VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
Vincent van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Zundert in the southern Netherlands, into a religious upper middle-class family. He was deeply religious as a young man and aspired to be a pastor, like his father. He was very emotional and he did not have a great deal of self-confidence. He was also a replacement child because he was born a year after the death of his brother, also named Vincent. They even had the same birthday.
In 1869, he took his first job, working in the Hague branch of a firm of art dealers. He began to write to his 4 years younger brother Theo, a correspondence which continued for the rest of Van Gogh’s life. His letters to his brother and to other artists provide great insight into his life.
Van Gogh’s job took him to London and Paris, but he did not like it very much and was dismissed in 1876. He briefly became a teacher in England, and then, deeply interested in Christianity, he worked as a missionary in a mining region in southern Belgium. Here he studied art and started to sketch people from the local community,
His early works are often sombre or sad, painted with dark colours such as browns and dark greens, without any sign of the vivid coloration that distinguished his later paintings. They represent oppressed city dwellers as well as Dutch peasants at work.
His most famous early painting was called The Potato Eaters painted in 1885: a dark picture of a peasant family eating potatoes for dinner.
When Theo wrote to Vincent to tell him about a new style of painting in Paris called Impressionism, he moved to Paris to learn from these new painters. He met many artists including Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro and Gauguin, with whom he became friends.
His style changed significantly under the influence of Impressionism, becoming lighter and brighter. His brushwork also became more broken and the subject of his works changed from peasant workers to the streets and cafes of Paris as well as the countryside.
He also began taking interest in portraying people. When he couldn’t find models, he would paint himself for practice. He painted over twenty self-portraits during this time.
In 1888, at the age of 35 he decided to go south to Arles where he had dreams of starting a community of artists, while Theo continued to encourage and support him financially and to try to sell his artwork.
The lively colours and the bright sun of Provence fascinated him and here he painted his famous series ‘Sunflowers’
He worked with intensity and emotion, and his colours became more vibrant and brighter. He painted hundreds of pictures during this time and became fully obsessed with art. He would sometimes apply the paint directly onto the canvas from the tubes leaving the paint thick with rough brush strokes, and it would often take weeks for his paintings to dry.
He had rented a yellow house and invited Paul Gauguin to join him.
Their relationship soon began to deteriorate. Van Gogh admired Gauguin and desperately wanted to be treated as his equal, but Gauguin was arrogant and this often frustrated Van Gogh. Owing to their frequent disagreements, Van Gogh feared that Gauguin would leave him. That situation became very tense and eventually reached a crisis point when, one night, Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor, but was stopped by Gauguin. Deeply remorseful Van Gogh went home and cut off part of his left ear with a razor blade. He then wrapped up it in a cloth and presented it to a woman as a “present”.
In some of his self-portraits his ear is bandaged: it looks like his right ear because he was using a mirror to paint himself.
This was the first serious sign of the mental health problems that were to afflict him for the rest of his life.
He spent time in psychiatric hospitals and fluctuated between periods of inertia, depression and incredibly concentrated artistic activity, during which his work reflected the intense colours and strong light of the countryside around him.
Struggling with fits of madness, in May 1889, he asked to be admitted to the mental hospital at Saint-Rémy-de Provence. Here he continued to work and painted one of his most famous masterpieces “Starry Night”. He produced hundreds of drawings and about 150 paintings, many of which featured cypress trees and swirling colours.
In May 1890, he regained his health and went to Paris to visit his brother, Theo. He moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, just outside Paris. At first, Van Gogh felt relieved there, but toward the end of June he experienced fits of temper and often quarrelled with the doctor who watched him carefully.
Two months later on 27 July, again suffering from depression, he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He died two days later, from an infection in the wound, with Theo at his side.
Six months later his brother died as well and was buried next to him in the small church at Auvers-sur-Oise.