Art is and does many things. It chronicles history, shows culture, and provides insight into artists. Despite the vast number of artists, there are only a few who hold consumers’ attention long after their death. Included with artists like Michelangelo and da Vinci, is Vincent van Gogh. From novels like Lust for Life to an episode of Doctor Who, the general masses remain fascinated with the man who is known for such talent and for cutting off his own ear.
Who is Vincent van Gogh?
Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, to Theodorus van Gogh, a Protestant minister, and Ann Carbentus. He grew up with three sisters and two brothers. The family went on frequent walks that helped develop the love of nature present in van Gogh's art. At sixteen, van Gogh’s uncle helped him find a job at Goupil & Cie, an international art dealer, as a trainee. After being transferred to London, van Gogh expanded his interest in art by visiting the British Museum and National Gallery to see the work of artists he admired.
He was transferred back to Paris in 1875 and was becoming less and less satisfied with his career. In 1876, he was dismissed from his position and spent the next four years bouncing from job to job trying to find his calling. Eventually, in 1880, his brother Theo suggested Vincent focus on his drawing. Van Gogh moved to Brussels and began working on his techniques and meeting other artists.
While trying to make a career as an artist—a choice his parents disagreed with—Vincent was supported financially by Theo. Compounding his worsening relationship with his parents, van Gogh fell in love with his cousin, Kee Vos-Stricker, a widow who did not return his feelings. The whole relationship debacle caused him to leave his parents house and move to the Hague. While there, he started taking art lessons with his cousin, Anton Mauve, but still felt his drawing was lacking. After using commissioned drawings to improve his perspective, van Gogh learned watercolor and oil painting from Mauve. Van Gogh had a short fling with Sien Hoornik, a former prostitute, but, remaining unlucky in love, he ended the relationship when it did not work out the way he had hoped.
Van Gogh traveled to the Drenthe where he was inspired by the landscape. After three months, he moved to his parents’ home. The village proved to be a good environment for his art, allowing him to use the villagers as his subjects. He started giving Theo his completed works in exchange for his allowance, with Theo, theoretically, selling the paintings in Paris. But his art was too dark for Paris' preoccupation with colors.
Van Gogh, after his father’s death in 1885, moved to Antwerp to attend the academy of art; however, he found the classes too traditional for his tastes. As a result, he moved to Paris to take lessons at Fernand Cormon’s studio. During this time, van Gogh was inspired to abandon darker color palettes in favor of lighter, brighter works.
Two years later, growing tired of Paris’ city life, van Gogh moved to the South of France to Arles. He started to plan an artists’ colony of sorts with Theo selling the work produced. His plans started and ended with Paul Gauguin, the only artist to move in with van Gogh. They worked well together, yet their different views on art—with Gauguin preferring to work from memory and van Gogh painting what he could see—caused them to have many heated discussions. Van Gogh’s mental health started to suffer. He cut off part of his ear, and Gauguin left.
In 1889, he voluntarily admitted himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital. During his year at the hospital, van Gogh completed approximately 150 paintings. In May of 1890, he left the mental hospital and moved north to Auvers-sur-Oise where he was treated by a doctor named Paul Gachet. Van Gogh dedicated himself completely to his work, completing nearly a work a day. Despite his apparent improvement of health, van Gogh shot himself in the chest on July 27, 1890, dying two days later.
Van Gogh's Artist Background and Style
Van Gogh, mostly self-taught, started his artistic training by copying prints and studying drawing manuals and lesson books. He began teaching himself figure drawing and perspective, focusing on mastering black and white before moving on to using color. When he moved to the Hague, he received formal instruction from Anton Mauve, his cousin. Van Gogh started experimenting with watercolor and oil painting, earning his first wage as an artist when his uncle commissioned two townscapes.
Admiring the Barbizon artists, van Gogh started painting scenes of rural life. His art saw a marked transformation during his stay in Paris when he was first introduced to the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, causing van Gogh to lighten his color palette and experiment with brushstrokes, developing his own style of short strokes. His focus on rural life found in his early work evolved into sites found in the city, floral still lifes, and the countryside by the Seine.
Moving to the south of France, he became inspired by the light and colors found in nature and continued to experiment with different techniques and styles, including that of the Japanese prints he collected. He continued to paint landscapes and still lifes, often imitating other painters while retaining his own interpretation of the work.