Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Vincent van Gogh in conversation with Emile Bernard on the banks of the Seine in Asnières around 1886

Vincent van Gogh was born in the Netherlands and was the oldest of six children. 

When he was 16 years old, van Gogh became an apprentice with an art dealership in The Hague. In that job, he studied art and moved to London and Paris. Then he decided to make a career change. When he was 24 years old, he went to Amsterdam to study for the ministry, and the next year he went to Belgium and began preaching to coal miners.

However, van Gogh was discouraged with preaching by 1880. Inspired by his visit to artist Jules Breton, known for his pictures of peasants and the French countryside, van Gogh decided to become an artist. He briefly studied art in Brussels and then traveled around the Netherlands to paint pictures of poor and downtrodden people. His favorite brother, Theo, an art dealer, provided van Gogh with moral and financial support.

When he was about 31 years old, Van Gogh studied briefly at the Academy of Arts in Antwerp. In 1886, when he was 33 years old, he moved to Paris to live with Theo for two years. In Paris, van Gogh met Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, and other artists called “post-impressionists.” They used vivid colors, applied paint thickly, and emphasized geometric forms. Van Gogh took note of their techniques and soon was doing the same. Van Gogh also discovered Japanese art, which was popular in France at that time. All these influences had a life-long impact on the young artist.

In 1888, at age 35, van Gogh was on the move again. This time he was off to Arles, in the South of France. At first, he lived in a rented room in a local café. He had his artist’s studio in a small home called the Yellow House, into which he later moved. He dreamed that this house would become an artists’ colony, with Gauguin, whom he admired, his first guest.

Van Gogh developed his skills in Arles, but his longstanding unstable mental condition—which some now think was a form of epilepsy—got worse. Gauguin came to stay with him in October, but soon the artists’ personalities clashed. In December, they had a violent quarrel, during which van Gogh sliced off a part of his own ear. Van Gogh healed from his injury by January, and over the first months of 1889 completed his Postman and La Berceuse series of repetitions featuring his good friend Joseph Roulin and Roulin’s wife, Augustine.

By May, van Gogh, anguished about his mental condition, left Arles and voluntarily entered a mental hospital near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. While living there over the next months, he painted pictures of the gardens, views from his windows, portraits of the staff, and village scenes. This work included many of his greatest masterpieces, including Starry Night and The Road Menders. 

In early 1890, van Gogh’s mental attacks became more frequent. He went to Paris to visit briefly with Theo and then traveled north to Auvers-sur-Oise in France, where he hoped Dr. Paul Gachet would be able to help him. While there, van Gogh painted a brilliant series of portraits of Dr. Gachet. However, the doctor was unable to help the troubled artist. On July 27, van Gogh shot himself in the chest. Two days later, at age 37 and with his brother Theo at his bedside, Vincent van Gogh died.