Life of Vincent Van Gogh

Stary Night Van gogh

Vincent (1853-1890)

One of the most original artists ever, Vincent van Gogh worked as an evangelist before taking up painting at the age of 27. He was largely self-taught, but absorbed the inspiring lessons of Impressionism during two years in Paris. Then he moved alone to Arles in the south of France, where he painted the landscapes, still-lives and portraits which became his most famous works. They are all signed simply 'Vincent'.

Van Gogh's life was a grim and desperate struggle against poverty, hunger, alcoholism and insanity. His attempt to found an artist's colony with the painter Paul Gauguin ended in the harrowing experience of self mutilation, when he cut off part of his left ear. And though his younger brother Theo supported him to the last, Vincent's agony ended in suicide. He shot himself in the chest, aged 37.

portrait of vincent van gogh
picture of vincent van gogh at age 13

Van Gogh at 13:

The eldest of six children - Vincent was a solitary child who spent long hours walking in the countryside.

picture of theodorus van gogh
picture of vincent van gogh mother anna

The artist's parents:

Theodorus van Gogh, the pastor of Groot Zundert, was a pious man who encouraged his son's religious leanings, but Vincent's passionate evangelism provoked many arguments between them. His wife Anna, a bookbinder's daughter, was related to painters and art dealers. She painted watercolours before her marriage.

Dutchman with a Mission

The son of a protestant minister, Vincent Van Gogh worked as an evangelist before turning to art at the age of 27. He brought the same zeal to painting until his tragic suicide 10 years later.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in the small Dutch village of Groot Zundert, near the Belgian frontier. He was the first surviving son of the local pastor, Theodorus van Gogh, and his wife Cornelia, a gentle, artistic woman. By an extraordinary coincidence, the boy was born exactly one year to the day after Cornelia had delivered a stillborn baby, also called Vincent Willem.

the dutch landscape groot zundert painting by vincent van gogh

The grieving parents had placed a gravestone in the village churchyard for their lost infant, so little Vincent grew up with a constant reminder of his dead namesake. He was a difficult child, who spent his time walking alone in the fields, rarely playing even with his younger brother Theo or his three little sisters. There is no record of his school career, but - encouraged by his mother – he drew and painted regularly from his early teens.

One of Vincent's uncles was a successful art dealer with a business in the Hague which he had merged with the Paris-based international firm of Goupil & Co. When Vincent left school at the age of 16, Uncle Cent found him a job in the Hague office, and he worked there steadily for four years, with a short stint in the Brussels branch. But this period of calm was not to last. In 1874 Vincent was transferred to London, where he fell disastrously in love with his landlady's daughter. This affair affected his ability to work and he was dismissed.

In 1876 Van Gogh returned to England as an unpaid assistant at a private school in Ramsgate. After a few months the school moved to London, and he was given the job of collecting overdue school fees in some of the city's poorest areas. It was his first real view of urban squalor and what he saw so distressed him that he could not bring himself to collect a penny. He was dismissed again.

But the experience of poverty awakened a religious zeal in Van Gogh, who now followed his father's example by becoming an assistant preacher to a Methodist minister. He enjoyed this work enormously, and after a few months he returned to Holland to train formally for the ministry. Vincent's parents doubted that he had the self-discipline to cope with the rigorous studies required. They were right: he gave up after a year. But his passion was unchecked and at the age of 25 he moved to the Borinage, a grim coal-mining district in southern Belgium, as an evangelist.

Stary Night Van gogh


The poverty Vincent found there was even worse than in London. He threw himself into his work Join with a selfless fervor, interpreting Christ's message to 'give to the poor' so literally that he even gave his warm clothes away, and ate almost nothing. His superiors were appalled by his 'excessive' zeal. They were also dismayed by his appearance, which they felt brought disrespect on his calling. Once again, Vincent was dismissed.

Van Gogh remained in the Borinage for two hard years, surviving no-one knew how. And there he went through a profound personal crisis Gog to emerge with a new resolve: to be an artist.

He went home to his parents and applied himself to the task with the same vigour he had brought to evangelism. For months he was happier than ever before, and his work improved rapidly. But ominous signs of instability revealed themselves in his stormy behaviour. Another abortive love affair shook him badly; then a religious quarrel with his father reached such a pitch that Vincent walked out of the house on Christmas Day 1881, and moved to The Hague.

With no money to live on, he was forced to ask Theo for help. His loyal brother sent him a tiny allowance each month from his own small salary - in the spirit of self-sacrifice that would endure throughout Vincent's life. Meanwhile the landscape artist Anton Mauve (a relation of Van Gogh's mother) encouraged his painting until a typical outburst brought their friendship to an end. Defiantly, Vincent shared his room with a prostitute and her small child, and even talked of marriage until Theo persuaded him to drop the plan.

vincent's mistress sien sketch

Vincent's Lost Loves:

Throughout his life, Van Gogh was plagued by loneliness. He never married, and his few attempts to find happiness with women all ended disastrously. Vincent's first love affair was with his landlady's daughter in England: it disturbed him so much that he lost his job. The second was with Kee Vos, his widowed cousin who was staying with his parents in Holland. Scared by ardent protestations of love for her, she fled to Amsterdam.

He still craved a loving relationship, and when he met a pregnant prostitute called Sien in The Hague, he saw it as his mission to give her love and protection. Vincent lived with Sien and her children, revelled in his 'family life', and planned to marry her. But the unlikely couple parted after a year.


Vincent returned home in 1884. His parents had moved to a new church in Nuenen; they welcomed him like a prodigal son. He began to work on portraits of peasants and after yet another emotional disaster he executed his most ambitious picture so far: The Potato Eaters, a gloomy painting of peasants at their evening meal.

Pastor Theodorus died in 1885, and the same year Van Gogh left Holland, never to return. He went first to Belgium and enrolled at the academy in Antwerp, but failed his first term of study. By the time the results were declared, he had already left for Paris.

One day Theo - still working for Goupil's - received a brief note urging him to 'come to the Salle Carrée (in the Louvre) as soon as possible,' where his brother was waiting.

Vincent moved into Theo's flat in Montmartre and studied for a few months at the studio of an academic painter named Fernand Cormon, along with Emile Bernard and Toulouse-Lautrec.

All three soon broke with Cormon, who was hostile to the new Impressionist movement, led by Monet, Renoir and Degas. But Vincent was inspired by the colour of their paintings, and their habit of working in the open air.

Through Theo, he met Camille Pissarro, one of the elder Impressionists, and a still more revolutionary figure: Paul Gauguin.

vincent van gogh self portrait

Van Gogh in Paris : in 1886 Vincent moved to Paris, where he shared a flat with his brother Theo in the village suburb of Montmartre. There he met and painted with other artists - including Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin - but two years of hard work and heavy drinking took a severe toll of his health. This selfportrait, showing him thin and drawn, was painted in 1887.


But while Vincent's art progressed rapidly, he stuck out like a sore thumb among the urbane Parisian artists. He drank very heavily; he had a quick, unpredictable temper; he shouted when excited about something; and was incapable of either hiding his opinions or softening them to avoid arguments. He even managed to alienate Theo, but only for a time. After two years in Paris he declared 'I will take myself off somewhere down south.'

In Paris, Vincent had come to like Japanese art and this influenced his choice of where to live. As he imagined the south of France to be the French equivalent of Japan, he moved to Arles - a provincial city near Marseilles. He arrived by train in February 1888 to find the town covered in snow.

When spring came, he rented a two-storied house in the Place Lamartine. The outside walls were yellow – symbolic of friendship in Japanese culture. He was delighted with the Yellow House, and plunged into his work in a mood of rare happiness, bordering on ecstasy. 'Ideas,' he wrote to Theo, ‘are coming to me in swarms.

Vincent's strange appearance and behaviour caused some derision among the townspeople, but he struck up a genuine friendship with the postman Roulin and his family, a local café owner and a lieutenant from the army.

As usual Van Gogh was overworking, but he felt secure and full of hope. He felt ready to embark on a project he had long desired: the estab- ir lishment of an artists' colony. He wanted Paul is Gauguin to be the first to join, and enlisted Theo to V. help persuade him. Gauguin - then working in Brittany - was reluctant at first, but when Theo offered to pay his fare, he finally agreed.

vincent van gogh painting


Gauguin arrived at Arles in October 1888 and moved into the Yellow House, but he disliked the town and found Vincent's untidiness irritating. For a short time peace reigned, but within two months the artists were quarrelling fiercely. Cynical and arrogant, Gauguin made a bad match for the passionate, obstinate Dutchman. Van Gogh was soon making excuses to Theo for their lack of concord, predicting sadly that Gauguin would definitely go, or else definitely stay' and claiming to await his decision with 'absolute serenity'.

But the very night he wrote these words, in Christmas week, 1888, something happened to snap Vincent's self-control. He threw a glass of absinthe at Gauguin, and later threatened him with a razor. Gauguin took shelter in a nearby hotel, leaving him to calm down. But during the night Van Gogh cut off the lobe of his right ear, then put it in an envelope and gave it to a prostitute.

Gauguin left for Paris by the first available train; Vincent - suffering from hallucinations as well as loss of blood - was taken to Arles hospital. He was released after two weeks, but overwork and a terror of madness brought on a relapse. He went back into hospital. When he recovered enough to go back to the Yellow House, he was persecuted by the townspeople, 80 of whom signed a petition saying that the 'madman' should be put away.

By the spring of 1889, when Vincent had been - in Arles for a year, all his hope had gone. The artists colony had come to nothing. Gauguin had o vanished. His friend Roulin had been transferred to another town. Vincent dreaded the return of his insanity so much that in May he left Arles and committed himself voluntarily to an asylum in the nearby town of Saint Rémy.

Slowly he began to come to terms with his illness - perhaps a form of epilepsy, schizophrenia, or the result of brain damage at birth. He received no treatment except cold baths twice a week. Bouts of convulsions and hallucinations recurred in a three-monthly cycle, but he still produced some 200 canvases during his year in the asylum.

In the spring of 1890 Theo reported hopeful signs that Vincent's work was at last being recognized. In February, a painting of an Arles vineyard was sold for 400 francs in a Brussels exhibition. It was the only canvas Van Gogh ever sold.


It was time to leave the South. Vincent's old friend to Camille Pissarro suggested he move to Auvers, a n village northwest of Paris which was popular with h artists. So Vincent spent a few days with Theo and 2 his new wife - and their baby son, named Vincent 1 Willem after his uncle – then caught the train to u Auvers. There he was placed in the care of Dr a Gachet, an amiable eccentric.

Vincent painted steadily, and seemed at first to be healthy and in good spirits. He took a small 1 room in a café, and kept regular hours. But early in July a trip to visit Theo in Paris caused him great anxiety. Theo was worried about money - and the cost of supporting Vincent was very high.

On Sunday 27 July 1890, Van Gogh walked out of Auvers into the countryside. He returned late in the evening, went straight up to his room and lay on the bed. He had shot himself in the chest. All that night he lay awake, smoking his pipe; the next day Theo arrived, alerted by Dr Gachet. All through Monday his friends watched over him, until at one o'clock in the morning he died in his brother's arms. He was 37.

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