Vincent van Gogh: Biography, Major Facts, & Paintings

Vincent van Gogh

Self-Portrait, September 1887. Art Institute of Chicago

Vincent van Gogh: Fast Facts

Born: Vincent Willem van Gogh

Birthday: March 30, 1853

Place of birth: Zundert, the Netherlands

Died: July 29, 1890

Place of Death: Auvers-sur-Oise, France

Cause of death: A wound sustained from self-inflicted gunshot to the chest

Place of burial: Cimetière d’Auvers-sur-Oise, France

Era: Post-impressionist

Parents: Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus

Siblings: Three sisters and two brothers, including Theo

Inspired by: Theo van Gogh, Anton Mauve

Art style: Post-impressionism

Most Famous for: painting more than 800 oil paintings and about 1300 sketches in his lifetime

Association: Émile Bernard, Paul Signac, Paul Gauguin, and Anthon van Rappard

Most notable work: The Bedroom (1888), The Potato Eaters (1885), Irises (1889), Sunflowers (1887), The Starry Night (1889), Café Terrace at Night

Achievement: Revered as one of the greatest artists of all time

Vincent van Gogh was one of the most influential and revered post-impressionist artist that ever graced the art world. Unceremoniously known for cutting off his left ear and then presenting it as a gift to a woman, Van Gogh painted masterpieces such as The Bedroom, Sunflowers, Starry Night, and Café Terrace at Night.

In the last decade of his brief life, he created about 800 oil paintings and about 1300 sketches in books. Majority of his artworks, which were often made with bold brush strokes and colors, were paintings of landscapes, still lifes and self-portraits.

Vincent van Gogh hardly made a dent commercially and publicly during his lifetime; however, it was in the decades after his death that he came to be revered as one of the greatest artists in the history of Western art.

This renowned post-impressionist artist took his life at the age of 37 following years of mental deterioration (possibly psychosis) and severe anxiety.

Worldhistoryedu.com delves into the biography, major facts and famous paintings of Vincent van Gogh.

Birth and Early Life

Born in a largely Catholic province in the Netherlands on March 30th 1853, Vincent van Gogh was the son of a Protestant minister Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. One year prior to the birth of Vincent, his parents had a baby called Vincent who tragically died.

Vincent van Gogh, a shy and quiet kid, grew up with his five siblings – Anna, Theo, Wil, Lis, and Cor – in a largely upper-middle-class Dutch family. His family were no strangers to the art world, as his grandfather and some of his uncles were art dealers.

Growing up, Vincent was quite serious and thoughtful, as him and his siblings were inculcated with the value of family bond. At the age of 11, he was sent to a Zevenbergen boarding school, a place he did not like one bit. At his middle school in Tilburg, he was tutored by the famous Dutch art teacher and painter Constant Cornelis Huijsmans. Although he was still very unhappy at school, he did extremely well in languages.

Around the second year in his middle school, he returned home due to the financial problems his family was going through. Vincent considered his youth as a very unhappy time for him.

Art dealer and church minister

Luckily for him, in 1869, his uncle was able to secure a job for him at the international art dealer – Goupil and Cie in La Hague. He underwent training for the next four years before he was transferred to the company’s London branch. Not only was the pay good, but Vincent loved the job as well. However, his happiness was short lived and became very forlorn.

His problems even got worse as he was transferred to Paris in 1875. After his dismissal from the art dealership, he moved back to England in 1876 and worked in a variety of jobs, including being a teacher in a boarding school.

After an uninspiring stint as a bookkeeper in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, Vincent started studying theology in order to become a pastor. In January 1879, he went to the coal-mining province of Borinage in Belgium to work as a religious minister. His time as a priest was short-lived, as the church members were not too pleased by his extreme altruistic behavior.

On the urging of his younger brother Theo, Vincent decided to concentrate more on his drawing. Hence he moved to Brussels in 1880 to study anatomy and modelling at the Académie Royale des Baeux-Arts.

Early years as an artist

Vincent Van Gogh

The Potato Eaters (1885) | Portrait: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

In 1881, he marked his full entry into the art world with the use of pencils and charcoal sticks in his sketches. This style of his was primarily influenced by his second cousin Anton Mauve, a successful artist who Vincent greatly admired. In the months that followed, he practiced fervently while studying under the guidance of Mauve, who also introduced him to water color and oil paints.

With funding from Mauve, Vincent van Gogh was able to set up his own studio. However, the two men had difficulties due to Vincent’s decision to use women from the streets as models.

Art historians note that van Gogh favored a lot of brown and dark green colors when he first began using oil paints. Between 1883 and 1886, he mostly painted still lifes and working class families or peasant laborers. The use of those colors often made his pictures look sad.  For example, The Potato Eaters, showed a somber picture of a peasant family as they had potatoes for dinner. While in Nuenen, the Netherlands, he made over 200 oil paintings, including The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen.

Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo

We know what we know about van Gogh due to the letters he penned to his brother Theo. The correspondence between the brothers offers a deep insight into the kind of man Vincent was, as well as his views and thoughts about art in general. It has been estimated that Vincent wrote in the region of 600 letters to Theo; while Theo penned about 40 to Vincent. Their correspondence began in 1872 and lasted until 1890.

Theo, who was van Gogh most favorite sibling, was also an artist and worked in a Parisian art gallery. In the early years of van Gogh’s art career he received tremendous financial and morale support from Theo. At some point, Theo tried, although unsuccessfully, to sell some of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings.

Theo, unlike Vincent, kept almost all the letters he wrote to Vincent. The letters came to light after the deaths of Theo and Vincent in 1890 and 1891 respectively. Theo’s surviving widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger took it upon herself to arrange those letters in order to publish them. Beginning in the first decade of the 1900s, the letters got published. In the letters, Vincent speaks very eloquently, sharing openly his thoughts about work and personal life with Theo.

Vincent also penned quite a number (22) of letters to his sister Wil. He also wrote to artists such as Anthon van Rappard, Paul Signac, Paul Gauguin, and Émile Bernard. It was also not uncommon for him to insert sketches in the letters that he wrote to his family and friends.

Vincent van Gogh could speak and write Dutch, English, and French. It has been noted that the letters he wrote to people while he was in the southern French town of Arles were in French, English and Dutch.

In some of the letters he wrote to his brother Theo, Vincent talks at length about the very successful artist Jules Breton. He also discusses Breton’s paintings and poems with Theo.

Vincent van Gogh gets introduced to Impressionism

Vincent van Gogh adopted the art style of Impressionism after his brother Theo complained that his paintings were devoid of bright colors. As a result of Vincent’s use of dark colors, Theo struggled to sell his paintings.

Did you know: Leurs, an art dealer in The Hague, was the first to exhibit van Gogh’s works?

After having an extensive correspondence with Theo about the style, van Gogh relocated to Paris in order to advance his art style. Prior to that he had a very unremarkable time at the Antwerp Academy, where he came into direct confrontation with many of the tutors, including Eugene Siberdt.

While in France, he drew a lot of inspiration from more established artists such as Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Paul Gauguin. The latter was a very close friend of van Gogh.

Moving away from the dark colors that characterized his earlier works, van Gogh quickly embraced brighter colors. By embracing Impressionism, he also adopted the use of broken brushwork.

Vincent van Gogh grew fond of painting things and people from the parks, restaurants and streets of Paris. His tour of the Asnières, a northwestern suburb of Paris, allowed him to incorporate many of those images in his paintings. It’s been stated that when run out of models to paint, he took to making self-portraits.

The two years that he spent in Paris made him feel very exhausted; therefore, he moved out of the city, seeking the ambiance of southern France. It has been estimated that his time in Paris saw him paint over 200 paintings.

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh painted more than twenty portraits of himself | Portrait: Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Vincent van Gogh’s time in Arles, France

Towards the latter part of the 1880s, Vincent relocated to southern France, to a place called Arles, where he established an artist’s commune. After renting out a yellow house at Lamartine, he sent an invitation to fellow artist Paul Gauguin to live with him. Unfortunately, the two artists had irreconcilable differences, causing them to part ways after some very turbulent times.

Vincent was very much taken aback by the sunny nature of Arles and all its natural beauty and colors. Influenced by the ambiance in Arles, Vincent started injecting brighter colors and emotions into his paintings. Such was the intensity and brightness of the paint he applied (with rough brush strokes) that in some cases the paint took several days to dry. He generally made paintings of wheat fields, famous landmarks in Arles, harvests, and old mills.

His time in Arles, France, was also the most prolific period of his career, as he produced hundreds of artworks. It has been stated that on some days he produced multiple paintings.

Some of the masterpieces that he painted during his stay in Arles, France, include Sunflowers (1887), Van Gogh’s Chair (1888), Bedroom in Arles (1888), Memory of the Garden at Etten (1888), Décoration for the Yellow House (1888), The Night Café (1888), and Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888).

The Yellow House (1888)

The Yellow House, 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh’s relationship with artist Paul Gauguin

Vincent van Gogh invited his dear friend artist Paul Gauguin to stay with him in Arles, France. This decision of his was part of his dream of making an art colony in Arles. On October 23, 1888, Gauguin arrived in Arles. The first few months proved to be very productive, as the two men maintained a cordial working relationship. Gauguin and van Gogh even painted together. In Gauguin’s painting, The Painter of Sunflowers (December 1888), Vincent van Gogh was portrayed in the portrait.

Gauguin also encouraged van Gogh to paint subjects from his memory. Out of this came one of van Gogh’s most famous paintings, Memory of the Garden at Etten (1888). Due to a number of factors, including the small size and cramped nature of their studio, van Gogh and Gauguin started having a very difficult relationship.  Van Gogh complained of how Gauguin looked down on him with contempt. The Dutch painter also got increasingly anxious that Gauguin was going to leave him. The two men often quarreled, and at times, tensions were so high that threatening words were exchanged.

Vincent Van Gogh

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers- Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Why did Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear?

To this day, it remains unclear what exact circumstances led to van Gogh’s mutilation of his ear.  The commonly held view states that van Gogh and Gauguin’s frosty relationship most likely triggered it, as van Gogh lived in constant fear that Gauguin was leaving him.

On December 23, 1888, Vincent van Gogh went into his room after a very heated argument with Paul Gauguin. Perhaps already suffering from the onset of psychosis, van Gogh took a razor blade and cut off a significant part of his left ear. He then wrapped the chopped off ear in a newspaper and presented it to a woman (most likely a prostitute at a Red Light district) as a gift.

Following the incident, van Gogh became unconscious only to be saved by a policeman who took him to the hospital. Even though the severed ear was returned to the hospital, the doctors were unable to reattach it since too much time had passed.

While van Gogh recuperated in the hospital, his brother Theo visited him. As for his estranged friend and workmate Gauguin, van Gogh never saw him again. They did however write to each other.

Van Gogh’s deteriorating mental state

Owing to the fast-paced nature of his mental breakdown, Vincent went in and out of psychiatric hospital. This came on the backdrop of a series of complaints and petition from his neighbors. In early summer of 1889, he left Arles and committed himself to a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he was given the needed medical care.

Many of his paintings by this time were inspired by the hospital’s environment and garden. In spite of this setback, he still somehow found solace in painting. One of his most famous masterpieces, Starry Night (1889), was painted around this time.

Perhaps as a form of coping mechanism with his mental problems, he used many swirling colors in his paintings during this time. He was also fond of painting olive trees and cypresses. Examples of such paintings of his include Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background (1889), Cypresses (1889), Valley with Ploughman Seen from Above (1889), and Sorrowing Old Man (1890).

Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night (1889)

The Starry Night, June 1889. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Did you know: Vincent van Gogh’s mental issues were so severe that a petition was signed by his neighbors, who described him as the redheaded madman (“le fou roux”)?

Death of Vincent van Gogh

After about a year at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, Paris, in order to be closer to his brother Theo. Historians reason that his paintings of Daubigny’s Garden in 1890 were some of his last works before he died. He also painted a number of portraits (such as Portrait of Dr Gachet) of his physician Dr Paul Gachet in 1890.

In just the space of one year, Vincent van Gogh’s mental issues had gotten really bad to the extent that he was sometimes considered a danger to himself.

On July 29, 1890, he passed away as a result of the wound he sustained from a 7mm Lafaucheux à broche revolver.

Some historians claim that the van Gogh shot himself in the very wheat feat that he had been painting prior to his death. Other historians claim it was instead a barn.

Due to the fact that there was no surgeon at the hospital when Gogh was admitted, the doctors could not remove the bullet that was lodged near his spine. In the 30 hours between the incident and the time of his death, he appeared to be making some sort of recovery. However, he ultimately succumbed to an untreated infection. Witnesses at his death bed stated that his last words were “The sadness will last forever”.

Vincent van Gogh was laid to rest at Auvers-sur-Oise municipal cemetery. Among those in attendance for the funeral were his brother Theo, French painter Cahrles Laval, Émile Bernard, Paul Gachet, etc.

His brother Theo, who was ill at the time of Vincent’s hospitalization and death, died six months later, on January 25, 1891. Theo was initially buried in Utrecht, but his widow Johanna later buried him next to Vincent at Auvers-sur-Oise.

Many theories have been proposed to explain the exact mental illness that plagued Vincent van Gogh, with the possible illnesses being bipolar disorder and acute intermittent porphyria.

The gun that van Gogh used in killing himself was rediscovered in the 1960s, only for it to be auctioned in June 2019 for around $182,000. The gun has been tagged as the most famous gun in the world of art.

Other interesting facts about Vincent van Gogh

  • Such was his obsession with painting that he sometimes skipped meals for days. Owing to this his health deteriorated really fast
  • Van Gogh took quite a lot of inspiration from Japanese prints and woodcuts.
  • It has been stated that the only painting that he sold in his lifetime was The Red Vineyard (1888).
  • Six months after his death, his younger brother Theo died. The two men were buried next to each other.
  • Van Gogh presented his 1889 Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey to his physician Dr Rey. That portrait, which Rey used to patch up his chicken coop, is valued at more than $50 million today.
  • Of all his five siblings, it was his younger brother Theo that he formed strongest bond with.

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