“And my aim in my life is to make pictures and drawings, as many and as well as I can; then, at the end of my life, I hope to pass away, looking back with love and tender regret, and thinking, ‘Oh, the pictures I might have made!’”
Vincent van Gogh –
Letter 338 to Theo-
19 November 1883
Vincent van Gogh was an artist who managed to move from dart earth colors to bright colors of Impressionists, and whose works cost from 74 $ during his lifetime to 82 million $ after his death; his work shows the objects, people and places in his life with bold, usually distorted, draughtsmanship; “he was prolific and protean: he was a scholar and a sufferer, an art-world pro and a destitute outsider, an evangelical bohemian, both sordid and sublime” (3).
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in Zundert, the province of North Brabant, in Netherlands. His parents were Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Theodorus von Gogh. He received the same name as his brother, who died just in several hours after his birth. Van Gogh had two brothers and several sisters. As a child Vincent was silent and serious. He went to a school in village with Catholic teacher. From the year 1861 he was taught at home by a governess. In 1864 he was sent to boarding school in Zevenbergen. This turned out to be a great stress for him to leave his home and he could not forget it till his adulthood even. In 1866 van Gogh went to another school – “Rjiks HBS Koning Willem 2”. His teacher of drawing there was Constantijn C. Huysmans, who was rather well-known in Paris by that time.
In March 1868 he returned home from school. Being an adult person van Gogh associated his childhood with gloomy and barren time in his life. When he was 16 years old, with the help of his uncle Cent he became art dealer at Coupil&Cie in Hague. He had to go through training at the company and afterwards he was sent to London. At this time van Gogh felt again isolated and lonely. His father sent him to Paris, where he could not work either and soon, in 1876, it was decided that he should leave. Van Gogh gained much interest in religion by that time and decided that this was the sense of his life. He went to England and took an unpaid work of a teacher at some boarding school and then he became a Methodist minister’s assistant in Isleworth. He was occupied with “preaching the gospel everywhere”. During the Christmas time he returned home and for half of the year worked at a book shop. After that he went to Amsterdam, he took there a theology course for a year and then left it. He tried to study the three-month course at missionary school at Brussels, but this brought only despair about himself and he came back home.
In 1878 van Gogh started the work of preacher in Belgium, his attitude to Christianity was a kind of extreme as he wanted to share all hardships of poor people and even to sleep on straw. But soon he was dismissed by church authorities for “undermining the dignity of priesthood”. But he didn’t go away but stayed for another year. He got really interested in life of usual people which was later on reflected in his paintings.
In 1880 his brother Theo insisted on his taking art seriously. In the same year van Gogh went to Brussels, as he wanted to study by the famous Dutch artist Willem Roeloff. There he made van Gogh go to Royal Academy of Art. He studied the rules of modeling and perspective there. A year later, Vincent went together with his parents in Etten. There he was drawing his neighbors in the village. During the time van Gogh was at the countryside, his cousin Kee Vos came to visit their family there and he developed feelings for her. Later in Amsterdam Kee didn’t want to see him any more and he burnt his hand in order to prove his feelings.
In 1882 van Gogh went to The Hague and took several lessons from an artist Mauve, but soon he lost interest and left him. His family were an alcoholic prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik and her daughter, thus it was not surprising that van Gogh had to spend about 3 week at hospital because of gonorrhea. That year he started to paint in oil. In 1883 he got tired of his family life and left Sien, as considered her not appropriate for his developments as an artist. He returned to his parents who lived in North Brabant in Netherlands. In 1884 van Gogh met Margot Beggeman and she fell in love with him, they wanted even to get married but their both families were against it.
In May 1885 the father of van Gogh died because of stroke. This was a hard experience for van Gogh. At the same time his works managed to gain some popularity in Paris. In spring of that year van Gogh painted “The Potato Eaters”, nowadays it is considered to be one of his major works. Several months later his work was exhibited in The Hague. Then the Catholic priest from the village blamed van Gogh for making one of the peasant girls pregnant and they were not allowed to pose for him any more. The important fact is that at this time the palette of van Gogh’s works was the combination of earth colors, with most attention paid to dark brown. His later popular works are more colorful and bright, his brother’s words that he could not sell his paintings in Paris as they were too dark for the style of bright Impressionists paintings made him change his approach. He spent about two years in Nuenen, where he produced 200 oil and numerous watercolor paintings. In 1885 van Gogh started to learn the color theory, studied the works of other artists, mostly by Peter Paul Rubens. He never accepted academic learning studies, but this time he managed to pass the exams brilliantly. Though his health was rather poor at that time, he worked too much and took a diet, besides he smoked a lot.
In 1886 van Gogh went to Paris, there he met his friends Emile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, in order to mark this event they exchanged paintings with Bernard. The same year his mother and his sister went to Breda, about 70 paintings of van Gogh that were left were either sold for a low price or simply burned. His brother Theo helped Vincent to join the circle of Impressionists, among them were: Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille and his son, who became close friend of the artist soon. He liked the lights and colors of Impressionists. A special attention van Gogh paid to the technique called pointillism – a lot of small dots are put on the painting and they look like hues from a distance. He also liked to use the complimentary color – mostly blue and orange. He wrote about it: “I want to use colors that complement each other, that cause each other to shine brilliantly, that complete each other like a man and a woman” (5). In the summer of the same year, he and his brother Theo found a flat in Montmartre and van Gogh started to paint the Paris scenes using the pointillist style. In 1886, in winter he became friends with Paul Gauguin, who came to Paris at that time. By the 1888 van Gogh produced about 200 paintings of Paris and feeling tired from the life with his brother left Paris.
In winter of the same year he came to Hotel Carrel in Arles, in France with the idea to organize Utopian art colony, his companion at that moment was the Dutch artist – Christian Mourier- Petersen. In spring three of his works, presenting the landscapes were shown at Salon des Artistes Independents.
One of the paintings that were sold during the lifetime of van Gogh, and there were not really many of them, was his work – The Red Vineyard, 1888. In autumn van Gogh asked Gauguin to come to Arles and they started to work together. They visited Montpellier and saw the paintings of Courbet and Delacroix at the Fabree museum. But soon they could not understand each other and started to quarrel a lot about art. Van Gogh was afraid that Gauguin was going to desert him and on December 23 1888, when the situation became too tense for their relations, van Gogh stalked his friend and cut off the lower part of his left ear. Then he wrapped it in the newspaper and gave it to the prostitute named Rachel with the request to save the thing carefully. After that Gauguin left Arles and never wanted to talk to van Gogh. Several days after the events van Gogh had to spend at the hospital being in critical state. In winter 1889 van Gogh was allowed to return home, but he was not completely healthy, he suffered from hallucinations and paranoia and thought that somebody had poisoned him. In spring the police closed his house as about thirty people from the town signed the petition. Signac took van Gogh from the hospital and accompanied him home.
In 1889 van Gogh was taken to the mental hospital in Saint Remy de Provence, about 20 miles from Arles. The head of the hospital was a former naval doctor. Van Gogh had two rooms, one for himself and one for his studio. The main subjects the artist used at that time were the clinic and its garden. The characteristic feature of his works of this time was the use of swirls, as for example in one of his most famous works – Starry Night. He was allowed to walk only in a company of his supervisor and this certainly shortened his access to the world and he started to paint the interpretations of Millet’s works.
In 1890 van Gogh left the clinic at last and went to Dr. Paul Gachet. Pissaro recommended him this doctor as he had to do with artists beforehand and was an amateur artist himself. Van Gogh painted the portrait of Dr. Gachet. Van Gogh said about the doctor once: “he is sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much…” (3).
The last work of Van Gogh is considered – Wheat Field with Crows, although some researchers state that this was a mistake as there were several more works after that. Another work called his last one is – Daubigny’s Garden. There is also some not finished works, for example – Thatched Cottages by a Hill.
As van Gogh’s depression was becoming stronger and deeper, in the year 1890, when he was 37 years old, he went to a field and shot himself with a revolver. He didn’t die at once, he even returned to Ravoux Inn, where he died two days later. Theo heard his last words: “La Tristesse durera toujours”, meaning “the sadness will last forever”. Van Gogh was buried at the Auvers-sur-Oise cemetery. Soon after that his brother Theo was taken to hospital as he had syphilis. The illness and the grief because of his brother’s death were the main reasons of his death half of the year later. He was buried near Vincent.
Ives, Colta, Susan Alyson Stein, Sjraar van Heugten, and Marije Vellekoop. Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings. New York: Youth Magazine, 13-2002.
Vincent by Himself: A Selection of his paintings and drawings together with extracts from his letters. Bruce Bernard, ed. Chartwell Books: Edison, NJ, 2001.
The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. Ronald de Leeuw, ed. Arnold Pomerans, trans. Penguin Books: London and New York, 1996.
Pickvance, Ronald. Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry N. Abrams, 1986.
Pickvance, Ronald. Van Gogh in Arles. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry N. Abrams, 1984.
Watrous, James. The Craft of Old-Master Drawings. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.
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