Vincent Willem van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) was a Dutch
painter, generally considered one of the greatest painters in European
art history. He produced all of his work (some 900 paintings and 1100
drawings) during a period of only ten years before he succumbed to mental
illness (possibly bipolar disorder) and committed suicide. He had little
success during his lifetime, but his posthumous fame grew rapidly, especially
following a showing of 71 of van Gogh's paintings in Paris on March
17, 1901 (11 years after his death).
influence on expressionism, fauvism and early abstraction was enormous,
and can be seen in many other aspects of 20th-century art. The Van Gogh
Museum in Amsterdam is dedicated to Van Gogh's work and that of his
contemporaries. The Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo (also
in the Netherlands), has a considerable collection of Vincent van Gogh
paintings as well.
by Van Gogh rank among the most expensive paintings in the world. On
March 30, 1987, van Gogh's painting Irises was sold for a record US$53.9
million at Sotheby's; on May 15, 1990, his Portrait of Doctor Gachet
was sold for $82.5 million at Christie's, thus establishing a new price
Life and work
Vincent was born in Zundert, the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and
Theodorus van Gogh, a Protestant minister. Van Gogh found his father's
profession appealing and would be drawn to it later in his life. His
sister described him as serious and introspective.
At age 16,
van Gogh started to work for the art dealer Goupilator & Company
in the Hague. His brother Theo, four years his junior and with whom
Vincent cherished a lifelong friendship, would join the company later.
This friendship is amply documented in the large collection of letters
they sent each other. These letters have been preserved and were published
in 1914. They provide much insight into the life of the painter, and
show him to be a talented writer with a keen mind. Theo would support
Vincent financially throughout his life.
In 1873, his
firm transferred him to London, then to Paris. He became increasingly
interested in religion; in 1876, Goupil dismissed him for lack of motivation.
He became a teaching assistant in Ramsgate in Kent, England, then returned
to Amsterdam to study theology in 1877.
out in 1878, he became a lay minister in Belgium in a poor mining region
known as the Borinage. He even preached down in the mines and was extremely
concerned with the lot of the workers. He was dismissed after six months
and continued without pay. During this period he started to produce
Vincent followed the suggestion of his brother Theo and took up painting
in earnest. For a brief period Vincent took painting lessons from Anton
Mauve at the Hague. Although Vincent and Anton soon split over a divergence
of artistic views, influences of the Hague School of painting would
remain in Vincent's work, notably in the way he played with light and
in the looseness of his brush strokes. However his usage of color, favoring
dark tones, set him apart from his teacher.
In 1881, he
declared his love to his widowed cousin Kee Vos, who rejected him. Later
he would move in with the prostitute Sien Hoornik and her children and
considered marrying her; his father was strictly against this relationship
and even his brother Theo advised against it. They later separated.
and influenced by Jean-François Millet, van Gogh focused on painting
peasants and rural scenes. He moved to the Dutch province Drenthe, later
to Nuenen, North Brabant, also in The Netherlands. Here he painted in
1885 The Potato Eaters (Dutch Aardappeleters, now in The Van Gogh Museum
In the winter
of 1885–1886, Van Gogh attended the art academy of Antwerp. This
proved a disappointment, as he was dismissed after a few months by Professor
Eugène Siberdt. Van Gogh did, however, become familiar with Japanese
art during this period, which he started to collect eagerly. He admired
its bright colors, use of canvas space and the role lines played in
the picture. These impressions would influence him strongly. Van Gogh
made some paintings in Japanese style. Also some of the portraits he
painted are set against a background which shows Japanese art.
1886, Van Gogh went to Paris, where he moved in with his brother Theo;
they shared a house on Montmartre. Here he met the painters Edgar Degas,
Camille Pissarro, Emile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul
Gauguin. He discovered impressionism and liked its use of light and
color, more than its lack of social engagement (as he saw it). (It should
be noted that Van Gogh is regarded as a post-impressionist, rather than
liked the technique known as pointillism (where many small dots are
applied to the canvas that blend into rich colors only in the eye of
the beholder, seeing it from a distance) made its mark on Van Goghs
own style. Van Gogh also used complementary colors, especially blue
and orange, in close proximity in order to enhance the brilliance of
when city life and living with his brother proved too much, Van Gogh
left Paris and went to Arles, Bouches-du-Rhône, France. He was
impressed with the local landscape and hoped to found an art colony.
He decorated a "yellow house" and created a celebrated series
of yellow sunflower paintings for this purpose.
Gauguin, whose simplified colour schemes and forms (known as synthetism)
attracted van Gogh, followed his invitation. The admiration was mutual,
and Gauguin painted van Gogh painting sunflowers. However their encounter
ended in a quarrel. Van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown (possibly induced
by absinthe) and cut off part of his left ear, which he gave to a startled
prostitute friend. Gauguin left in December 1888.
One of Vincent's
famous paintings, the Bedroom in Arles, uses bright yellow and unusual
perspective effects in depicting the interior of his bedroom. The boldly
vanishing lines are sometimes attributed to his changing mental condition.
The only painting he sold during his lifetime, The Red Vineyard, was
created in 1888. It is now on display in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow,
now exchanged painting dots for small stripes. He suffered from depression,
and in 1889 on his own request Van Gogh was admitted to the psychiatric
center at Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy de Provence,
Bouches-du-Rhône, France. During his stay here the clinic and
its garden became his main subject. At this time his work began to be
dominated by swirls. This is especially shown in his most famous painting,
The Starry Night.
In May 1890,
Vincent left the clinic and went to the physician Paul Gachet, in Auvers-sur-Oise
near Paris, where he was closer to his brother Theo, who had recently
married. Gachet had been recommended to him by Pissarro; he had treated
several artists before. Here van Gogh created his only etching: a portrait
of the melancholic doctor Gachet.
deepened, and on July 27, at the age of 37, van Gogh shot himself in
the chest. Without realizing that he was fatally wounded, he returned
to the Ravoux Inn, where he died two days later, with Theo at his side,
who 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, unable to come to terms with
his brother's death, died six months later and, at his wife's request,
was buried next to Vincent. While many have mistakenly thought that
Wheat Field with Crows was van Gogh's last work before his suicide (because
of its turbulent style), it is more likely that van Gogh's last work
was Daubigny's Garden.
It would not
take long before van Gogh's fame grew higher and higher. Large exhibitions
were organized soon: Paris (1901), Amsterdam (1905), Cologne (1912),
New York City (1913) and Berlin (1914).
life forms the basis for Irving Stone's biographical novel Lust for
van Gogh was a Dutch postimpressionist painter whose work represents
the archetype of expressionism, the idea of emotional spontaneity in
painting. Van Gogh was born March 30, 1853, in Groot-Zundert, son of
a Dutch Protestant pastor. Early in life he displayed a moody, restless
temperament that was to thwart his every pursuit. By the age of 27 he
had been in turn a salesman in an art gallery, a French tutor, a theological
student, and an evangelist among the miners at Wasmes in Belgium. His
experiences as a preacher are reflected in his first paintings of peasants
and potato diggers; of these early works, the best known is the rough,
earthy Potato Eaters (1885, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam).
Dark and somber, sometimes crude, these early works evidence van Gogh's
intense desire to express the misery and poverty of humanity as he saw
it among the miners in Belgium.
In 1886 van
Gogh went to Paris to live with his brother Théo van Gogh, an
art dealer, and became familiar with the new art movements developing
at the time. Influenced by the work of the impressionists and by the
work of such Japanese printmakers as Hiroshige and Hokusai, van Gogh
began to experiment with current techniques. Subsequently, he adopted
the brilliant hues found in the paintings of the French artists Camille
Pissarro and Georges Seurat.
In 1888 van
Gogh left Paris for southern France, where, under the burning sun of
Provence, he painted scenes of the fields, cypress trees, peasants,
and rustic life characteristic of the region. During this period, living
at Arles, he began to use the swirling brush strokes and intense yellows,
greens, and blues associated with such typical works as Bedroom at Arles
(1888, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh), and Starry Night (1889, Museum
of Modern Art, New York City). For van Gogh all visible phenomena, whether
he painted or drew them, seemed to be endowed with a physical and spiritual
vitality. In his enthusiasm he induced the painter Paul Gauguin, whom
he had met earlier in Paris, to join him. After less than two months
they began to have violent disagreements, culminating in a quarrel in
which van Gogh wildly threatened Gauguin with a razor; the same night,
in deep remorse, van Gogh cut off part of his own ear. For a time he
was in a hospital at Arles. He then spent a year in the nearby asylum
of Saint-Rémy, working between repeated spells of madness. Under
the care of a sympathetic doctor, whose portrait he painted (Dr. Gachet,
1890, Musée du Louvre, Paris), van Gogh spent three months at
Auvers. Just after completing his ominous Crows in the Wheatfields (1890,
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh), he shot himself on July 27, 1890, and
died two days later. The more than 700 letters that van Gogh wrote to
his brother Théo (published 1911, translated 1958) constitute
a remarkably illuminating record of the life of an artist and a thorough
documentation of his unusually fertile output—about 750 paintings
and 1600 drawings. The French painter Chaim Soutine, and the German
painters Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Emil Nolde, owe
more to van Gogh than to any other single source. In 1973 the Rijksmuseum
Vincent van Gogh, containing over 1000 paintings, sketches, and letters,
was opened in Amsterdam.
van Gogh is born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, in the south of the
Netherlands, as the oldest son of Theodorus van Gogh, a preacher and
Anna Cornelia Carbentus. Four years later, in 1857,Vincent's favorite
brother, Theodorus (Theo), is born.
At the age
of 16, in July 1869, Vincent starts an apprenticeship at Goupil &
Cie, international art dealers with headquarters in Paris. He works
in the Hague at a branch gallery established by his uncle Vincent. In
August 1872, from the Hague, Vincent begins writing letters to Theo.
Their correspondence continues for almost 18 years. Theo accepts a position
at Goupil's in January 1873, working in Brussels before his transfer
to the Hague a few months later.
In June 1873,
Vincent is moved to Goupil in London. Daily contact with works of art
kindles his appreciation of paintings and drawings. He admires the realistic
paintings of peasant life by Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton.
Gradually Vincent loses interest in his work and turns to the Bible.
He is transferred to Paris, to London and Paris again, to then be dismissed
from Goupil's in March 1876. Driven by a growing desire to help his
fellow man, he decides to become a clergyman.
to England in 1876 to work as a teacher and assistant preacher at a
boarding school. In November, Van Gogh delivers his first sermon. His
interest in evangelical Christianity and ministering to the poor becomes
obsessional. Due to a lack of professional perspectives, he returns
to Amsterdam in 1877. When he is refused admittance in theology school,
Vincent briefly enters a missionary school near Brussels and in December
1878 leaves for the Borinage, a coal-mining area in southern Belgium,
to work as a lay preacher. Vincent identifies with the miners, sleeping
on the floor and giving away his belongings. His extreme commitment
draws disfavor from the church and he is dismissed.
desire to be useful, transforms into the wish to become an artist while
still be in God's service. He writes: "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." Vincent moves to Brussels and
studies independently, sometimes assisted by Dutch artist Anthon van
Rappard. Because Vincent has no livelihood, Theo, who is at Goupil's
Paris branch, supports him. He did this regularly until the end of Vincent's
life. Because of that, Vincent considers his work as the fruit of their
When he decides
to become an artist, nobody could have guessed his immense talent. With
surprising speed, the clumsy but enthousiastic apprentice develops a
strong artistic personality with his color effects and simple but unforgettable
compositions. At his parents' house in Etten, he refines his drawing
techniques. Vincent leaves at the end of 1881 to rent a studio in La
Hague.Vincent makes his first independent watercolor and painted studies
in the summer of 1882. His uncle Cornelis van Gogh commissions him to
produce 12 views of The Hague.
1883 Vincent travels to the province of Drenthe in the northeastern
Netherlands. He paints the landscape and peasants, but lonely and lacking
proper materials, he soon leaves for Nuenen, in Brabant, to live with
his parents. Following in the footsteps of Millet and Breton, by 1884
Vincent resolves to be a painter of peasant life. Tensions develop when
Vincent accuses Theo of not making a sincere enough effort to sell the
paintings Vincent has begun to send him.
Vincent that his darkly colored paintings are not in the current Parisian
style, where Impressionist artists are now using a bright palette. In
1885, Vincent completes the Potato Eaters, his first large-scale composition
and first masterpiece.
After a long
stay in the countryside of Brabant, Vincent leaves the Netherlands for
the Belgian city of Antwerp in November 1885. He will never return to
his native country. Van Gogh is invigorated by Antwerp's urbaneness:
"I find here the friction of ideas I want." He has access
to better art supplies and is exposed to the collections of Dutch and
Belgian art. Among the exotic goods entering Europe through Antwerp
are Japanese woodblock prints, which Vincent starts to collect. In January
1886, Vincent enrolls in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp but he
withdraws within two months.
1886, Vincent moves in with Theo in Montmartre. It is a crucial period
of development for his painting style. Theo, who manages the Montmartre
branch of Goupil's (now called Boussod, Valadon & Cie), acquaints
Vincent with the works of Claude Monet and other Impressionists. Now
he sees for himself how the Impressionists handle light and color, and
treat the town and country themes. He begins to meet the city's modern
artists, including Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Camille
Pissarro. Vincent's Paris work is an effort to assimilate the influences
around him; his palette becomes brighter, his brushwork more broken.
Like the Impressionists, Vincent takes his subjects from the city's
cafés and boulevards, and the open countryside along the Seine
River. Through Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, he discovers the stippling
technique of Pointillism "What is required in art nowadays,"
he writes, "is something very much alive, very strong in color,
very much intensified."
afford models to perfect his skills, Vincent turns to his own image:
"I deliberately bought a good mirror so that if I lacked a model
I could work from my own likeness." He paints at least 20 self-portraits
in Paris. His experiments in style and color can be read in the series.
The earliest are executed in the grays and browns of his Brabant period;
these dark colors soon give way to yellows, reds, greens, and blues,
and his brushwork takes on the disconnected stroke of the Impressionists.
To his sister
he writes: "My intention is to show that a variety of very different
portraits can be made of the same person." One of the last portraits
Vincent paints in Paris, Self-Portrait as an Artist, is a dramatic illustration
of his personal and artistic identity. Vincent regularly paints outdoors
in Asnières, a village near Paris where the Impressionists often
set up their easels. Later, he writes to his sister Wil: "And when
I painted the landscape in Asnières this summer, I saw more colors
there than ever before."
new friends Vincent counts the painters he refers to as the "artists
of the Petit Boulevard" -- Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac, Bernard, and
Louis Anquetin-artists who are younger and not as famous as the Impressionists.
He organizes a group show of his and his friends' paintings at a Paris
restaurant. The artists often gather at Père Tanguy's paint shop,
where Vincent regularly sees Gauguin. Tanguy, who generously advances
supplies to many young artists, occasionally displays Vincent's paintings
in his store window. Vincent buys Japanese prints and studies them intensively.
He arranges an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts at a Paris café
and his own work takes on the stylized contours and expressive coloration
of his Japanese examples.
1888, Vincent leaves for Provence in the south of France: "It appears
to me to be almost impossible to work in Paris." He rents a studio
in Arles, the "Yellow House," and invites Paul Gauguin to
join him. In anticipation of his arrival, Vincent paints still lifes
of sunflowers to decorate Gauguin's room. Paul describes the paintings
as "completely Vincent." Inspired by the bright colors and
strong light of Provence, Vincent executes painting after painting in
his own powerful language. "I am getting an eye for this kind of
country," he writes to Theo. Whereas in Paris his works covered
a large range of subjects and techniques, the Arles paintings are consistent
in approach. Vincent enters a period of immense creative activity. He
has little to distract him from his painting, for he knows almost no
one: "Whole days go by without my speaking a single word to anyone."
He befriends the local postman, Joseph Roulin, and paints portraits
of his entire family. Captivated by the spectacle of spring in Provence,
Vincent paints the blossoming fruit trees and later, in summer, scenes
of rural life. He paints outdoors, often in a single long session: "Working
directly on the spot all the time, I tried to grasp what is essential."
He identifies each season and subject with specific colors: "The
orchards stand for pink and white, the wheatfields for yellow."
Color also becomes an expressive, emotional tool. For "Bedroom
in Arles", he depicts his room with a stark simplicity, using uniform
patches of complimentary orange and blue, yellow and violet, red and
grow between the two men. In December, Vincent experiences a psychotic
episode in which he threatens Gauguin with a razor and later cuts off
a piece of his own left ear. He is admitted to a hospital in Arles and
stays there through January of 1889. Theo, in Paris, marries Johanna
Bonger in the spring.
discharge from the hospital in Arles, he voluntarily admits himself
to the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy, 15 miles from Arles.
He attributes his breakdown to excessive alcohol and tobacco, giving
up neither. Fearful of a relapse, in May 1889 he writes: "I wish
to remain shut up as much for my own peace of mind as for other people's."
The admitting physician notes that Vincent suffers from "acute
mania with hallucinations of sight and hearing." Although subject
to intermittent attacks, Vincent converts an adjacent cell into a studio,
where he produces 150 paintings.
the world he sees from his room, deleting the bars that obscure his
view. In the hospital's walled garden he paints irises, lilacs, and
ivy-covered trees. Later he is allowed to venture farther afield, and
he paints the wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding
countryside. The imposed regimen of asylum life gives Vincent a hard-won
stability. When losing the confidence to execute original works, Vincent
regains his bearings by painting copies after his favorite artists,
including Millet, Rembrandt and Delacroix. He makes more than twenty
copies of Millet's peasant scenes, and reinvents Delacroix's Pieta,
in which the bearded Christ bears some resemblance to himself. After
one particularly violent attack, in which he tries to poison himself
by swallowing paint, Vincent is forced to restrict himself to drawing.
While in Arles and Saint-Rémy, Vincent sends his canvases to
Theo in Paris.
illness, he paints one masterwork after another, including Irises, Cypresses,
and The Starry Night. Theo encourages his brother: "They have an
intensity of color you have not attained before . . . but you have gone
even further than that. . . . I see that you have achieved in many of
your canvases . . . the quintessence of your thoughts about nature and
beginning to notice Vincent's work, too. The progressive Belgian artists'
group "Les Vingt" includes six of his paintings in their 1890
exhibition. When Vincent exhibits recent work at the Salon des Indépendants
- two canvases in 1889 and ten in 1890 - friends in Paris assure him
of their success. "Many artists think your work has been the most
striking at the exhibition," writes Gauguin. Theo's son, Vincent
Willem van Gogh, is born in January 1890.
long period of confinement at Saint-Rémy, Vincent leaves for
Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris in May 1890. Though removed from the immoderate
pace of life in Paris, he is close enough that he can easily visit Theo.
Vincent places himself in the care of Paul Gachet, a homeopathic physician
and himself an amateur painter. Vincent warms to Gachet immediately,
writing to Theo that he had "found a perfect friend in Dr. Gachet,
something like another brother." Gachet advises Vincent to concentrate
entirely on his painting. Vincent paints portraits of his new acquaintances
and the surrounding landscape, including nearby wheatfields and the
garden of the painter Daubigny. Working with great intensity, he produces
nearly a painting a day over the next two months. Vincent briefly enjoys
a peaceful, mentally stable period. In early July Vincent visits Theo
Theo is considering
setting up his own business, and he warns Vincent that they will all
have to tighten their belts. Strongly affected by Theo's dissatisfaction,
Vincent grows increasingly tense: "My life is also threatened at
the very root, and my steps are also wavering."
On July 27,
1890, Vincent walks to a wheatfield and shoots himself in the chest.
He stumbles back to his lodging, where he dies two days later, on July
29, with Theo at his side. He is buried in Auvers on July 30. Among
the mourners are Lucien Pissarro, Emile Bernard, and Père Tanguy.
Bernard describes how Vincent's coffin is covered with yellow flowers,
"his favorite color . . . . Close by, too, his easel, his camp
stool, and his brushes had been placed on the ground beside the coffin."
paintings are left to Theo, but his true legacy will be realized in
his powerful influence on artists of the twentieth century. Theo holds
a memorial exhibition of Vincent's paintings in September 1890 in his
Paris apartment. His own health suffers a precipitous decline, and on
January 25, 1891, Theo dies. His widow returns to the Netherlands with
their infant son and her husband's legacy, the collection of Vincent's
paintings. After Johanna's death in 1925 the collection is inherited
by her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh (1890-1978).
On the initiative
of the Dutch state, which pledges to build a museum devoted to Van Gogh,
Vincent Willem van Gogh, in 1962, transfers the works he owns to the
newly formed Vincent van Gogh Foundation. Construction of the museum
building, designed by the modernist Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld,
begins in 1969. The museum officially opens its doors in 1973. Since
then, the building houses the largest collection of works by Vincent
van Gogh, on loan from the Vincent van Gogh Foundation.