Vincent van Gogh: life and works
Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter whose work had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art. His best-known works include portraits, self portraits, landscapes, still lifes, olive trees, cypresses, wheat fields and sunflowers. In just over a decade, he produced over 2100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings. Critics largely ignored him until his 1890 suicide, at 37, following years of anxiety, poverty and mental illness.
Born to upper middle class parents, Van Gogh was thoughtful and intellectual as a child, and as a young adult deeply religious and keenly aware of modernist trends in art, music and literature. He drew as a child, but spent years drifting in ill health and solitude, not painting until his late twenties. He spent several years in The Hague, London and Paris. His first major work was 1885’s The Potato Eaters, which contains few signs of the vivid colourisation that distinguished his later work. In 1886 he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. His paintings grew brighter in colour as he developed a style that became fully realised during his stay in Arles in 1888.
Today, Van Gogh’s vivid colours, emotive subject matter, and the romanticism of his short life have led to his position in the public imagination as the quintessential misunderstood genius. His widespread critical, commercial and popular success began after his adoption by the early 20th-century German Expressionists and Fauves. Despite a popular tendency to romanticise his ill health, art historians see an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence caused by frequent mental sickness. His posthumous reputation grew steadily during the 20th century; today he is remembered and revered as an important but tragic painter.
Vincent van Gogh biography
Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands. Van Gogh was a post-impressionist painter whose work, notable for its beauty, emotion and color, highly influenced 20th century art. He struggled with mental illness, and remained poor and virtually unknown throughout his life. Van Gogh died in France on July 29, 1890, at age 37, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Vincent van Gogh was born Vincent Willem van Gogh on March 30, 1853, in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands. His father, Theodorus van Gogh, was an austere country minister, and his mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus, was a moody artist whose love of nature, drawing and watercolors was transferred to her son. Van Gogh was born exactly one year after his parents’ first son, also named Vincent, was stillborn. At a young age—his name and birthdate already etched on his dead brother’s headstone—van Gogh was melancholy.
At age 15, van Gogh’s family was struggling financially, and he was forced to leave school and go to work. He got a job at his Uncle Cornelis’ art dealership, Goupil & Cie., a firm of art dealers in The Hague. By this time, van Gogh was fluent in French, German and English, as well as his native Dutch.
In June of 1873, van Gogh was transferred to the Groupil Gallery in London. There, he fell in love with English culture. He visited art galleries in his spare time, and also became a fan of the writings of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. He also fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, Eugenie Loyer. When she rejected his marriage proposal, van Gogh suffered a breakdown. He threw away all his books except for the Bible, and devoted his life to God. He became angry with people at work, telling customers not to buy the “worthless art,” and was eventually fired.
Van Gogh then taught in a Methodist boys’ school, and also preached to the congregation. Although raised in a religious family, it wasn’t until this time that he seriously began to consider devoting his life to the church. Hoping to become a minister, he prepared to take the entrance exam to the School of Theology in Amsterdam. After a year of studying diligently, he refused to take the Latin exams, calling Latin a “dead language” of poor people, and was subsequently denied entrance.
The same thing happened at the Church of Belgium: In the winter of 1878, van Gogh volunteered to move to an impoverished coal mine in the south of Belgium, a place where preachers were usually sent as punishment. He preached and ministered to the sick, and also drew pictures of the miners and their families, who called him “Christ of the Coal Mines.” The evangelical committees were not as pleased. They disagreed with van Gogh’s lifestyle, which had begun to take on a tone of martyrdom. They refused to renew van Gogh’s contract, and he was forced to find another occupation.
In the fall of 1880, van Gogh decided to move to Brussels and become an artist. Though he had no formal art training, his younger brother Theo, who worked as an art dealer, offered to support van Gogh financially. He began taking lessons on his own, studying books like Travaux des champs by Jean-François Millet and Cours de dessin by Charles Bargue.
Van Gogh had a catastrophic love life. He was attracted to women in trouble, thinking he could help them. His cousin, Kate, was recently widowed, and when van Gogh fell in love with her, she was repulsed and fled to her home in Amsterdam. He then moved to The Hague and fell in love with Clasina Maria Hoornik, an alcoholic prostitute. She became his companion, mistress and model.
When Hoornik went back to prostitution, van Gogh became utterly depressed. In 1882, his family threatened to cut off his money unless he left Hoornik and The Hague. Van Gogh left in mid-September of that year to travel to Drenthe, a somewhat desolate district in the Netherlands. For the next six weeks, he lived a nomadic life, moving throughout the region while drawing and painting the landscape and its people.
Van Gogh’s art helped him stay emotionally balanced. In 1885, he began work on what is considered to be his first masterpiece, “Potato Eaters.” His brother, Theo, by this time living in Paris, believed the painting would not be well-received in the French capital, where impressionism had become the trend. Nevertheless, van Gogh decided to move to Paris, and showed up at Theo’s house uninvited. In March 1886, Theo welcomed his brother into his small apartment.
In Paris, van Gogh first saw impressionist art, and he was inspired by the color and light. He began studying with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro and others. To save money, he and his friends posed for each other instead of hiring models. Van Gogh was passionate, and he argued with other painters about their works, alienating those who became tired of his bickering.
Van Gogh became influenced by Japanese art and began studying eastern philosophy to enhance his art and life. He dreamed of traveling there, but was told by Toulouse-Lautrec that the light in the village of Arles was just like the light in Japan. In February 1888, van Gogh boarded a train to the south of France. He moved into the “little yellow house” and spent his money on paint rather than food. He lived on coffee, bread and absinthe, and found himself feeling sick and strange. Before long, it became apparent that in addition to suffering from physical illness, his psychological health was declining; around this time, he is known to have sipped on turpentine and eaten paint.
Theo was worried, and offered Paul Gauguin money to go watch over van Gogh in Arles. Within a month, van Gogh and Gauguin were arguing constantly, and one night, Gauguin walked out. Van Gogh followed him, and when Gauguin turned around, he saw van Gogh holding a razor in his hand. Hours later, van Gogh went to the local brothel and paid for a prostitute named Rachel. With blood pouring from his hand, he offered her his ear, asking her to “keep this object carefully.” The police found him in his room the next morning, and admitted him to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. Theo arrived on Christmas Day to see van Gogh, who was weak from blood loss and having violent seizures.
The doctors assured Theo that his brother would live and would be taken good care of, and on January 7, 1889, van Gogh was released from the hospital. He was alone and depressed. For hope, he turned to painting and nature, but could not find peace and was hospitalized again. He would paint at the yellow house during the day and return to the hospital at night.
After the people of Arles signed a petition saying that van Gogh was dangerous, he decided to move to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. On May 8, 1889, he began painting in the hospital gardens. In November 1889, he was invited to exhibit his paintings in Brussels. He sent six paintings, including “Irises” and “Starry Night.”
Death and Legacy
On January 31, 1890, Theo and his wife, Johanna, gave birth to a boy and named him after van Gogh. Around this time, Theo sold van Gogh’s “The Red Vineyards” painting for 400 francs.
Also around this time, Dr. Paul Gachet, who lived in Auvers, about 20 miles north of Paris, agreed to take van Gogh as his patient. Van Gogh moved to Auvers and rented a room. In May 1890, Theo and his family visited van Gogh, and Theo spoke to his brother about needing to be stricter with his finances. Van Gogh became distraught about his future, thinking that Theo meant he was no longer interested in selling his art.
On July 27, 1890, van Gogh went out to paint in the morning as usual, but he carried a loaded pistol. He shot himself in the chest, but the bullet did not kill him. He was found bleeding in his room. Van Gogh was taken to a nearby hospital and his doctors sent for Theo, who arrived to find his brother sitting up in bed and smoking a pipe. They spent the next couple of days talking together, and then van Gogh asked Theo to take him home. On July 29, 1890, Vincent van Gogh died in the arms of his brother. He was 37 years old.
Theo, who was suffering from syphilis and weakened by his brother’s death, died six months later in a Dutch asylum. He was buried in Utrecht, but in 1914 Theo’s wife, Johanna, who was a dedicated supporter of van Gogh’s works, had Theo’s body reburied in the Auvers cemetery next to Vincent.
Johanna then collected as many of van Gogh’s paintings as she could, but discovered that many of them had been destroyed or lost, van Gogh’s own mother having thrown away crates full of his art. On March 17, 1901, 71 of van Gogh’s paintings were displayed at a show in Paris, and his fame subsequently grew enormously. His mother lived long enough to see her son hailed as an artist and a genius.
Today, Vincent van Gogh is considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt. He completed more than 2,100 works, consisting of 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings and sketches. Several of his paintings rank among the most expensive in the world; “Irises” sold for a record $53.9 million, and his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold for $82.5 million.
After more than 100 years since van Gogh’s death, more of his artwork was released. A painting of a landscape entitled “Sunset at Montmajour” was discovered and unveiled by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in September 2013. Before coming under the possession of the Van Gogh Museum, a Norwegian industrialist owned the painting and stored it away in his attic, having thought that it wasn’t authentic. The painting is believed to have been created by van Gogh in 1888—around the same time that his artwork “Sunflowers” was made—just two years before his death.
Vincent van Gogh art
The iconic tortured artist, Vincent Van Gogh strove to convey his emotional and spiritual state in each of his artworks. Although he sold only one painting during his lifetime, Van Gogh is now one of the most popular artists of all time. His canvases with densely laden, visible brushstrokes rendered in a bright, opulent palette emphasize Van Gogh’s personal expression brought to life in paint.
Each painting provides a direct sense of how the artist viewed each scene, interpreted through his eyes, mind, and heart. This radically idiosyncratic, emotionally evocative style has continued to affect artists and movements throughout the twentieth century and up to the present day, guaranteeing Van Gogh’s importance far into the future.
Van Gogh’s dedication to articulating the inner spirituality of man and nature led to a fusion of style and content that resulted in dramatic, imaginative, rhythmic, and emotional canvases that convey far more than the mere appearance of the subject.
Although the source of much upset during his life, Van Gogh’s mental instability provided the frenzied source for the emotional renderings of his surroundings and imbued each image with a deeper psychological reflection and resonance.
Van Gogh’s unstable personal temperament became synonymous with the romantic image of the tortured artist. His self-destructive talent was echoed in the lives of many artists in the twentieth century.
Van Gogh used an impulsive, gestural application of paint and symbolic colors to express subjective emotions. These methods and practice came to define many subsequent modern movements from Fauvism to Abstract Expressionism.
Most Important Art
The Potato Eaters (1885)
Artwork description & Analysis: This early canvas is considered Van Gogh’s first masterpiece. Painted while living among the peasants and laborers in Nuenen in the Netherlands, Van Gogh strove to depict the people and their lives truthfully. Rendering the scene in a dull palette, he echoed the drab living conditions of the peasants and used ugly models to further iterate the effects manual labor had upon these workers. This effect is heightened by his use of loose brushstrokes to describe the faces and hands of the peasants as they huddle around the singular, small lantern, eating their meager meal of potatoes. Despite the evocative nature of the scene, the painting was not considered successful until after Van Gogh’s death. At the time this work was painted, the Impressionists had dominated the Parisian avant-garde for over a decade with their light palettes. It is not surprising that Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, found it impossible to sell paintings from this period in his brother’s career. However, this work not only demonstrates Van Gogh’s commitment to rendering emotionally and spiritually laden scenes in his art, but also established ideas that Van Gogh followed throughout his career.
Oil on canvas – The Van Gogh Museum
The Courtesan (after Eisen) (1887)
Artwork description & Analysis: While in Paris, Van Gogh was exposed to a myriad of artistic styles, including the Japanese woodblock print, or “ukiyo-e.” These prints were only made available in the West in the mid-nineteenth century. Van Gogh collected works by Japanese ukiyo-e masters like Hiroshige and Hokusai and claimed these works were as important as works by European artists, like Rubens and Rembrandt. Van Gogh was inspired to create this particular painting by a reproduction of a print by Keisai Eisen that appeared on the May 1886 cover of the magazine Paris Illustré. Van Gogh enlarges Eisen’s image of the courtesan, placing her in a contrasting, golden background bordered by a lush water garden based on the landscapes of other prints he owned. This particular garden is populated by frogs and cranes, both of which were illusions to prostitutes in nineteenth-century French slang. While the stylistic features exhibited in this painting, in particular the strong, dark outlines and bright swaths of color, came to define Van Gogh’s mature style, he also made the work his own. By working in paint rather than a woodblock print, Van Gogh was able to soften the work, relying on visible brushstrokes to lend dimension to the figure and her surroundings as well as creating a dynamic tension across the surface not present in the original prints.
Oil on canvas – Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Fourteen Sunflowers in a Vase (1888)
Artwork description & Analysis: Van Gogh’s Sunflower series was intended to decorate the room that was set aside for Gauguin at the “Yellow House,” his studio and apartment in Arles. The lush brushstrokes built up the texture of the sunflowers and Van Gogh employed a wide spectrum of yellows to describe the blossoms, due in part to recently invented pigments that made new colors and tonal nuances possible. Van Gogh used the sunny hues to express the entire lifespan of the flowers, from the full bloom in bright yellow to the wilting and dying blossoms rendered in melancholy ochre. The traditional painting of a vase of flowers is given new life through Van Gogh’s experimentation with line and texture, infusing each sunflower with the fleeting nature of life, the brightness of the Provencal summer sun, as well as the artist’s mindset.
Oil on canvas – The National Gallery, London
Starry Night (1889)
Starry Night is often considered to be Van Gogh’s pinnacle achievement. Unlike most of his works, Starry Night was painted from memory, and not out in the landscape. The emphasis on interior, emotional life is clear in his swirling, tumultuous depiction of the sky – a radical departure from his previous, more naturalistic landscapes. Here, Van Gogh followed a strict principal of structure and composition in which the forms are distributed across the surface of the canvas in an exact order to create balance and tension amidst the swirling torsion of the cypress trees and the night sky. The result is a landscape rendered through curves and lines, its seeming chaos subverted by a rigorous formal arrangement. Evocative of the spirituality Van Gogh found in nature, Starry Night is famous for advancing the act of painting beyond the representation of the physical world.
Oil on canvas – The Museum of Modern Art
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)
Artwork description & Analysis: After cutting off a portion of his right earlobe during a manic episode while in Arles, Van Gogh painted Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear while recuperating and reflecting on his illness. He believed that the act of painting would help restore balance to his life, demonstrating the important role that artistic creation held for him. The painting bears witness to the artist’s renewed strength and control in his art, as the composition is rendered with uncharacteristic realism, where all his facial features are clearly modeled and careful attention is given to contrasting textures of skin, cloth, and wood. The artist depicts himself in front of an easel with a canvas that is largely blank and a Japanese print hung on the wall. The loose and expressive brushstrokes typical of Van Gogh are clearly visible; the marks are both choppy and sinuous, at times becoming soft and diffuse, creating a tension between boundaries that are otherwise clearly marked. The strong outlines of his coat and hat mimic the linear quality of the Japanese print behind the artist. At the same time, Van Gogh deployed the technique of impasto, or the continual layering of wet paint, to develop a richly textured surface, which furthers the depth and emotive force of the canvas. This self-portrait, one of many Van Gogh created during his career, has an intensity unparalleled in its time, which is elucidated in the frank manner in which the artist portrays his self-inflicted wound as well as the evocative way he renders the scene. By combining influences as diverse as the loose brushwork of the Impressionists and the strong outlines from Japanese woodblock printing, Van Gogh arrived at a truly unique mode of expression in his paintings.
Oil on canvas – Courtauld Institute Galleries, London
Church at Auvers (1890)
Artwork description & Analysis: After Van Gogh left the asylum at Saint-Remy in May 1890 he travelled north to Auvers, outside of Paris. Church at Auvers is one of the most well-known images from the last few months of Van Gogh’s life. Imbuing the landscape with movement and emotion, he rendered the scene with a palette of vividly contrasting colors and brushstrokes that lead the viewer through painting. Van Gogh distorted and flattened out the architecture of the church and depicted it caught within its own shadow – which reflects his own complex relationship to spirituality and religion. Van Gogh conveys a sense that true spirituality is found in nature, not in the buildings of man. The continued influence of Japanese woodblock printing is clear in the thick dark outlines and the flat swaths of color of the roofs and landscape, while the visible brushstrokes of the Impressionists are elongated and emphasized. The use of the acidic tones and the darkness of the church alludes to the impending mental disquiet that would eventually erupt within Van Gogh and lead to his suicide. This sense of instability plagued Van Gogh throughout his life, infusing his works with a unique blend of charm and tension.
Oil on canvas – Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Vincent van Gogh facts
Vincent van Gogh is one of the most prominent artists in history. Here are 10 facts about this incredible painter.
1. He was born in Holland
Have you heard of Groot-Zundert, Holland? That’s where artist Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853.
2. He had a brother with the same name
Vincent had an older brother who died at birth. His name was also Vincent van Gogh.
3. He was supposed to be a pastor
Van Gogh was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pastor. Would the world have been robbed of his art if he had stuck with this career path?
4. He didn’t start painting until he was older
Van Gogh was 27 years old when he painted his first piece. Before that, he was failing as an art dealer and engaging in missionary work. He was mostly self-taught and he started out by painting dark and sad depictions of peasants. Maybe there’s still hope for other late bloomers out there.
5. He enjoyed painting himself
Vincent van Gogh is well-known for his self-portraits — he painted over 30 of them between 1886 and 1889. Post-impressionist selfies?
6. He produced his most famous artwork while in a mental hospital
Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night while residing in an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France. You can still see this painting at the New York Museum of Modern Art.
7. He was very prolific
Vincent van Gogh produced his most famous paintings in the 10 years before he passed away suddenly. In that time frame, he made roughly 900 paintings. Think about it – in just 10 years, he did 900 paintings that are now considered some of the greatest works of art ever created. His most expensive painting, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, is valued at $148.6 million dollars. He painted it in 1890 and it was sold for this price in May 1990.
8. He was best friends with another artist
Van Gogh was very close friends with artist Paul Gauguin. The famous incident of van Gogh’s ear actually involved Gauguin. According to the well-known version of the story, van Gogh chopped off his own ear after having a fight with his friend, but a recent book suggests it was actually Gauguin who cut off the ear.
9. He sold only one painting while he was alive
Van Gogh sold just one painting, The Red Vineyard, during his lifetime. He became famous only after his death.
10. His death may, or may not, have been a suicide
Van Gogh died in 1890 under mysterious circumstances. He was thought to have committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, but a recent theory suggests he might have been shot by a local teenager.
Vincent van Gogh quotes
“I am still far from being what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed.”
“Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.”
“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
“If you hear a voice within you saying, ”You are not a painter,” then by all means paint… and that voice will be silenced.”
“But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.”
“How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be?”
“I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”
“There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke.”
“Love is something eternal; the aspect may change, but not the essence.”
“Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again.”
“The way to know life is to love many things.”
“Love always brings difficulties, that is true, but the good side of it is that it gives energy.”
“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”
“I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”
“I wish they would only take me as I am.”
“By working hard, old man, I hope to make something good one day. I haven’t yet, but I am pursuing it and fighting for it . . . .”
“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”
“You write in your letter something which I sometimes feel also: Sometimes I do not know how I shall pull through.”
“Conscience is a man’s compass.”
“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.”
“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.”
“Painting is a faith, and it imposes the duty to disregard public opinion.”
“I have … a terrible need … shall I say the word? … of religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars.”
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”
“One must work and dare if one really wants to live.”
“There is no blue without yellow and without orange.”
“I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream.”
“Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.”
“It is better to be high-spirited even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all to prudent.”
“As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.”
“It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill- it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.”
“One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way.”
“The more I think about it,the more I realize there is nothing more artistic than to love others.”
“Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul.”
“I see drawings and pictures in the poorest of huts and the dirtiest of corners.”
Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.”
“It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to, the feeling for the things themselves, for reality is more important than the feeling for pictures.”
“If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things.”
“Occasionally, in times of worry, I’ve longed to be stylish, but on second thought I say no—just let me be myself—and express rough, yet true things with rough workmanship.”
“I am not an adventurer by choice but by fate.”
“One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with.”
“For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.”
“Love is eternal – the aspect may change, but not the essence. There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as there is in an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and was a good lamp, but now it is shed.”
“Ideas for work are coming to me in abundance…I’m going like a painting-locomotive.”
“As you can see, I am immersing myself in color—I’ve held back from that until now; and I don’t regret it.”
“I consciously choose the dog’s path through life. I shall be poor; I shall be a painter…”
“Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit.”
“It always strikes me, and it is very peculiar, that when we see the image of indescribable and unutterable desolation – of loneliness, of poverty and misery, the end of all things, or their extreme – then rises in our mind the thought of God.”
“I’m drawing a great deal and think it’s getting better.”
“One can speak poetry just by arranging colors well, just as one can say comforting things in music.”
“I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, suffering as I am, do without something which is greater than I am, which is my life, the power to create.”
“Sometimes I long so much to do landscape, just as one would go for a long walk to refresh oneself, and in all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul.”