Vincent van Gogh

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Self-portrait (1886)
Self-portrait (1886)

Vincent Willem van Gogh (March 30, 1853July 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 became mentally ill (possibly as a result of 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).

(In Dutch, the name Gogh is pronounced [xɔx]; pronunciations used in English include [gɒf], [gɒx], and [goʊ].)

Van Gogh's 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. Several paintings 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 Dr. Gachet was sold for US$82.5 million at Christie's, thus establishing a new price record, only beaten by Picasso.


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 (where he lodged in Stockwell), 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.

After dropping 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 charcoal sketches.

Painting full-time

In 1880, 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 in 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 colour, favouring 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.

Impressed 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 Amsterdam).

In the winter of 18851886, 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 colours, 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.


In spring 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 an impressionist.) He especially liked the technique known as pointillism (where many small dots are applied to the canvas that blend into rich colours, to one seeing it from a distance), which made its mark on Van Gogh's own style. Van Gogh also used complementary colours, especially blue and orange, in close proximity in order to enhance the brilliance of each. A lovely quote from one of his letters: "I want to use colours that complement each other, that cause each other to shine brilliantly, that complete each other like a man and a woman".


Sunflowers painted at Arles, 1888 (Neue Pinakothek, Munich)
Sunflowers painted at Arles, 1888 (Neue Pinakothek, Munich)

In 1888, 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. Only Paul 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. Now on display in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Russia, it sold for only 400 francs (US$68 today).

The only painting Van Gogh ever sold, The Red Vineyard (1888)
The only painting Van Gogh ever sold, The Red Vineyard (1888)

Van Gogh 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 centre 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. His depression deepened, and on July 27, at the age of 37, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest. Without realising 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, who contracted syphilis not long after Vincent's death was admitted to a hosptial himself. Not being able to come to terms with his brother's absence, he 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.


Vincent and Theo van Gogh's graves at the cemetary of Auvers-sur-Oise
Vincent and Theo van Gogh's graves at the cemetary of Auvers-sur-Oise

Van Gogh's fame grew shortly after his death. Large exhibitions were organised in Paris (1901), Amsterdam (1905), Cologne (1912), New York City (1913) and Berlin (1914).

Van Gogh's life forms the basis for Irving Stone's biographical novel Lust for Life (later turned into a film). In 1972, singer Don McLean wrote the ballad "Vincent", also known as "Starry Starry Night" (after his most known work), in honour of Van Gogh, later sang by Josh Groban in 2002. In 1986-87, the composer Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote an opera, Vincent, based on several events in Van Gogh's life, and also later used some of the same themes in his 6th symphony, "Vincentiana."

Notable works

† Denotes paintings which are recent recordholders for the highest price paid for a painting at an auction, see list of most expensive paintings.

Influences on Van Gogh

(see also above)


"Van Gogh" (IPA: /fæn xɒx/) is often pronounced in a completely different way from the original Dutch (particularly in the USA), something which can leave listeners confused as to who the speaker is talking about.

  • The correct pronunciation of "van" is like the English word "fun".
  • The correct pronunciation of "Gogh" starts and ends with a similar consonant sound to the Scottish word "loch", and also has a similar vowel sound.

Asking a Dutch person for directions to the "van go" museum will usually lead to a look of either confusion or contempt. A better approximation of the correct pronunciation for non-Dutch speakers is "fun hoh".


See also

  • Japonism: influences of Japanese culture in Van Goghs paintings

External links

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