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Vincent Van Gogh

Dutch post-impressionist painter
1853 - 1890

Early life (1853 - 1879)

1853 - Youth & Family


Theodorus van Gogh, a preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus, daughter of a bookseller, marry in 1851. Their son Vincent Willem van Gogh, the eldest of six children, is born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, a village in Brabant, in the south of the Netherlands. Four years later, in 1857,Vincent's favorite brother, Theodorus (Theo), is born. Vincent begins his education at the village school in 1861, and subsequently attends two boarding schools. He excels in languages, studying French, English, and German. In March 1868, in the middle of the academic year, he abruptly leaves school and returns to Zundert. He does not resume his formal education.

1869 - Youg art dealer

Goupil Gallery at the Hague

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. From the Hague, in August 1872, Vincent begins writing regular letters to Theo. Their correspondence continues for almost 18 years. Theo accepts a position at Goupil's in January 1873, working in Brussels before transferring to the Hague in November of that year.

1873 - Life in England


Vincent moves to the London Goupil branch in June 1873. Daily contact with works of art kindles his appreciation of paintings and drawings. In the city's museums and galleries, 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 in 1874 to Goupil's Paris branch, where he remains for three months before returning to London. Vincent's performance at Goupil's continues to deteriorate. In May 1875 he is sent again to Paris. He attends art exhibitions at the Salon and the Louvre, and decorates his room with art prints by Hague School and Barbizon artists. In late March 1876 Vincent is dismissed from Goupil's. Driven by a growing desire to help his fellow man, he decides to become a clergyman.

1876 - Uncommon devotion

Vincent returns to England in 1876 to teach at a boarding school. In July he is offered a position as a teacher and assistant preacher at Isleworth, near London. On November 4, Van Gogh delivers his first sermon. His interest in evangelical Christianity and ministering to the poor becomes obsessional. On a visit to his parents, Vincent is persuaded not to return to England. Determined to become a minister nonetheless, he moves to Amsterdam in 1877 and attempts to enroll in theology school. When he is refused admittance, Vincent briefly enters a missionary school near Brussels and in December 1878 leaves for the Borinage, a coal-mining district in southern Belgium, to work as a lay preacher. Vincent lives like a pauper among the miners, sleeping on the floor and giving away his belongings. His extreme commitment draws disfavor from the church and he is dismissed, although he continues to evangelize.

Young artists 1880 - 1885

Art & Faith

Wrestling with his desire to be useful, in 1880 Vincent decides he can become an artist and 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 considers enrolling at the art academy, but instead tries to study independently, sometimes in the company of Dutch artist Anthon van Rappard. Because Vincent has no livelihood, Theo, who is at Goupil's Paris branch, sends him money. He was to do this regularly until the end of Vincent's life. In Etten in 1881, Vincent falls in love with his cousin Kee Vos-Stricker, who rejects his advances. His dogged pursuit of Kee causes a rift with his parents. His intense religiosity begins to dissipate.

Learning to paint

Anton Mauve
*Anton Mauve

Vincent spends several weeks in The Hague in late 1881 taking painting lessons from his cousin by marriage, Anton Mauve, a leading member of the Hague School. Mauve introduces him to watercolor and oil technique. After an argument with his father, Vincent leaves his parents' house in Etten. He rents a studio and takes additional lessons from Mauve in 1882. Vincent scandalizes his family and Mauve when he takes his model, a pregnant, unmarried prostitute named Sien Hoornik, and her young daughter into his household. 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.

The "peasant painter"

The Potato-Eaters, 1885
The Potato-Eaters, 1885
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh

In September 1883 Vincent travels to the province of Drenthe in the northeastern Netherlands. He paints the bleak landscape and peasant workers, 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. He sketches and paints the weavers of Nuenen and completes 40 painted studies of peasant heads. Tensions develop when Vincent accuses Theo of not making a sincere enough effort to sell the paintings Vincent has begun to send him. Theo admonishes Vincent that his darkly colored paintings are not in the current Parisian style, where Impressionist artists are now using a bright palette. On March 26, 1885, Vincent's father dies suddenly from a stroke. Shortly afterward, Vincent completes the Potato Eaters, his first large-scale composition and first masterpiece.

Arrival in Antwerp

In part because local clergymen continually thwart his attempts to find models, 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, the opportunity to draw from nude models, and is exposed to the substantial collections of Dutch and Belgian art in the city's museums and galleries, particularly the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens. Among the exotic goods entering Europe through Antwerp are Japanese woodblock prints, which Vincent begins to collect. In January 1886 Vincent enrolls in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp. He grows impatient with the pedantic style of academic training, and within two months he withdraws.

Paris 1886 - 1887

Impressionism and the city

Le pont du Carrousel et le Louvre, 1886
Le pont du Carrousel
et le Louvre, 1886
(Collection F. Herman)

On February 27, 1886, Vincent arrives in Paris. He lives with Theo in Montmartre, an artists' quarter. The move is formative in the development of 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. Previously he had known only Dutch painting and the French Realists; now he sees for himself how the Impressionists handle light and color, and treat their original themes from the town and country. For four months Van Gogh studies at the prestigious teaching atelier of Fernand Cormon, and he begins to meet the city's modern artists, including Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, Camille Pissarro, and John Russell.

New approaches

Vincent's Paris work is an effort to assimilate the influences around him. As he begins to formulate his own artistic idiom, he progresses through the styles and subjects of the Impressionists. 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 Neoimpressionism, also called Pointillism, and freely experiments with the style. "What is required in art nowadays," he writes, "is something very much alive, very strong in color, very much intensified."


Self-Portrait as an Artist, 1888
*Self-Portrait as an Artist, 1888
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Interested in portraiture as a source of income, but unable to afford models while perfecting 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. The range of 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 somber 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

Experiments in color

Soon after arriving in Paris, Vincent senses how outmoded his dark-hued palette has become. He paints studies of flowers, which Theo describes as "finger exercises"-practice pieces in which he tries to "render intense color and not a gray harmony." Vincent keeps balls of wool with threads in different hues-red and orange, blue and yellow, orange and gray-to sample and test the effect of different color combinations. His palette gradually lightens, and his sensitivity to color in the landscape intensifies. 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."

Artists of the petit boulevard (1887)

The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige), 1887
*The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige),
1887 Van Gogh Museum,
Amsterdam (detail)

Among his 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. Vincent envisions creating a harmonious artistic community in which they will all live and work together. In 1887 he organizes a group show of his and his friends' paintings at a Paris restaurant. They 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 from the noted art dealer Siegfried Bing and studies them intensively. He arranges an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts at a Paris café and makes a few "copies" after Japanese prints. His own work takes on the stylized contours and expressive coloration of his Japanese examples.


The studio of the south

The Yellow House, 1888
*The Yellow House, 1888
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Worn down by his activities in Paris, on February 19, 1888, Vincent leaves for Provence in the south of France. Still hoping to establish an artists' cooperative, he rents a studio in Arles, the "Yellow House," and invites Gauguin to join him. In anticipation of his arrival, Vincent paints still lifes of sunflowers to decorate Gauguin's room. The flowers represent the sun, the dominant feature of the Provencal summer; Gauguin describes the paintings as "completely Vincent."

Maturing techniques

Madame Roulin rocking the cradle
Madame Roulin rocking the cradle
1888, Art Institute of Chicago

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 broad range of subjects and techniques, the Arles paintings are consistent in approach, fusing painterly drawing with intensely saturated color. Vincent enters a period of sustained 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 as well as of his few other acquaintances.

Seeing color

Captivated by the spectacle of spring in Provence, Vincent paints the landscape. He concentrates on blossoming fruit trees and later, in summer, on 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 characteristic colors: "The orchards stand for pink and white, the wheatfields for yellow." Color also becomes an expressive tool by which Vincent conveys particular emotions, an innovation that aligns his work with Postimpressionism. 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 green. He writes to Gauguin: "I wanted all these different colors to express a totally restful feeling."


Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London

Gauguin finally arrives in Arles in October 1888. For nine weeks he and Vincent work together, painting and discussing art. Gauguin makes a portrait of Vincent in front of one of his sunflower canvases, which Vincent describes as "certainly me, but me gone mad." Personal tensions 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 remains there through January of 1889. Theo, in Paris, marries Johanna Bonger in the spring.


To the asylum

After his discharge from the hospital in Arles, Vincent is unable to organize his life or set up a new studio. He attributes his breakdown to excessive drink and perhaps tobacco, although he gives up neither. Fearful of a relapse, in May 1889 he voluntarily admits himself to the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy, 15 miles from Arles: "I wish to remain shut up as much for my own peace of mind as for other people's." The admitting physician, Dr. Théophile Peyron, notes that Vincent suffers from "acute mania with hallucinations of sight and hearing."

The therapy and the painting

Vincent converts an adjacent cell into a studio, and although subject to intermittent attacks, he produces 150 paintings during the year he stays at Saint-Rémy. His doctor initially confines him to the immediate asylum grounds, so Vincent paints the world he sees from his room, deleting the bars that obscure his view. In the asylum'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: "I feel happier here with my work than I could be outside. By staying here a good long time, I shall have learned regular habits and in the long run the result will be more order in my life."

Translations in color

Vincent is sometimes without the stamina or confidence to execute original works. He regains his bearings by painting copies after his favorite artists, including Millet, Rembrandt, and Delacroix. Relying on his collection of prints, Vincent translates the black and white reproductions into his own intensely personal color compositions. He makes more than twenty copies of Millet's peasant scenes, and he reinvents Delacroix's Pieta, in which the bearded Christ bears some resemblance to himself. After one particularly violent attack, in which he attempts to poison himself by swallowing paint, Vincent is forced for a time to confine himself to drawing.

A period of masterpieces

The Starry Night, 1889
The Starry Night, 1889

While in Arles, and Saint-Rémy as well, Vincent sends his canvases to Theo in Paris. Despite his illness, he paints one masterwork after another during this time, including Irises, Cypresses, and The Starry Night. Theo praises the new paintings: "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 living beings." Others are 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.

Critical recognition

Critic Albert Aurier publishes a favorable review of Vincent's paintings in January 1890 in which he links the artist to the Symbolists. The Symbolists and other Postimpressionist groups such as The Nabis, had gained critical attention throughout the 1890s for their antirealist artworks. Vincent is moved by Aurier's article but denies his significance as an artist in a letter to the writer: "For the role attaching to me, or that will be attached to me, will remain, I assure you, of very secondary importance." Theo's son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, is born in January 1890.


Return North

Dr. Paul Gachet, 1890
Dr. Paul Gachet, 1890
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Searching for an alternative to his confinement at Saint-Rémy, in May 1890 Vincent leaves for Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. The location is ideal; he is removed from the immoderate pace of life in Paris, but 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 put his ailment out of his mind and concentrate entirely on his painting.

The need to paint

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890
*Wheatfield with Crows, 1890
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent sets about painting portraits of his new acquaintances and the local 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. A series of 12 canvases in a distinctive panoramic format celebrates country life: "I'm all but certain that in those canvases I have formulated what I cannot express in words, namely how healthy and heartening I find the countryside." Although he worries that he might again become mentally unstable, Vincent briefly enjoys a peaceful period.


In early July Vincent visits Theo in Paris. Frustrated by his work at Boussod's, 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." Vincent's 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.

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