Vincent van Gogh is one of the world’s best known and most beloved artists. He is perhaps as widely known for being a madman and cutting off his own earlobe as he is for being a great painter. He spent his youth mainly in Holland. Before he dedicated himself to becoming a painter, he worked in various fields; including art dealing, preaching, and teaching. As a painter Van Gogh was a pioneer of Expressionism. He produced all of his work, some 900 paintings and 1100 drawings, during the last ten years of his life and most of his best-known work was produced in the final two years of his life. His art became his religious calling after various frustrations in trying to follow the traditional path to becoming a clergyman. Following his death, his fame grew slowly, helped by the devoted promotion of his widowed sister-in-law.
A central figure in Vincent van Gogh’s life was his brother Theo, an art dealer with the firm of Goupil & Cie, who continually provided financial support. Their lifelong friendship is documented in numerous letters they exchanged from August 1872 onwards, which were published in 1914. Vincent’s other relationships, with women especially, were less stable. Vincent never married nor had any children.
Early life (1853 – 1869)
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in Zundert in the Province of North Brabant, in the southern Netherlands, the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Theodorus van Gogh, a Protestant minister. He was given the same name as his first brother, who had been born exactly one year before Vincent and had died within a few hours of birth. His brother Theodorus (Theo) was born on May 1, 1857. He also had another brother named Cor and three sisters, Elisabeth, Anna and Wil. As a child, Vincent was serious, silent and thoughtful. In 1860 he attended Zundert village school in a class of 200. From 1861 he and his sister Anna were taught at home by a governess until October 1, 1864. At this point he went away to the elementary boarding school of Jan Provily in Zevenbergen, about 20 miles away. He was distressed to leave his family home, and recalled this even in adulthood. On September 15, 1866, he went to the new middle school, “Rijks HBS Koning Willem II”, in Tilburg. Here Vincent was taught drawing by Constantijn C. Huysmans, who had himself achieved some success in Paris. In March 1868 Van Gogh abruptly left school and returned home. In recollection, Vincent wrote: “My youth was gloomy and cold and barren…”
Art dealer and preacher (1869 – 1878)
In July 1869, at the age of 16, Vincent van Gogh was given a position as an art dealer by his uncle Vincent. He originally worked for Goupil & Cie in The Hague, but was transferred in June, 1873, to work for the firm in London. He himself stayed in Stockwell. Vincent was successful at work and was earning more than his father. He fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, Eugénie Loyer, but when he finally confessed his feeling to her she rejected him, saying that she was already secretly engaged to a previous lodger.
Vincent became increasingly isolated and fervent about religion. His father and uncle dispatched him to Paris, where he became resentful at treating art as a commodity and communicated this to the customers. On April 1, 1876, it was agreed that his employment should be terminated. He became very emotionally involved in his religious interests and returned to England to volunteer as a supply teacher in a small boarding school in Ramsgate. The proprietor of the school eventually relocated, and Vincent then became an assistant for a nearby Methodist preacher.
At Christmas that year he returned home and began working in a bookshop in Dordrecht. He was not happy in this new position and spent most of his time in the back of the shop on his own projects. Vincent’s diet was frugal and mostly vegetarian. In May 1877, in an effort to support his wish to become a pastor, his family sent him to Amsterdam where he lived with his uncle Jan van Gogh. Vincent prepared for university, studying for the theology entrance exam with his uncle Johannes Stricker, a respected theologian. Vincent failed at his studies and had to abandon them. He left uncle Jan’s house in July 1878. He then studied, but failed, a three-month course at a Brussels missionary school, and returned home, yet again in despair.
Borinage and Brussels (1879 – 1880)
In January 1879 Van Gogh got a temporary post as a missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. Van Gogh took his Christian ideals seriously, wishing to live like the poor and share their hardships to the extent of sleeping on straw in a small hut at the back of the baker’s house where he was billeted; the baker’s wife used to hear Vincent sobbing all night in the little hut. His choice of squalid living conditions did not endear him to the appalled church authorities, who dismissed him for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood”. After this he walked to Brussels, returned briefly to the Borinage, to the village of Cuesmes, but acquiesced to pressure from his parents to come ‘home’ to Etten. He stayed there until around March the following year, to the increasing concern and frustration of his parents. There was considerable conflict between Vincent and his father, and his father made inquiries about having his son committed to a lunatic asylum at Geel. Vincent fled back to Cuesmes where he lodged with a miner named Charles Decrucq until October. He became increasingly interested in the everyday people and scenes around him, which he recorded in drawings.
In 1880, Vincent followed the suggestion of his brother Theo and took up art in earnest. In autumn 1880, he went to Brussels, intending to follow Theo’s recommendation to study with the prominent Dutch artist Willem Roelofs, who persuaded Van Gogh (despite his aversion to formal schools of art) to attend the Royal Academy of Art.
Return to Etten (1881)
In April 1881, Van Gogh again went to live with his parents in Etten and continued drawing, using neighbors as subjects. Through the summer he spent much time walking and talking with his recently widowed cousin, Kee Vos-Stricker. Kee was seven years older than Vincent, and had an eight-year-old son. Vincent proposed marriage, but she flatly refused with the words: “No. Never. Never.” (niet, nooit, nimmer) At the end of November he wrote a strong letter to Uncle Stricker, and then, very soon after, hurried to Amsterdam where he talked with Stricker again on several occasions, but Kee refused to see him at all. Her parents told him “Your persistence is ‘disgusting'”. In desperation he held his left hand in the flame of a lamp, saying, “Let me see her for as long as I can keep my hand in the flame” . He did not clearly recall what happened next, but assumed that his uncle blew out the flame. Her father, “Uncle Stricker,” as Vincent refers to him in letters to Theo, made it clear that there was no question of Vincent and Kee marrying, given Vincent’s inability to support himself financially. What he saw as the hypocrisy of his uncle and former tutor affected Vincent deeply. At Christmas he quarreled violently with his father, refused any financial help, and immediately left for the Hague.
The Hague and Drenthe (1881 – 1883)
In January 1882 he left for the Hague, where he called on his cousin-in-law, the painter Anton Mauve, who encouraged him towards painting. Mauve appeared to go suddenly cold towards Vincent, not returning a couple of his letters. Vincent guessed that Mauve had learned of his new domestic relationship with the alcoholic prostitute, Clasina Maria Hoornik (known as Sien) and her young daughter. Sien had a five-year-old daughter, and was pregnant. On July 2, Sien gave birth to a baby boy, Willem. When Vincent’s father discovered this relationship, considerable pressure was put on Vincent to abandon Sien and her children. Vincent was at first defiant in the face of his family’s opposition.
His uncle Cornelis, an art dealer, commissioned 20 ink drawings of the city from him; they were completed by the end of May. In June Vincent spent three weeks in hospital suffering gonorrhea In the summer, he began to paint in oil.
In autumn 1883, after a year with Sien, he abandoned her and the two children. Vincent had thought of moving the family away from the city, but in the end he made the break. He moved to the Dutch province of Drenthe and in December, driven by loneliness, he once again opted to stay with his parents who were by then living in Nuenen, also in the Netherlands.
Nuenen (1883 – 1885)
In Nuenen, he devoted himself to drawing, paying boys to bring him birds’ nests and rapidly sketching the weavers in their cottages.
In autumn 1884, a neighbor’s daughter, Margot Begemann, ten years older than Vincent, accompanied him constantly on his painting forays and fell in love, which he reciprocated (though less enthusiastically). They agreed to marry, but were opposed by both families. Margot tried to kill herself with strychnine and Vincent rushed her to hospital.
On March 26, 1885, Van Gogh’s father died of a stroke. Van Gogh grieved deeply. At about the same time there was interest from Paris in some of his work. In the spring he painted what is now considered his first major work, The Potato Eaters (Dutch De Aardappeleters). In August his work was exhibited for the first time, in the windows of a paint dealer, Leurs, in the Hague.
Antwerp (1885 – 1886)
In November 1885 he moved to Antwerp and rented a little room above a paint dealer’s shop in the Rue des Images. He had little money and ate poorly, preferring to spend what money his brother Theo sent to him on painting materials and models. Bread, coffee, and tobacco were his staple intake. In February 1886 he wrote to Theo saying that he could only remember eating six hot meals since May of the previous year. His teeth became loose and caused him much pain. While in Antwerp he applied himself to the study of color theory and spent time looking at work in museums, particularly the work of Peter Paul Rubens, gaining encouragement to broaden his palette to carmine, cobalt and emerald green. He also bought some Japanese woodblocks in the docklands.
In January 1886 he matriculated at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp, studying painting and drawing. Despite disagreements over his rejection of academic teaching, he nevertheless took the higher level admission exams. For most of February he was ill, run down by overwork and a poor diet (and excessive smoking).
Paris (1886 – 1888)
In March 1886 he moved to Paris to study at Cormon’s studio. For some months Vincent worked at Cormon’s studio where he met fellow students, Émile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who used to frequent the paint store run by Julien “Père” Tanguy, which was at that time the only place to view works by Paul Cézanne.
At the turn of 1886 to 1887 Theo found shared life with Vincent “almost unbearable,” but in spring 1887 they made peace. Vincent then became acquainted with Paul Signac, a follower of Georges Seurat. Vincent and his friend Emile Bernard, who lived with parents in Asnières, adopted elements of the “pointillé” (pointillism) style, where many small dots are applied to the canvas, resulting in an optical blend of hues, when seen from a distance. The theory behind this also stresses the value of complementary colors in proximity—for example, blue and orange—as such pairings enhance the brilliance of each color by a physical effect on the receptors in the eye.
In November 1887, Theo and Vincent met and befriended Paul Gauguin, who had just arrived in Paris. In 1888, when the combination of Paris life and shared accommodation with his brother proved excessive for Vincent’s nerves, he left the city, having painted over 200 paintings during his two years there.
Arles (February 1888 – May 1889)
He arrived on February 21, 1888, at the Hotel Carrel in Arles. He had fantasies of founding a Utopian colony of artists. His companion for two months was the Danish artist, Christian Mourier-Petersen. In March, he painted local landscapes, using a gridded “perspective frame.” Three of his pictures were shown at the Paris Salon des Artistes Indépendents. In April he was visited by the American painter, Dodge MacKnight, who was residing in nearby Fontvieille.
On May 1, he signed a lease for 15 francs a month to rent the four rooms in the right hand side of the “Yellow House” (so called because its outside walls were yellow) at No. 2 Place Lamartine. The house was unfurnished and had been uninhabited for some time so he was not able to move in straight away. He had been staying at the Hôtel Restaurant Carrel in the Rue de la Cavalerie. On May 7 he moved out of the Hôtel Carrel, and moved into the Café de la Gare. He became friends with the proprietors, Joseph and Marie Ginoux. Although the Yellow House had to be furnished before he could fully move in, Van Gogh was able to use it as a studio. Gauguin agreed to join him in Arles.
On September 8, upon advice from his friend Joseph Roulin, the station’s postal supervisor, he bought two beds, and he finally spent the first night in the still sparsely furnished Yellow House on September 17.
On October 23 Gauguin arrived in Arles, after repeated requests from Van Gogh. During November they painted together. Uncharacteristically, Van Gogh painted some pictures from memory, deferring to Gauguin’s ideas on this.
In December the two artists visited Montpellier and viewed works by Courbet and Delacroix in the Museé Fabre. However, their relationship was deteriorating badly. They quarreled fiercely about art. Van Gogh felt an increasing fear that Gauguin was going to desert him, and what he described as a situation of “excessive tension” reached a crisis point on December 23, 1888, when Van Gogh stalked Gauguin with a razor and then cut off the lower part of his own left ear, which he wrapped in newspaper and gave to a prostitute called Rachel in the local brothel, asking her to “keep this object carefully.” Gauguin left Arles and did not speak to Van Gogh again. Van Gogh was hospitalized and in a critical state for a few days. He was immediately visited by Theo (whom Gauguin had notified), as well as Madame Ginoux and frequently by Roulin.
In January 1889 Van Gogh returned to the “Yellow House,” but spent the following month between hospital and home, suffering from hallucinations and paranoia that he was being poisoned. In March the police closed his house, after a petition by 30 townspeople, who called him fou roux (“the redheaded madman”). Signac visited him in the hospital and Van Gogh was allowed home in his company. In April he moved into rooms owned by Dr. Rey, after floods damaged paintings in his own home.
Saint-Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890).
On May 8, 1889, Van Gogh was admitted to the mental hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole in a former monastery in Saint Rémy de Provence, a little less than 20 miles from Arles. Theo van Gogh arranged for his brother to have two small rooms, one for use as a studio, although in reality they were simply adjoining cells with barred windows.. In September 1889 he painted a self portrait, Portrait de l’Artiste sans Barbe that showed him without any beard. This painting sold at auction in New York in 1998 for US $71,500,000. Because of the shortage of subject matter due to his limited access to the outside world, he painted interpretations of Jean Francois Millet’s paintings, as well copies as his own earlier work.
In January 1890, his work was praised by Albert Aurier in the Mercure de France, and he was called a genius. In February, invited by Les XX, a society of avant-garde painters in Brussels, he participated in their annual exhibition. When, at the opening dinner, Van Gogh’s works were insulted by Henry de Groux, a member of Les XX, Toulouse-Lautrec demanded satisfaction, and Signac declared, he would continue to fight for Van Gogh’s honor, if Lautrec should be surrendered. Later, when Van Gogh’s exhibit was on display, including two versions of his Sunflowers and Wheat Fields, Sunrise with the gallery called Artistes Indépendants in Paris, Claude Monet said that his work was the best in the show.
Auvers-sur-Oise (May – July 1890)
In May 1890, Vincent left the clinic and went to the physician Dr. Paul Gachet, in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, where he was closer to his brother Theo. Van Gogh’s first impression was that Gachet was “sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much”. Later Van Gogh did two portraits of Gachet in oils; one hangs at Musée d’Orsay in Paris, as well as a third – his only etching, and in all three emphasis is on Gachet’s melancholic disposition.
Van Gogh’s depression deepened, and on July 27, 1890, at the age of 37, he walked into the fields and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Without realizing that he was fatally wounded, he returned to the Ravoux Inn, where he died in his bed two days later. Theo hastened to be at his side and reported his last words as “La tristesse durera toujours” (French for “the sadness will last forever”). He was buried at the cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise.
Theo, not long after Vincent’s death, was himself hospitalized. He was not able to come to terms with the grief of his brother’s absence, and died six months later on January 25 at Utrecht. In 1914 Theo’s body was exhumed and re-buried beside Vincent’s.