Vincent Van Gogh

 Van Gogh Portrait
Paris 1886





Name: Vincent Willem Van Gogh

Born: Groot Zundert, Brabant,
           30 March, 1853

Died: Auvers-sur-Oise, France
          27 July, 1890


The whole of Van Gogh`s painted works - over 800 canvases - were produced in the very short time span of only 8 years. Indeed his total output of over 2000 drawings and paintings originate from the period 1880-1890. Alongside these runs his great published correspondence of 800 letters, mainly to his brother Theo, and it is through this that we learn much about, although never fully understand, the tormented spirit of this eccentric genius, Vincent Van Gogh. They reveal how, having been unable to enter the ministry of the church, he gradually became taken over by his work, inextricably enslaved by its demands, in search of the ultimate `truth` and feeling "the positive consciousness of the fact that art is something greater and higher than our own adroitness or accomplishments or knowledge".

This belief led him to a great modesty and he used to sign himself, if at all, only "Vincent", always knowing that his life on earth would be very short. The parish priest of Auvers-sur-Oise called him accursed and even refused to provide his hearse for Vincent`s funeral !

His career in the art world began in 1869 when, on the recommendation of his uncle `Cent`, a founder and shareholder, he was employed by the Goupil & Co art gallery as a clark in their Hague branch. Theo joined the Brussels office in 1873. Being transferred to London to complete his training, he fell in love with Eugénie, the daughter of his landlady, but was rejected. This led him to a period of great despair and depression, so much so that he could not attend to his duties effectively and he was transferred to Paris in 1875, where he lived in a small room in Montmatre. He was forced to resign in 1876 and immediately returned to England.

Vincent`s emotional turmoil did however bear artistic fruits in the form of a remarkable gift for perception - seeing powerfully what most others did not observe at all - "sad but always cheerful" he described himself and he turned to the religious scriptures for solace, secretly harbouring the ambition to become a clergyman like his father. However, he did manage to find employment in Ramsgate, on the south coast, where he tough French, spelling and arithmetic in a small school - and was able also to linger on the beach and watch the sea! From there he found employment as assistant to the Methodist preacher Reverend Jones at Isleworth, where he came into close contact with the great squalor and poverty of his parishioners, inspiring him to a desire to live in the service of the most destitute. However, returning home to Holland for Christmas, his parents managed to talk him out of this impecunious existance and again his uncle Cent obtained for him a clerk`s job in a booksellers in Dordrecht.

Unfulfilled in this work, he spent most of his time translating biblical passages into English, French and German, and his free time in the depths of the countryside where he felt at peace. His plan was to study theology and he confided in his brother: "I suppos that for a `sower of God`s words`, as I hope to be, as well as for a sower of the seed in the fields, each day will bring enough of its own evil, and the earth will produce many thorns and thistles". The image of the sower was to become a recurring theme in his work.

His father finally agreed to let him follow his religious calling and sent him to Amsterdam to study for the entrance examinations to the University Theology course which, after 15 months of study, he failed, finding the work too arid, preferring to contemplate the countryside and the possibility of drawing. But the plan was not altogether abandoned and he went to Laeken, near Brussels to attend an Evangelical training school. However, he was again refused, being considered too impulsive.Not daunted by this his thoughts returned to the poverty of the London suburbs and his mission to preach in the spiritual desert, writing to Theo:

"You know how one of the roots or foundations, not only of the Gospel, but of the whole Bible, is `Light that rises in the darkness`. Well, who needs this most, who will be receptive to it ? Experience has shownthat the people who walk in the darkness, in the centre of the earth, like the miners in the black coal mines, for instance, are very much impressed by the words of the Gospel, and believe them, too." He set off for Borinage, near Mons, in Belgium, to live among the miners and, being refused a teaching job at the school, settled in the village of Paturages where he taught the Bible and cared for the miners at his own expense. With his father's help he was eventually appointed lay preacher in Wasmes. His great charity at this time, his life often being compared to that of St Francis of Assisi, with such actions as giving up his bed to a poor person and sleeping on the floor, soon brought him into conflict with the established Church, which was outraged by his conduct and he was forced to resign! He continued his work for a while at Cuesmes but increasingly turned to drawing.

In the summer of 1880, at the age of 27, he decided to devote himself entirely to drawing and became a full-time artist. Supported financially by Theo he went to study at the Académy des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

The above is the background; now follows the artistic chronology:



 1881 Stays with his cousin Anton Mauve, a leader of the Hague School, under whose influence he produces his first studies in oil and some watercolours.
 1882 Paints several watercolours, supported by Theo and tutored by Mauve, but refuses to work from plaster moulds and the relationship with Mauve is terminated with bitterness. Vincent draws several working-class figures and becomes involved with one of his life models, Clasina Maria Hoornik, known as `Sien`, a former prostitute. Together with her two children, she moves in with him and Vincent turns increasingly to painting in oils, executing his first landscapes.
 1883 Under pressure from Theo, breaks with Sien and moves to Drenthe, north-east Holland, but finds it too isolated and returns to his family in Nuenen.
 1884 Sets up studio in a room at the home of Schafrat, a Catholic sacristan, and paints 6 decorative panels for Hermans, an Eindhoven goldsmith. Executes several studies of weavers and peasants and gives some painting lessons. A neighbour Margot Begemann fallsin love with him but, after opposition from both families, she commits suicide, leaving Vincent badly shaken.
 1885 Death of his father, the Reverend Theodorus Van Gogh. Vincent is deeply affected and works only on his first large oil canvas, the Potato Eaters. Towards the end of the year he is accused by the Catholic priest of being the father of the child of one of his models and is alienated by the local townsfolk and asked to leave by Schafrat. Without models he resorts to painting still lifes and birds`nests.

Having visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and being impressed by the works of Rembrandt and Hals, he moves to Antwerp to enroll for life study courses at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He also developed an enduring interest in Japanese prints, which he collected, the influence of which can be seen in his later work at Arles. Japanese art contained the same `faults` of perspective of which he was accused, and the contrasting bright colours, two-dimensionality and gestures of the figures, particularly as seen in the work of Hiroshige, greatly attracted him. The bright colours of Rubens were also of significant influence.

However, again bored by the dryness of academic training, he left to join Theo in Paris, intending to study with Cormon in Montmartre. Here he meets Toulouse-Lautrec, Pisarro, Signac and Gauguin.

 1887 A few canvases are permantly exhibited by PèreTanguy, the colour dealer and he organises the first exhibition of the "Painters of the Little Boulevard" - including works by Gauguin, Bernard, Anquetin and Toulouse-Lautrec - at the Café Au Tambourin, Boulevard de Clichy.In this year he also produced a series of 27 self-portraits, marking a stylistic milestone and turning-point in his career.

Leaves Paris for Arles, Provence, to found an artist`s colony , the leader of which was to be Paul Gauguin. Initially lodging at the Hotel Carrel, he then makes his home at the "Yellow House", 2 Place Lamartine and sets out to visit the now famous locations of Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer, Montmajour, La Crau and Langlois and producing the `Night Café` canvases.

Gauguin arrived in October and they proceeded to collaborate on a friendly basis. However this was not to last and, although much inter-influencing can be seen in their works of this period, they began moving in opposing directions. Gauguin was planning to leave, but Vincent had become dependent on him and was also turning increasingly to absinthe and tobacco. On 23rd December, he attacked him with an open razor in the Place Victor Hugo. However he stopped short of the act, ran home, and cut off his own ear flush with his head. It was his way of breaking the tie with Gauguin whom he considered to be `deaf`to his arguments.

Gauguin left the next day and Vincent is taken to hospital under the care of Dr. Rey. He was presumably suffering from the symptoms of an heriditary epileptic illness from which both Theo and his sister Wilhelmina also suffered.


On 7th January, in spite of headaches and insomnia, Vincent returns to his studio to be assisted by the postman Joseph Roulin and Reverend Salles. However, a second attack occurs in February and a petition is signed by some of his neighbours accusing him of disturbing the peace. The mayor has him committed to the asylum, forcibly by the police.

In April, he asks Theo to have him moved to the asylum at St.Rémy run by Dr. Peyron. Here he enthusiastically sets about painting in the garden and neighbouring areas. However, after a visit to Arles he suffers a further attack which lasts several weeks, but recovers enough to be invited to take part in the exhibition of the XX in Brussels.


Vincent received an enthusiastic exhibition review by Albert Aurier in his article Les Isolés and he sold his painting the Red Vineyards for 400 francs. He determines to leave the south of France and visit Dr. Gachet in Auvers-sur-Oise. Here he stays at the Ravoux family café in the Place de la Mairie and makes several studies of Dr. Gachet`s garden and produces his masterpiece the Church at Auvers.

However, after further attacks and suffering unbearable hallucinations, he takes a revolver belonging to Ravoux and shoots himself in the chest. He survives one night but dies the next day. Vincent is buried in the cemetary at Auvers.

Reference: "Vincent Van Gogh - Art Life and Letters", Bernard Zurcher, Thunder Bay Press, 1985