The rapid evolution of a style characterized by canvases filled with swirling, bright colors depicting
people and nature is the essence of Vincent Van Gogh’s extremely prolific but tragically short career.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Holland, son of a Dutch Protestant pastor
and eldest of six children. His favorite brother Theo was four years younger. When Vincent was twelve to
sixteen years old, he went to a boarding school.That next year he was sent to The Hague to work for an
uncle who was an art dealer, but van Gogh was unsuited for a business career.Actually, his early interests
were in literature and religion. Very dissatisfied with the way people made money and imbued with a
strong sense of mission, he worked for a while as a lay preacher among proverty-stricken miners.Van
Gogh represented the religious society that trained him in a poor coal-mining district in Belgium. Vincent
took his work so seriously that he went without food and other necessities so he could give more to the
poor.The missionary society objected to Vincent’s behavior and fired him in 1879. Heartsick, van Gogh
struggled to keep going socially and fin!
ancially, yet he was always rejected by other people, and felt lost and forsaken.
Then, in 1880, at age 27, he became obsessed with art. The intensity he had for religion, he now focused
on art. His early drawings were crude but strong and full of feeling: “It is a hard and a difficult struggle to
learn to draw well… I have worked like a slave ….”His first paintings had been still lifes and scenes of
peasants at work.”That which fills my head and heart must be expressed in drawings and in pictures…I’m
in a rage of work.”
In 1881, he moved to Etten. He very much liked pictures of peasant life and labor. Jean-Francois Millet
was the first to paint this as a main theme and his works influenced van Gogh. His first paintings here were
crude but improving. Van Gogh’s progress was interrupted by an intense love for his widowed cousin Kee
Vos. On her decisive rejection of him he pursued her to Amsterdam, only to suffer more humiliation.
Anton Mauve, a leading member of the Hague school was a cousin of van Gogh’s mother. This
opportunity to be taught by him encouraged van Gogh to settle in Den Hague with Theo’s support.When
van Gogh left Den Hague in September 1883 for the northern fenland of Drenth, he did so with mixed
feelings. He spent hours wandering the countryside, making sketches of the landscape, but began to feel
isolated and concerned about the future. He had rented a little attic in a house but found it melancholy, and
was depressed with the quality of his equipment. “Everything is too miserable, too insufficient, too
Physically and mentally unable to cope with these conditions any longer, he left for his parents’ new
home in Nuenen in December 1883. Van Gogh had a phase in which he loved to paint birds and bird’s
nests.This phase did not last long. It only lasted until his father’s death six months later. “The Family
Bible” which he painted just before leaving his house for good, six months after his father’s death in 1885,
must have meant a great deal to him. Van Gogh had broken with Christianity when he was fired from the
missionary which proved to be the most painful experience of his life, and one from which he never quite
At Nuenen, van Gogh gave active physical toil a remarkable reality. It’s impact went far beyond what
the realist Gustave Corbet had achieved and beyond even the quasi-religious images of Jean-Francois
Millet. He made a number of studies of peasant hands and heads before embarking on what would be his
most important work at Nuenen. The pinnacle of his work in Holland was The Potato Eaters, a scene
painted in April 1885 that shows the working day to be over. It was the last and most ambitious painting of
his pre-Impressionist period, 1880-1885.When van Gogh painted the The Potato Eaters, he had not yet
discovered the importance of color.
Van Gogh went to Antwerp in November 1885, partly to escape local gossip. He vainly attempted to
make money from painting portraits, townscapes, and trades men’s signs. Then he enrolled at the Antwerp
Academy to make use of the live models. Shortage of money led to van Gogh’s undernourishment and
acute physical distress. When van Gogh enrolled at the Academy in January 1886, he had just finished
drawings that one day would be compared to the masters. Although willing to learn, he astonished fellow
students by refusing to abandon the rapidity and boldness of his own methods.Possibly because of this, he
was downgraded to the beginner class and consequently he left for Paris to live with his brother.
It was through his brother Theo and an art gallery devoted to living artists that he discovered the
Impressionists, and became familiar with the new art movements developing at the time. Before Paris, van
Gogh had not even known who the Impressionists were.He admired pictures by Degas and
Monet and through Toulouse-Lautrec he was in touch with the local members of the art world.
He was also influenced by Japanese print makers.The Impressionists discovered Japanese prints long
before van Gogh’s arrival. These prints influenced him in his use of harmonized color.Van Gogh pinned
them on his walls, and they appear in the background of some of his paintings.
While refining his technique as painter in Paris, the home of the Impressionist school, he soon found that
his real affinity was not for this school but for three men who had left their company to carry the torch of
revolt a step further: for Cezanne, usually considered the most monstrous painter among the outcasts, for
Gauguin, under the combined influence of Cezanne and of the Orient; and for Seraut, obsessed with
experimental vision of art.
Until 1886, he had only known the Dutch painters and a handful of French landscape painters including
Millet and the Barbizon group. Now, for the first time, he saw work by Delacroix (whom he later said had
more influence on him than the Impressionists) and by Pissaro, Czanne, Renoir and Sisley. Light, color
and brilliance burst upon him. He went about the streets with a palette of bright colors, as delighted by the
cosmopolitan bustle of the city as Manet, Monet, Renoir, and the others had been twenty years before him.
Van Gogh’s Impressionist phase lasted two years. Although it was vitally important for his development,
he had to integrate it with the style of his earlier years before his genius could fully unfold. Paris opened
his eyes to the senses and beauty of the visible world and taught him the pictorial language of the color
patch, but painting continued to be a vessel for his personal emotions. To investigate this spiritual reality
with the ne!
w means at this command, he went to Arles in the south of France. It was there, between 1888 and 1889,
that he produced his greatest pictures.
While Czanne and Seurat were making a more severe, classical art out of the impressionists style, van
Gogh felt Impressionist art was pretty decorations and did nothing to evoke the sorrow of the human soul.
He led the way in a different direction. He believed that impressionism did not allow the artist enough
freedom to express his inner feelings. Since this was his main concern, he is sometimes called an
expressionist.Expressionism is the idea of emotional spontaneity in painting.
The portrait of Dr. Gachet is a perfect example of his melancholy, proto-Expressionist late work.By
setting certain colors side by side he achieved effects of unearthly splendor. To color he brought dignity
and form, the opposite of the abstractions into which Monet was heading and which seemed the inevitable
limit of Impressionist techniques. Van Gogh thought it was the color, not the form, that determined the
expressive content of his pictures.Three painters of genius emerged, overlapping the Impressionists in
time and manner, whose names have become synonymous with the post-Impressionists movement:
Cezanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh. Between them they set European painting on a path which turned
Impressionism into something solid and durable, like the art of the museums, a return in effect, to the main
stream, but with minds alight with discovery and purpose. These three, as well as Mile Bernard who was a
friend of van Gogh, all believed in the importance of color!
to express the state of mind of the model represented.Work of the Post-Impressionists reveals a freely
expressive use of color and form.
In 1888, while living at Arles, he began to use the swirling brush strokes and intense yellows, greens,
and blues. He loved bright colors especially yellow because of the sun which was bright in southern France
and he painted what he saw and felt.He painted in colors with bright hues and high value.Vincent would
sometimes put paints on his canvas with his palette knife or right from the tube and mix it around with his
fingers which would make it quite coarse. In Arles he attached the greatest importance to his portraits,
although he also painted many landscapes.Later, in 1890, he devoted his main energy to landscape
In southern France van Gogh lived for a time with Paul Gauguin, whom he had met in Paris. But after
two months they had violent arguments, culminating in a quarrel in which van Gogh threatened Gauguin
with a razor. The same night, in a deep remorse, van Gogh cut off part of his own ear. This episode marked
the beginning of a periodic insanity that plagued him until his death. On May 8, 1889, he was admitted to
St. Rmy Hospital as a voluntary patient. Dr. Peyron interviewed him and entered in the register that van
Gogh “Suffers from fits which last from fifteen days to a month. During these fits the patient is victim to
terrifying terrors and on several occasions has attempted to poison himself….During the intervals between
fits he is perfectly quiet and paints ardently.”He was possibly having a seizure when he threatened to kill
Paul Gauguin. Since his death, investigators have come to feel that his fits were due to epilepsy.
Despairing of a cure and fearing !
he would no longer be able to paint, van Gogh committed suicide in July 1890. He felt very deeply that art
alone made his life worth living.
We know a good deal about his inner life as a result of a massive, stirring and deeply moving
autobiography in the form of hundreds of letters written to his brother Theo.The letters he sent to his
brother include many eloquent descriptions of his choice of hues and the emotional meaning he attached to
In one of his letters to Theo he wrote the following:
I do not intend to spare myself, nor to avoid emotions or difficulties – Idon’t care much whether I live
a longer or shorter time…The world concernsme insofar as I feel a certain indebtedness and duty toward
it because I have walked this earth for thirty years, and, out of gratitude, want toleave some
souvenir in the shape of drawings and pictures – not made to pleasea certain taste in art, but to express a
sincere human feeling.
I feel that he succeeded.