Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Zundert, a village in the south of the Netherlands. His father was the protestant minister of the place, but three of his father’s brothers were art dealers, and so it is only natural that Vincent became an apprentice at the shop of his uncle Vincent van Gogh in The Hague.
His uncle had become a partner in the firm of Goupil & Cie, and after having worked in The Hague for four years Vincent was sent to other branches of the Goupil firm, first in London, then in Paris. During the years in London and Paris, Vincent had developed an intense love for the Church and a desire to follow in the footsteps of his father. In England he found a job as a schoolmaster. Back in Holland, he finally got permission from his father and his influential uncles to start the long study to become a clergyman.
From 1877 to 1878, he stayed in the house of his uncle Jan, a high-ranking naval officer in Amsterdam, taking lessons in Latin and Greek and mathematics in order to prepare himself for the entrance examination of the University, but that kind of study soon became too much for him; he wanted to bring his religious ideas into practice as soon as possible, and finally, with the reluctant help of his father, he found a job as an evangelist in a poor mining district in Belgium, the Borinage.
Here, he could live up to his ideals, and his first letters from the Borinage show that he liked his work. He gave Bible classes, taught the children of the miners, and did his utmost to help the poor, the sick, and the wounded. He gave away his best clothes and for some time lived in a miserable hut. His fanaticism was probably the cause that after six months the Evangelisation Committee did not renew his appointment.
For some time he tried to go on with his social work, living on the little money his father sent him, but at the same time his interest had shifted to art again and he became more preoccupied with his drawing than with the Church. In April 1881, after a year of struggling with himself in poverty and isolation, he returned to the home of his parents, who had by now settled in Etten, another village in the province of Brabant, and it was here that his career as a professional artist really begun.
Although for more than a year Van Gogh had been making drawings of miners and other sketches (of which only very few have been preserved) and had practiced drawing by making large copies of works by Millet and by repeatedly copying the Exercises au Fusain by Charles Bargue, a drawing manual published by Goupil, he was almost a complete beginner when he started work in Etten. His first drawings from Etten are still very clumsy, but in a few months a great improvement is noticeable, and the progress becomes amazing as soon as he had settled in The Hague (after a row with his father about his refusal to go to church at Christmas).
Here he had some help from a very good painter, called Anton Mauve, who also gave him some painting lessons. In the two years that Van Gogh spent in The Hague (1882-83), he produced some two hundred drawings, most of which are very characteristic figure studies, either after the woman who shared his life in The Hague, Sien Hoornik, or after men and women from an old people’s home, but there are also excellent landscapes, such as the views of the gardens and meadows behind his house. One of the most famous of his figure studies is the seated nude, titled Sorrow, for which Sien had sat as a model.
This portrait, of which he also made a lithograph, is typical for what his ideal in drawing was; he wanted to achieve more than mere technical perfection: his real aim was expression. He wanted to express the misery of the poor people with whom he was surrounded, and also their dignity. He admired the wood engravings of The Graphic, buying and collecting as many as he could, especially its “Heads of the People,” though not its “Types of Beauty. ” As life had become unbearable with her, he left Sien and her two children behind in September 1883, to find some rest and new inspiration in Drenthe, one of the northern provinces of the Netherlands.
It was cold and lonely in Drenthe, and what he could achieve there were only a few dark and sombre landscape paintings and a small number of drawings, although he found an outlet in writing many long letters to his brother, who had gone on supporting him financially in spite of his disapproval of his relationship with Sien. Two happier and more productive years followed as Van Gogh was allowed to stay and work in the house of his parents again, who had moved to Neunen in the meantime, a town near Eindhoven (1884-85).
Here he developed into a really great painter, while the numerous monumental drawings he made of farmers and peasant women working in the fields are not inferior to those of his reverend master Millet. Again, to be expressive was his main concern even if it was at the cost of correctness. Sending some of the drawings to Theo, he asked him to show them to a French painter, adding, “Tell him that my great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodellings, changes in reality, so that they may become, yes, lies if you like–but truer than the literal truth.
It was with this same concern for reality in a reinforced form that he painted what is often considered to be his masterpiece of the Nuenen-period: The Potato-Eaters, a group of peasant people gathered round their common meal, a picture which suggested, as he said, “that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish. At the end of 1885, shortly after his father had died, Van Gogh left Holland, never to return, and an important painting that can be seen as a symbolic farewell to that country and to his so-called “dark period” is the still-life with an open bible–representing the world of his father–in front of which is placed a French novel with yellow cover, Zola’s La Joie de vivre–representing his own world and the world of color, light and freedom towards which he was now turning.
After a short stay in Antwerp–three months spent in poor health and misery, including a few weeks drawing after plaster casts at the Academy–he joined his brother in Paris, starting a whole new phase in his work as a painter. Under the influence of the Impressionist movement in France, his palette became much brighter and more colorful, and soon he even left Impressionist painting behind as he started experimenting with the newest tendencies in art, represented by painters like Seurat and Signac.
A number of pictures in a pointillist manner were the result, but at the same time Van Gogh’s painting style was strongly influenced by Japanese woodcuts with their clear outlines and flat colors which he had become to admire so much. The collection which he had assembled is still on show in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.
For some months in the beginning of his stay in Paris, Van Gogh had worked at the studio of the French painter Fernand Cormon, drawing and painting after plaster casts and live models, and this must have contributed to his growing preference for figure painting. Some extremely beautiful portraits, done in a style all his own, date from this period: those of La Segatori, of The Italian Woman, and the two of the paint-dealer Tanguy, to name only a few. But the greatest achievement of the Paris period is perhaps his series of some 25 painted self-portraits.
In the meantime he had made the acquaintance of many of the most progressive painters in Paris, some of whom, like Signac, Bernard, and Gauguin, were to remain friends in the following years; Toulouse-Lautrec made a marvelous portrait in pastel of him, John Russell one in oils, and Vincent strongly encouraged his brother Theo to go on helping the Impressionist painters by buying works from them for Goupil and by exhibiting them in his gallery. Paris has indeed played a key role in Van Gogh’s development as an artist.
In February 1888, Van Gogh left Paris for Arles in the South of France, and during the year he stayed there his art reached its greatest heights. Many of the sun-drenched landscapes he painted here, like The Drawbridge, The Harvest, and The Sower–to name just a few–became known all over the world by color reproductions, and the same goes for his flowerpieces (The Sunflowers) and his figure paintings, such as The Postman Roulin and The Berceuse, Madame Roulin.
For a few months at the end of the year, Paul Gauguin lived together with him in the little house that Van Gogh had rented, but their collaboration ended in a quarrel and in Van Gogh’s insane act of cutting off part of his ear–a first sign of the mental disturbances that were to trouble him intermittently until his death. At his own request, Van Gogh was admitted to an asylum at Saint-Remy, not far from Arles, where he hoped to be able to work more peacefully than in Arles.
Except for a few long periods of illness, he could, and the result was an astoundingly copious production of important drawings and paintings, including such famous masterpieces as The Irises, the expressionistic Starry Night, and the Self-Portrait on a Light Background. The last two and a half months of his life he spent at Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris, where we see the last outburst of his creativity with some 60 paintings, among them such famous pictures as the one of the village church against a deep blue sky, the two portraits of Doctor Gachet, and the highly dramatic and symbolic Wheatfield with Crows.
He was 37 when he shot himself on July 27, and died on July 29, 1890. Van Gogh’s paintings are scattered all over the world, but the two largest collections of his works are still in his native Holland, one in the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the other in the Kroller-Mller Museum in Otterlo near Arnhem. Theo, who had supported Vincent morally and financially during his whole life as an artist, became insane shortly after his brother’s death, and died a few months later, himself only 33 years old. Their graves are side by side near the old church at Auvers-sur-Oise.