Vincent van Gogh. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Probably either (one of) his world-famous paintings ‘The Starry Night’, or the fact that he cut off his own ear. This “incident” happened in 1888 and marks the beginning of his mental illness journey. Some call it depression, others bipolar disorder. Either way, it plagued him for the rest of his days, and even shaped his art.
Yes, he is often portrayed as the misunderstood, and even “crazy” artist, but if you take a closer look, you will find a hardworking, dedicated, and deeply religious man. Van Gogh found his place and his passion, maybe even his life’s purpose in art. He produced deeply emotional, captivating, and thought-provoking works over the course of only one decade.
Who was he?
Van Gogh was born on the 30th of March 1853 in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands. His first encounter with art was through his uncle, who was an art dealer in Den Haag. In 1873, he had to go on a business trip to London for his uncle. To say the least, it was chaotic. He fell in love with his host’s daughter. She did not reciprocate his feelings, and to put the cherry on top, his uncle was no longer his boss, but his successor fired van Gogh even before he returned.
Plagued by unemployment, Vincent decided to stay in London. He had to live in the ghetto since he did not earn enough money to afford anything else. He suffered very much under his circumstances and was on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown. To prevent the worst from happening, he decided to move back to live with his parents and to start studying theology. He was a very religious man, but noticed he had a very different perspective on God and religion, which is why he shortly thereafter quit his studies.
After quitting his studies, he moved to Borinage in Belgium to become an itinerant preacher. Again, he quit his new job and moved back to his parents. This is when he decided to dedicate his life to art.
Home to Arles
Van Gogh produced his first significant works of art during the upcoming time. However, his peace did not last very long, and he had a bad fight with his parents which led to him leaving his home for over three years. His brother Theo decided to help, and take him in. After years had passed, he reconciliated with his parents only shortly before his father died in 1885.
After his father’s death, Vincent moved to Paris. Paris was (and still is) a metropolitan city when it comes to art, which is why he was in great hopes of success. Unfortunately, his hopes weren’t met, and he only experienced mild success. He got very mad and was in great distress, which led to him devoting himself to drinking. However, he did establish some connections with other artists in the industry.
In 1888, he moved to Arles, which is a town in Southern France. His wish was to create an artist colony with Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh befriended Gauguin in Paris and they bonded quickly. What started off so sweet also found a quick ending: a few weeks after starting their journey in Arles, they began to fight more and more. Supposedly, during one fight, van Gogh allegedly approached his friend with a knife, but did not harm him.
However, he harmed himself. Yes, that’s right, this was the infamous moment in which he cut off his right ear. The two broke off and went their own separate ways, which ended in Vincent admitting himself to St. Rémy, a mental asylum. During one year in St. Rémy, the Dutchman created over 160 oil paintings and drawings.
Life in St. Rémy
Although being in a mental hospital, he was treated differently from other patients. Van Gogh had two cells, while others only had one. He used his spare cell as a studio to paint. Additionally, he was allowed short, supervised walks during which he could gather inspiration for upcoming works. However, he still only had limited access to outside life, which is why he complained about a shortage of subject matter. This fact led to him working on interpretations of other artists’ paintings and variations of his own works.
Between February and April of 1890, he suffered a severe relapse. Vincent was depressed and unable to bring himself to write any letters, which he usually did very frequently. Yet, he was still able to paint and draw a little. Experts claim that during this short period, his works were affected by his mental state for the first and last time.
Van Gogh even had to ask his mother and brother to send him drawings and some of his rough sketches so he could work out new paintings with the inspiration of his old ones.
Camille Pissarro, who was one of his friends, invited him to come to Auvers-sur-Oise, which is a town northwest of Paris. Van Gogh accepted and moved there in 1890. He underwent treatment there as well, but nothing significantly bettered his mental state. During one of his walks near Auvers, he was critically injured with a pistol. He did reach his home on his own, but died two days later, July 29, 1890, of blood poisoning. The little time he had in Auvers is one of his most intense creative periods. He supposedly created 70 paintings in 70 days. According to his brother, Theo, his last words were: “The sadness will last forever.”
The striking thing is, he considered “The Starry Night”, one of the most famous artworks in history, a failure. He claimed he was “led astray by reaching stars that are too big. Another failure and I have had my fill of that”. This fact is very important since it opens our eyes to the kind of person Vincent van Gogh really was.
He ended his life right when he finally made a name for himself, and his career started taking off, and maybe right when his life was about to change.
Van Gogh’s style
“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly”. There might be no better line to sum up what van Gogh tried to achieve with his art and what he tried to express. He tried to express his emotions, and make the observer feel as well.
He was a unique artist and worked with a great sense of urgency, which sometimes even made his stress levels even worse. Meanwhile, he was very methodical, he knew his materials and tools very well and thought out all of his work thoroughly. Van Gogh was a very purposeful person, and it becomes obvious in his art. His most famous trait probably was his dramatic, big brush strokes, wanting to express emotions and movement.
During his time in Paris, he got in touch with impressionism and neo-impressionism. Meaning, shorter brush strokes, matching colors, and a liberal use of paint. He started using brighter colors himself and loosened his brushwork. Retrospectively, he created a new style, called post-impressionism.
Since van Gogh is considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time, he has many world-famous artworks. He had a profound impact on the art of the 20th century, and is an inspiration for countless people worldwide.
The Potato Eaters, 1885
‘The Potato Eaters’, which was one of van Gogh’s first paintings, portrays a village peasant family in their natural setting. He did not want them to pose in any specific way, he wanted it to be real. Vincent meticulously planned this painting because he wanted it to be displayed at the Paris Salon. However, it did not achieve success during his time on earth, which made him very disappointed.
The potato eaters is on display in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
‘Sunflowers’ is a series of still life paintings. Van Gogh painted the first one in Paris, and the second one in Arles. The second was supposed to serve as a welcoming gift to Paul Gauguin and was put to hang above his bed in Arles.
The various paintings can be seen in the National Gallery in London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.
Café terrace at night, 1888
The ‘Café Terrace at Night’ was one of van Gogh’s first paintings in Arles. And although he never signed it, it is obvious that it was one of his works. He set up an easel outdoors and painted in the evening hours to get the artwork as perfect as possible. The way it is painted seems as if he took it as a practice for impressionists in Paris. However, he did not paint it as realistic as he could have. Rather than that, he expressed his emotions. In this case: excitement and pleasure. The café is still running today and is now named Café van Gogh.
The painting can be admired in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Amsterdam.
The Bedroom, 1888
There are three versions of this scene. The scene being van Gogh’s simple bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles. The different versions are distinguishable due to varying pictures on the wall of the bedroom. He applied no rules of perspective, but rather resembled a Japanese print with a more flattened appearance.
The different paintings can be seen in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
The Starry Night, 1889
‘The Starry Night’ isn’t just one of van Gogh’s most famous paintings, it is one of the most recognizable ones worldwide. It is reproduced onto quite literally anything and everything from coffee mugs to tapestries to T-Shirts.
Van Gogh painted this work during his time in St. Rémy immediately after his severe mental breakdown and in the midst of him being suicidal. It is a whimsical and emotionally loaded interpretation of the view from his cell. The swirls represent his emotional turbulence, and his use of a darker color palette possibly represents his darkened mood.
You can admire this world-famous painting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
‘Irises’ was painted in the garden of St. Rémy. Van Gogh was fairly proud of what he had achieved and sent them to Theo, who submitted them to the Societé des Artistes Independants in 1889. Along with this painting, he submitted The Starry Night over the Rhone. They got declined, just like most of his work during his days alive.
In 1987, the painting was sold at a Sotheby’s Auction for the incredible price of 53.9$ million, which was the highest price for any painting ever.
Nowadays, you can look at the painting at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Wheatfields with crows, 1890
The ‘Wheatfields with Crows’ was one of his last paintings and was drawn during his last few weeks in Auvers-sur-Oise. Van Gogh painted different versions of it, but this one might just be the most dramatic one. There are several different interpretations. Are crows a symbol of death? Or of freedom? Are the turbulent skies a symbol of despair? These are only some of the questions we will never get an answer to. However, we do know that only 17 days after finishing this work, he shot himself in the chest in the same exact wheatfield.
It is to be seen in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890
After leaving St. Rémy, van Gogh moved into a house with Dr. Paul Gachet. Camille Pissarro recommended Gachet because he supposedly had a particular interest in treating artists. Van Gogh drew three portraits of him, but this one portrays him as a heartbroken man. He thought that the doctor was as “crazy” as him. In one of his letters to his brother Theo he wrote:” he certainly seems to be suffering as seriously as I”.
One of the three was sold in 1990 at an auction in New York for unbelievable 82.5$ million to a private art collector. Another one remains in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and the last one was a present to Camille Pissarro.
Almond Blossom, 1890
Van Gogh started painting ‘Almond Blossom’ right when he heard the news that his brother Theo and his wife Jo had given birth to a baby boy. The two even named him after van Gogh himself. “As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you”. To Vincent, almond blossoms represent all that is good in the world; beauty, renewal, hope, optimism. Painting flowers and flowering trees filled him with joy.
You can see ‘Almond Blossom’ in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
At Eternity’s Gate, 1890
‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is a sorrow-filled painting which the artist painted during his time in St. Rémy and based on his earlier lithography. The sorrowful person in the painting might be a reflection of his own mental state, and considering him being in a mental hospital, chances are high. The title shows that he held tight onto his faith in God and eternity, even during his darkest periods.
You can find this painting in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Amsterdam.
Self Portrait, 1889
This self-portrait is one of his final ones. The hallucinatory swirling patterns remind the observer of ‘The Starry Night’, and again, might represent his emotional turbulence and the pressure he felt he was under. Although his brother Theo supported him financially, he didn’t have the money to pay for models to sit down for hours at a time. He decided to paint himself instead. “I hope you will notice that my facial expressions have become much calmer, although my eyes have the same insecure look as before, or so it appears to me.”
The Self Portrait can be found in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
Feature image credit: Alina Grubnyak / Unsplash