival in Arles, he first complained to Theo that the rumors about the beauty of the local ladies were greatly exaggerated. However, Van Gogh didn’t stop it: women complained that he literally tormented them with his harassment. Vincent’s stay in Arles is sad: shortly after the incident with the cut off ear, 30 local residents signed a petition demanding to expel the artist from the city (it is still kept in the mayor’s office). From the wrath of a pious society, Van Gogh had to flee to a psychiatric clinic.
Vincent van Gogh. The town hall in Auvers on 14 July 1890
The town hall in Auvers on 14 July 1890
Luglio 1890, 72×93 cm

Vincent Van Gogh may not have committed suicide. In 2011, biographers Stephen Nayfeh and Gregory White Smith, who once received Pulitzer for a book about Jackson Pollock, released a new collaboration called “Van Gogh: Life”. Among other things, this book claims that Vincent did not take his own life, but rather was shot by a local teenager. Art historians have still not agreed on this theory. But in November 2014, an article was published in Vanity Fair magazine in which legal experts cited several confirmations of the version of Naifeh and Smith. In particular, the article stated that the artist physically could not hold a weapon in order to inflict such a wound on himself, and that traces of burns should have remained on his hands.

Several mysterious facts also speak in favor of the scandalous theory of Naifeh and Smith: first, the gun from which Van Gogh was shot was never found, as was the easel with the picture he was supposedly working on that day in field. In addition, the path that Vincent, he said, passed from the field to the house (about a mile and a half), simply could not overpower a man with such a serious wound. The authors of the book also claim that the canvases painted by the artist at that time were too cheerful for a person who was ready to go to that world, and quote from several letters of Van Gogh in which he speaks out sharply against suicides.
Strokes to the portrait: 7 stories about the life and death of Vincent van Gogh

Theo Van Gogh survived Vincent by only six months. The tender affection and touching friendship of two brothers, which they carried throughout their lives, became the talk of the town in the art world. Other relatives (another brother and three sisters) of Vincent and Theo are often not even mentioned in this connection. Hundreds of letters from the artist, which helped to make the most complete picture of his life, survived thanks to his brother. It is worth noting that the letters of Theo himself to this day came very little, Vincent treated them far not so carefully. Without the long-term support of his brother, including material, Van Gogh would hardly have had the opportunity to become an artist at all. Theo was devotedly devoted to Vincent and never doubted his talent. The face of his brother was the last that the artist saw before his death.

Three days after the funeral of Vincent, Theo fell into a deep depression, after which his mental state began to deteriorate steadily. Within a few months, he had turned into a complete madman: bouts of anger were followed by flashes of talkativeness, turning into vague muttering, and periods of weakness. All these symptoms were attributed to a mysterious liver disease, and it was not until many years later that the Van Gogh family admitted that Theo had become insane because of syphilis. In the end, he agreed to go to the clinic for the mentally ill, where he died on January 25, 1891 at the age of 33. He was buried in Utrecht, but in April 1914 his remains were transported to France, where the brothers were buried near the cemetery in Auvers-sur-Oise. Theo's widow, Johanna, planted ivy on their graves as a symbol of the inseparability of the brothers even after their death. By the way, ivy, not the cheerful sunflowers, was Van Gogh’s favorite plant.

Author: Evgenia Sidelnikova

Title illustration: Vincent Van Gogh.Self-portrait, 1889. Musee d'Orsay, Paris
This text was originally published in Russian and automatically translated to English.