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 for its vivid colors and emotional impact. He suffered from anxiety and increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness throughout his life, and died largely unknown, at the age of 37, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Little appreciated during his lifetime, his fame grew in the years after his death. Today, he is widely regarded as one of history's greatest painters and an important contributor to the foundations of modern art. Van Gogh did not begin painting until his late twenties, and most of his best-known works were produced during his final two years. He produced more than 2,000 artworks, consisting of around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. He was little known during his lifetime; however, his work was a strong influence on the Modernist art that followed, and today many of his pieces—including his numerous self portraits, landscapes, portraits and sunflowers—are among the world's most recognizable and expensive works of art.
Van Gogh spent his early adulthood working for a firm of art dealers and traveled between The Hague, London and Paris, after which he taught in England. An early vocational aspiration was to become a pastor and preach the gospel, and from 1879 he worked as a missionary in a mining region in Belgium. During this time he began to sketch people from the local community, and in 1885 painted his first major work The Potato Eaters. His palette at the time consisted mainly of sombre earth tones and showed no sign of the vivid coloration that distinguished his later work. In March 1886, he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. Later he moved to the south of France and was taken by the strong sunlight he found there. His work grew brighter in color and he developed the unique and highly recognizable style which became fully realized during his stay in Arles in 1888.
The extent to which his mental illness affected his painting has been a subject of speculation since his death. Despite a widespread tendency to romanticise his ill health, modern critics see an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence brought about by his bouts of sickness. According to art critic Robert Hughes, Van Gogh's late works show an artist at the height of his ability, completely in control and "longing for concision and grace".
The most comprehensive primary source for the understanding of Van Gogh as a major artist is the collection of letters which were passed between him and his younger brother, the art dealer Theo van Gogh. They lay the foundation for most of what is known about the thoughts and beliefs of the artist. Theo continually provided his brother with both financial and emotional support.
Vincent van Gogh, age 18, c.?1871–1872. This portrait was taken at the time when he was working at the branch of Goupil & Cie's gallery at The Hague.
Theo van Gogh in 1872 at age 16. Theo was a life-long supporter and friend to his brother. The two are buried together at Auvers-sur-Oise.Their lifelong friendship, and most of what is known of Van Gogh's thoughts and theories of art, is recorded in the hundreds of letters they exchanged from August 1872 until 1890. Most were written by Vincent to Theo beginning in the summer of 1872. More than 600 letters from Vincent to Theo and 40 from Theo to Vincent survive today and although many are undated, art historians have been able to largely arrange the
correspondences chronologically. Problems remain—mainly from dating those from the Arles period. Yet during that period alone, it is known that Van Gogh wrote 200 letters to friends in Dutch, French and English. The period when Vincent lived in Paris is the most difficult for art historians to examine because he and Theo shared accommodation and thus had no need to correspond, leaving little or no historical record of the time.
In addition to letters to and from Theo, other surviving documents include those to Van Rappard, Émile Bernard, Van Gogh's sister Wil and her friend Line Kruysse. The letters were first annotated in 1913 by Theo's widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. In her preface, she stated that she published with 'trepidation' because she did not want the drama in the artist's life to overshadow his work. Van Gogh himself was an avid reader of other artists biographies and expected their lives to be in keeping with the character of their art.
For a timeline, see Vincent van Gogh chronology.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Groot-Zundert, a village close to Breda in the province of North Brabant in the southern Netherlands. He was the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. Vincent was given the same name as his grandfather—and a first brother stillborn exactly one year before. The practice of reusing a name in this way was not uncommon. Vincent was a common name in the Van Gogh family; his grandfather (1789–1874) had received his degree of theology at the University of Leiden in 1811. Grandfather Vincent had six sons, three of whom became art dealers, including another Vincent who was referred to in Van Gogh's letters as "Uncle Cent." Grandfather Vincent had perhaps been named in turn after his own father's uncle, the successful sculptor Vincent van Gogh (1729–1802). Art and religion were the two occupations to which the Van Gogh family gravitated. His brother Theodorus (Theo) was born on 1 May 1857. He had another brother, Cor, and three sisters: Elisabeth, Anna and Willemina.
Vincent van Gogh c.?1866, approx. age 13As a child, Vincent was serious, silent and thoughtful. He attended the Zundert village school from 1860, where the single Catholic teacher taught around 200 pupils. From 1861, he and his sister Anna were taught at home by a governess, until 1 October 1864, when he went away to the elementary boarding school of Jan Provily in Zevenbergen, the Netherlands, about 20 miles (32 km) away. He was distressed to leave his family home, and recalled this even in adulthood. On 15 September 1866, he went to the new middle school, Willem II College in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Constantijn C. Huysmans, a successful artist in Paris, taught Van Gogh to draw at the school and advocated a systematic approach to the subject. In March 1868, Van Gogh abruptly left school and returned home. A later comment on his early years was, "My youth was gloomy and cold and sterile..."
In July 1869, his uncle helped him to obtain a position with the art dealer Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After his training, in June 1873, Goupil transferred him to London, where he lodged at 87 Hackford Road, Brixton, and worked at Messrs. Goupil & Co., 17 Southampton Street. This was a happy time for Van Gogh; he was successful at work and was already, at the age of 20, earning more than his father. Theo's wife later remarked that this was the happiest year of Van Gogh's life. 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 former lodger. He was increasingly isolated and fervent about religion. His father and uncle sent him to Paris to work in a dealership. However, he became resentful at how art was treated as a commodity, a fact apparent to customers. On 1 April 1876, his employment was terminated.
He returned to England for unpaid work. He took a position as a supply teacher in a small boarding school overlooking the harbor in Ramsgate, where he made sketches of the view. The proprietor of the school relocated to Isleworth, Middlesex and Van Gogh decided to make the daily commute to the new location on foot. However the arrangement did not work out and Van Gogh left to became a Methodist minister's assistant, to follow his wish to "preach the gospel everywhere." At Christmas that year, he returned home and worked in a bookshop in Dordrecht for six months. However, he was not happy in this new position and spent most of his time in the back of the shop either doodling or translating passages from the Bible into English, French and German. His roommate at the time, a young teacher called Görlitz, later recalled that Van Gogh ate frugally, and preferred not to eat meat.
Van Gogh's religious emotion grew until he felt he had found his true vocation. In an effort to support his effort to become a pastor, in May 1877, his family sent him to Amsterdam to study theology. He stayed with his uncle Jan van Gogh, a naval Vice Admiral. Vincent prepared for the entrance exam with his uncle Johannes Stricker; a respected theologian who published the first "Life of Jesus" available in the Netherlands. Van Gogh failed, and left his uncle Jan's house in July 1878. He then undertook, but failed, a three-month course at the Vlaamsche Opleidingsschool Protestant missionary school in Laeken, near Brussels.
The house where Van Gogh stayed in Cuesmes in 1880; while living here he decided to become an artistIn January 1879, he took a temporary post as a missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium, bringing his father's profession to people many felt to be the most wretched and hopeless in Europe. Taking Christianity to what he saw as its logical conclusion, Van Gogh opted to live like those he preached to—sharing 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 reported hearing Van Gogh sobbing all night in the 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." He then walked to Brussels, returned briefly to the village of Cuesmes in the Borinage but gave in to pressure from his parents to return home to Etten. He stayed there until around March the following year, a cause of increasing concern and frustration for his parents. There was particular conflict between Vincent and his father; Theodorus made inquiries about having his son committed to the lunatic asylum at Geel.
He returned to Cuesmes where he lodged with a miner named Charles Decrucq until October. He became increasingly interested in ordinary people and scenes around him. However, he recorded his time there in his drawings, and that year followed the suggestion of Theo and took up art in earnest. He traveled to Brussels that autumn; intending to follow Theo's recommendation to study with the prominent Dutch artist Willem Roelofs, who persuaded Van Gogh, in spite of his aversion to formal schools of art, to attend the Royal Academy of Art. While in attendance, he not only studied anatomy but also the standard rules of modeling and perspective, of which he said, "...you have to know just to be able to draw the least thing." Van Gogh wished to become an artist while in God's service as he stated, "...to try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture."
Etten, Drenthe and The Hague
In April 1881, Van Gogh moved to the Etten countryside with his parents where he continued drawing; often using neighbors as subjects. Through the summer, he spent much time walking and talking with his recently widowed cousin, Kee Vos-Stricker, the daughter of his mother's older sister and Johannes Stricker, who had shown real warmth towards his nephew. Kee was seven years older than Van Gogh and had an eight-year-old son. He proposed marriage, but she refused with the words, "No, never, never" (niet, nooit, nimmer).
At the end of November, he wrote a strongly worded letter to his uncle Stricker, and then hurried to Amsterdam where he again talked with Stricker on several occasions. Yet Kee refused to see him, while her parents wrote, "Your persistence is disgusting". In desperation, he held his left hand in the flame of a lamp, with the words "Let me see her for as long as I can keep my hand in the flame." He did not clearly recall what next happened, but later assumed that his uncle blew out the flame. Kee's father made it clear that there was no question of marriage, given Van Gogh's inability to support himself financially. Van Gogh's perceived hypocrisy of his uncle and former tutor affected him deeply. That Christmas, he quarreled violently with his father, to the point of refusing a gift of money, and left for The Hague.
Vincent van Gogh: Rooftops, View from the atelier The Hague, 1882, watercolour, Private collection.In January 1882, he settled in The Hague where he called on his cousin-in-law, the painter Anton Mauve (1838–1888). Mauve encouraged him towards painting, however the two soon fell out, possibly over the issue of drawing from plaster casts. Mauve appears to have suddenly gone cold towards Van Gogh, and did not return a number of letters from this time. Van Gogh supposed that Mauve had learned of his new domestic arrangement with an alcoholic prostitute, Clasina Maria "Sien" Hoornik (1850-unknown) and her young daughter. He had met Sien towards the end of January, when she had a five-year-old daughter and was pregnant. She had already borne two children who had died, although Van Gogh was unaware of this.
On 2 July, Sien gave birth to a baby boy, Willem. When Van Gogh's father discovered the details of their relationship, he put considerable pressure on his son to abandon Sien and her children. Vincent was at first defiant in the face of opposition.
His uncle Cornelis, an art dealer, commissioned 20 ink drawings of the city from him. They were completed by the end of May. That June, he spent three weeks in a 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. Van Gogh had thought of moving the family away from the city, but in the end he made the break. It is possible that lack of money had pushed Sien back to prostitution—the home had become a less happy one, and likely Van Gogh felt family life was irreconcilable with his artistic development. When he left, Sien gave her daughter to her mother and baby Willem to her brother. She then moved to Delft, and later to Antwerp.Willem remembered being taken to visit his mother in Rotterdam at around the age of 12, where his uncle tried to persuade Sien to marry in order to legitimize the child. Willem remembered his mother saying, "But I know who the father is. He was an artist I lived with nearly 20 years ago in The Hague. His name was Van Gogh." She then turned to Willem and said "You are called after him." Willem believed himself to be Van Gogh's son, but the timing of the birth makes this unlikely. In 1904, Sien drowned herself in the river Scheldt. Van Gogh moved to the Dutch province of Drenthe in the north of the Netherlands. That December, driven by loneliness, he went to stay with his parents who were by then living in Nuenen, North Brabant, also in the Netherlands.
Main article: Posthumous fame of Vincent van Gogh
Since his first exhibits in the late 1880s, Van Gogh's fame grew steadily, among his colleagues and among art critics, dealers and collectors. After his death, memorial exhibitions were mounted in Brussels, Paris, The Hague and Antwerp. In the early 20th century, the exhibitions were followed by vast retrospectives in Paris (1901 and 1905), Amsterdam (1905), Cologne (1912), New York City (1913) and Berlin (1914). These prompted a noticeable impact over later generations of artists.
Painter on the Road to Tarascon: Vincent van Gogh on the road to Montmajour
August 1888 (F 448)
Oil on canvas, 48 × 44 cm
formerly Museum, Magdeburg, destroyed by fire in World War IIIn his final letter to Theo, Vincent admitted that as he did not have any children, he viewed his paintings as his progeny. Reflecting on this, the historian Simon Schama concluded that he "did have a child of course, Expressionism, and many, many heirs." Schama mentioned a wide number of artists who have adapted elements of Van Gogh's style, including Willem de Kooning, Howard Hodgkin and Jackson Pollock. The French Fauves, including Henri Matisse, extended both his use of color and freedom in applying it, as did German Expressionists in the Die Brücke group. Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s' is seen as in part inspired from Van Gogh's broad, gestural brush strokes.
In 1957, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) based a series of several paintings on reproductions of Van Gogh's The Painter on the Road to Tarascon; the original of which was destroyed during World War II. Bacon was inspired by not only an image he described as "haunting", but also Van Gogh himself, whom Bacon regarded as an alienated outsider, a position with resonated with Bacon. The Irish artist further identified with Van Gogh's theories of art and quoted lines written in a letter to Theo, " painters do not paint things as they are...They paint them as they themselves feel them to be"."The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam currently has a special exhibition devoted to Vincent van Gogh's letters running from October 2009 to January 2010.