Van Gogh's works are among the world's most expensive paintings. Those sold for over US$100 million (today's equivalent) include Portrait of Dr Gachet, Portrait of Joseph Roulin and Irises. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's version of Wheat Field with Cypresses was acquired in 1993 for US$57 million. In 2015 L'Allée des Alyscamps sold for US$66.3 million at Sotheby's, New York, exceeding its reserve of US$40 million.
Van Gogh, the eldest of six children of a Protestant pastor, was born and reared in a small village in the Brabant region of the southern Netherlands. He was a quiet, self-contained youth, spending his free time wandering the countryside to observe nature. At 16 he was apprenticed to The Hague branch of the art dealers Goupil and Co., of which his uncle was a partner.
During this period Van Gogh mastered the use of light by subjugating shadows and painting the trees as if they are the source of light – almost in a sacred manner. Early the following year he painted another smaller group of orchards, including View of Arles, Flowering Orchards. Van Gogh was enthralled by the landscape and vegetation of the south of France, and often visited the farm gardens near Arles. In the vivid light of the Mediterranean climate his palette significantly brightened.
Penniless and feeling that his faith was destroyed, he sank into despair and withdrew from everyone. “They think I’m a madman,” he told an acquaintance, “because I wanted to be a true Christian. They turned me out like a dog, saying that I was causing a scandal.” It was then that van Gogh began to draw seriously, thereby discovering in 1880 his true vocation as an artist. Van Gogh decided that his mission from then on would be to bring consolation to humanity through art. “I want to give the wretched a brotherly message,” he explained to his brother Theo. “When I sign [my paintings] ‘Vincent,’ it is as one of them.” This realization of his creative powers restored his self-confidence.
In April 1876 he returned to England to take unpaid work as a supply teacher in a small boarding school in Ramsgate. When the proprietor moved to Isleworth in Middlesex, Van Gogh went with him. The arrangement did not work out and he left to become a Methodist minister's assistant. His parents had meanwhile moved to Etten; in 1876 he returned home at Christmas for six months and took work at a bookshop in Dordrecht. He was unhappy in the position and spent his time doodling or translating passages from the Bible into English, French and German. He immersed himself in religion, and became increasingly pious and monastic. According to his flatmate of the time, Paulus van Görlitz, Van Gogh ate frugally, avoiding meat.
Theo kept all of Vincent's letters to him; Vincent kept few of the letters he received. After both had died, Theo's widow Johanna arranged for the publication of some of their letters. A few appeared in 1906 and 1913; the majority were published in 1914. Vincent's letters are eloquent and expressive and have been described as having a "diary-like intimacy", and read in parts like autobiography. The translator Arnold Pomerans wrote that their publication adds a "fresh dimension to the understanding of Van Gogh's artistic achievement, an understanding granted us by virtually no other painter".