Vincent Van Gogh Self Portrait, 1889

The Life and Art of Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh’s Early Life

There are few people in history that quite exemplify a “man ahead of his time” as much as the Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh. He was born on March 30, 1853, in a small village in Zundert, Netherlands. His father was Theodorus Van Gogh, a local Protestant pastor, and his mother was Anna Carbentus Van Gogh. He grew up with one older brother, Cor, one younger brother, Theo Jr., and three younger sisters: Elizabeth, Wil, and Anna. Growing up, Van Gogh was considered a quiet but very smart child, with a love for nature but no notable fascination with art. Van Gogh was homeschooled by his mother and a governess until the age of seven, when he went to a nearby village school. At the age of eleven, he was sent to a boarding school in the city of Zevenbergen, about 15 miles away from his hometown. Despite excelling in his academics, Van Gogh quit school halfway through his second year and never returned.

When he was sixteen, Van Gogh worked as an art dealer for a short time before following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a Protestant missionary in Belgium. He preached in the Borinage mining region, where he worked as a teacher and conducted Bible readings. He was very popular with the local miners, who called him “The Christ of the Coal Mine.” While he formed many connections with the townspeople, his following was not large enough to allow him to make a living and he fell into serious financial trouble. As he was trying to figure out what to do next, Van Gogh looked through some old landscape sketches he had done during his time in Belgium. Apparently, these drawings resonated with him since he decided thereafter that his true calling was as an artist.

Vincent Van Gogh Self Portrait, 1889
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

An Artist’s Education

Van Gogh’s decision to pursue a career as an artist received mixed reactions from his family. His parents thought it was a terrible idea. But his brother Theo, who was an art dealer, was very supportive and helped Van Gogh financially. Van Gogh moved back to live with his parents in 1881, where he began to experiment with various styles and mediums. After about a year, he moved to The Hague. There he came under the tutelage of his cousin, Anton Mauve, a famous Dutch realist painter. Mauve taught him a great deal about drawing and painting. Later, Van Gogh would spend several years moving from place to place, from Drenthe to Paris, seeking to expand his artistic skills even further. Van Gogh rarely stayed in any art school for long as his use of color and shape were considered very radical.

Life as an Artist

In many of Van Goh’s earlier paintings, such as his 1885 oil painting The Potato Eaters, he tended to use dark colors and low lighting. These early works also followed the school of realism, undoubtedly influenced by his early education by Anton Mauve. This changed when Van Gogh moved to Paris. He was greatly inspired by the colors and style used in impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, which were more stylized, dramatic, and vibrant representations of life. Since Van Gogh grew up fascinated by nature, he felt drawn to both of these art movements which sought to represent the world as it is and, by extension, the beauty of the world. In addition, as someone who was constantly rebelling against artistic norms, Van Gogh was particularly attracted to post-impressionist art, which sought to break away from the more traditional rules of realism in art that were dominant at the time. Another source of inspiration for Van Gogh was the bright and contrasting colors of Japanese woodblock paintings. Impressionist and post-impressionist art sought to represent the world as it is and, by extension, the beauty of the world. By combining and magnifying the use of colors from both Eastern and Western painting, Van Gogh created such pieces as Café Terrance at Night in 1888 and The Starry Night in 1889. Van Gogh’s s paintings were highly emotive and extremely deliberate. He planned every stroke out beforehand and gave each color specific meaning as part of the underlying message within his pieces.

Vincent Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night, 1888
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

Public Perception

The general public viewed many of Van Gogh’s later paintings as bizarre and radical because his work began to deviate so much from his earlier representational, realistic style of art. Breaking new ground even compared to more abstract schools of painting, Van Gogh’s use of colors and brushwork was unlike anything previously seen in impressionism or post-impressionism, as he took their ideas to further extremes. For example, French impressionist paintings, like Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1881 oil on canvas painting Luncheon of the Boating Party, often included and were admired for their realistic elements, such as attention to realistic lighting and shading. By contrast, Van Gogh, along with other revolutionary post-impressionist painters such as Paul Gauguin, rejected the limitations of what could easily be perceived. He instead increasingly used more abstract shapes and forms and more vivid, dynamic colors to express drama and emotion – thus, creating a fusion of what was perceived and the emotional state of the perceiver. Despite the absence of popular public appeal, Van Gogh’s paintings gained cachet and renown among many art collectors and artists from his time in Paris. As a result, he was able to sell some of his paintings to art galleries in Paris, including his 1888 painting, The Red Vineyard. These sales, combined with financial support from his brother Theo, allowed him to earn a decent living and pursue his art. Yet, Van Gogh remained a controversial artist throughout his life and, as a result, despite his tremendous success as a professional artist, his worldwide fame was not achieved until after his death.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Mental Illness

Today, Vincent Van Gogh is considered one of the greatest, but also one of the most tragic artists to have ever lived, due to his steady mental decline in the last years of his life and his self-destructive behavior. In his life, doctors diagnosed Van Gogh as going “mad.” “Madness” was an outdated term often used to label any perceived non-normative behavior. Today, many historians and psychologists believe, based on Van Gogh’s letters, his poor self-image, and his record of extreme mood swings, that Van Gogh most likely suffered from manic depression, or Bipolar Disorder. This mental disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings, often most recognizable by episodes of severe depression and anger. Other symptoms associated with Bipolar Disorder include low motivation, inability to let relationships end, hyperactivity, delusions, suicidal thoughts, and many more. Given people’s ignorance about the nature and treatment of mental health and the stigma attached to it during Van Gogh’s time, it is not surprising that he became isolated and suffered greatly with little aid or support.

Loss of an Ear

One of the facts that is most well-known today about Van Gogh’s life is the loss of his left ear. In 1888, Van Gogh moved to a small house in Arles, France, where he created some of his most iconic works, including The Harvest and Bedroom in Arles. Soon after he arrived, the famous French painter Paul Gaugin became his roommate. Gaugin is known for his post-impressionist art and his influence on modern painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Van Gogh and Gaugin became good friends and painted portraits of each other. However, their friendship ended as Van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated, with fits of rage, delusions, crying fits, and nervous breakdowns. On December 23, 1888, Van Gogh brandished a knife at Gauguin when he threatened to move out. Later the same day, in the midst of another mental breakdown, Van Gogh cut off his own left ear. He then gave his cut-off ear to a maid named Gabrielle outside a brothel. A few months later, he voluntarily registered himself at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Vincent Van Gogh's painting Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear, 1889
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh


Even in the asylum, Van Gogh created many spectacular paintings, including his 1890 Almond Blossom. He was released that same year and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, France, where he settled down and painted landscapes, self-portraits, and plants and flowers at a staggering rate. His mental health, however, continued to decline. He still suffered from depression and extreme mood swings. Additionally, his brother Theo was considering starting his own business, which Van Gogh believed would put his finances at great risk. Even though Theo tried to comfort his brother and tell him that there was no need to worry, Van Gogh continued to spiral downward. The combination of an uncertain future, his belief that he would lose the financial support of his brother, who had always been a mainstay in his life, and his declining mental health ultimately became unbearable for him.

On July 27, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh went to a wheatfield and shot himself in the chest. He was rushed to a hospital but died from his wound two days later at the age of thirty-seven. He was laid to rest at the Auvers-sur-Oise Town Cemetery. While today some speculate that Van Gogh was actually murdered by a stray bullet, no evidence supports this theory. Vincent Van Gogh died unmarried and with no children.


Van Gogh’s attention to detail, his use of surreal and vibrant colors, his ability to express himself through his paintings, and his groundbreaking achievements in his field have contributed to his reputation as one of the greatest artists of all time. Despite his deteriorating mental state, Van Gogh was determined to demonstrate the beauty of the world and its emotive effect on the viewer. Van Gogh mostly preferred to work with oil paint on canvas, in his distinctive post-impressionist style. His career as an artist lasted less than ten years, but during that time he produced around 900 paintings and over a thousand illustrations.

The Potato Eaters

Vincent Van Gogh’s 1885 oil on canvas painting The Potato Eaters is one of his earliest masterpieces. The Potato Eaters is representative of Van Gogh’s earlier, more realistic works. The piece depicts a tired family of five, living in poverty and sitting around a table eating potatoes for dinner. In this painting, Van Gogh conveys the daily hardships faced by the poor, highlighted by the few potatoes for the family’s meal. Van Gogh considered The Potato Eaters one of his greatest works. However, it only gained recognition after he died. At the time, the piece was criticized by art critics for its dark colors and inaccuracies in the peasants’ anatomies. It remained in obscurity at the Van Gogh household until 1962, when it was acquired by the Foundation of Vincent Van Gogh Arles. The painting can still be seen at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Vincent Van Gogh's painting The Potato Eaters, 1885
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

The Starry Night 

Few paintings are as recognizable today as Van Gogh’s 1889 oil on canvas work The Starry Night. Van Gogh created this painting while staying in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital. It depicts the view outside of his room late at night, overlooking a valley, but with a town that Van Gogh added. The sky is dancing with spirals and various shades of blue and yellow. The Starry Night acts as a beautiful combination of reality and Van Gogh’s creative elaborations, producing an almost dream-like state with its surreal imagery. This was an exceptional break from Van Gogh’s previous representational artwork where he had painted only what he saw without taking intentional creative liberties. While some cite these artistic liberties as signs of his detachment from reality, the brushstroke work suggests that Van Gogh meticulously planned the composition in every detail. Despite the work’s fame today, Van Gogh himself saw The Starry Night as a complete failure. After his death, the painting was given to his brother Theo. The Starry Night now resides in The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

painting by Vincent Van Gogh called The Starry Night, 1889
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

Wheatfield With Crows

One of Vincent Van Gogh’s last paintings before his death was the 1890 oil on canvas Wheatfield With Crows. The painting depicts a wheatfield and dirt road near his home in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, along with numerous flying crows. Van Gogh combined the dark blue of the sky to express his feelings of sadness with the gold of the wheatfield to show his appreciation for the countryside’s’ beauty. Many critics interpreted this piece as an omen of Van Gogh’s suicide a few weeks later by pointing out the gloomy sky and the crows. Crows are seen in many cultures as symbols of death. Some people mistakenly believe that Wheatfield With Crows was Van Gogh’s last piece. However, he made several more paintings in the subsequent weeks leading up to his death. Van Gogh shot himself in the very fields where he loved to paint. Wheatfield With Crows can now be seen at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Vincent Van Gogh's painting: Wheatfield with Crows, 1890
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh’s Legacy

Although Van Gogh only painted for less than ten years, to this day he remains one of the most acclaimed and most influential artists to have ever lived. When he was alive, he was mostly known among some elite artists and art collectors in Paris and other parts of Europe. Van Gogh only began to acquire worldwide fame in 1901, nine years after his death. On March 15, 1901, many of his paintings were presented in an art show at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris, the first major showing of a collection of his art. This exhibit of his work led to Van Gogh becoming known across the globe and ultimately to his achieving iconic status as an artist.

Van Gogh’s post-impressionist style and his unique expression of both his emotions and the beauty of nature are hallmarks of his art. The vibrancy and compelling quality of Van Gogh’s post-impressionist art style has inspired many artists. In fact, countless artists joined the post-impressionist art movement influenced by Van Gogh, including American painter Stephan Duncan, who used many spiral-like forms and vivid colors in his landscape paintings. In 1973, the Vincent Van Goh Museum in Amsterdam was opened to the public. It displays many of the artist’s most famous artworks. In 1985, the Foundation Vincent Van Gogh Arles, a non-profit organization, was founded to preserve the memory of Van Gogh and to support artists who have been inspired by his artistic vision. Despite trauma and mental health issues, Van Gogh never let that stop him from expressing himself or his love of nature and its beauty through his art. His time in the world was too short and troubled. Yet, driven by talent, emotion, and passion, he found a way nonetheless to share his vision and even his pain in ways that helped inspire other artists and added to the cultural richness of the world.

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One thought on “The Life and Art of Vincent Van Gogh

  1. Van Gogh is now one of the most well-known post-Impressionist painters, although he was not widely appreciated in his lifetime.

    Vincent Van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Zundert in the southern Netherlands, the son of a pastor. In 1869, he took his first job, working in the Hague branch of an international art dealing firm. He began to write to his younger brother Theo, a correspondence which continued for the rest of Van Gogh’s life.

    Van Gogh’s job took him to London and Paris, but he was not interested in the work and was dismissed in 1876. He briefly became a teacher in England, and then, deeply interested in Christianity, a preacher in a mining community in southern Belgium.

    In 1880, at the age of 27, he decided to become an artist. He moved around, teaching himself to draw and paint and receiving financial support from Theo. In 1886, Van Gogh joined Theo in Paris, and 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. He painted a large number of self-portraits in this period.

    In 1888, Van Gogh moved to Provence in southern France, where he painted his famous series ‘Sunflowers’. He invited Gauguin to join him but they soon began to quarrel and one night, Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor. Deeply remorseful he then cut off part of his own ear.

    This was the first serious sign of the mental health problems that were to afflict Van Gogh for the rest of his life. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals and swung between periods of inertia, depression and incredibly concentrated artistic activity, his work reflecting the intense colours and strong light of the countryside around him.

    On 27 July 1890, again suffering from depression, Van Gogh shot himself. He died two days later.if you want to read some artist life story please click here

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