Van Gogh drew, and painted with watercolours while at school, but only a few examples survive and the authorship of some has been challenged. When he took up art as an adult, he began at an elementary level. In early 1882, his uncle, Cornelis Marinus, owner of a well-known gallery of contemporary art in Amsterdam, asked for drawings of The Hague. Van Gogh's work did not live up to expectations. Marinus offered a second commission, specifying the subject matter in detail, but was again disappointed with the result. Van Gogh persevered; he experimented with lighting in his studio using variable shutters, and with different drawing materials. For more than a year he worked on single figures – highly elaborate studies in black and white,[note 11] which at the time gained him only criticism. Later, they were recognised as early masterpieces.
Van Gogh had no recollection of the event, suggesting that he may have suffered an acute mental breakdown. The hospital diagnosis was "acute mania with generalised delirium", and within a few days the local police ordered that he be placed in hospital care. Gauguin immediately notified Theo, who on 24 December had proposed marriage to his old friend Andries Bonger's sister Johanna. That evening Theo rushed to the station to board a night train to Arles. He arrived on Christmas Day and comforted Vincent, who seemed to be semi-lucid. That evening he left Arles for the return trip to Paris.
Van Gogh worked for Goupil in London from 1873 to May 1875 and in Paris from that date until April 1876. Daily contact with works of art aroused his artistic sensibility, and he soon formed a taste for Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and other Dutch masters, although his preference was for two contemporary French painters, Jean-François Millet and Camille Corot, whose influence was to last throughout his life. Van Gogh disliked art dealing. Moreover, his approach to life darkened when his love was rejected by a London girl in 1874. His burning desire for human affection thwarted, he became increasingly solitary. He worked as a language teacher and lay preacher in England and, in 1877, worked for a bookseller in Dordrecht, Netherlands. Impelled by a longing to serve humanity, he envisaged entering the ministry and took up theology; however, he abandoned this project in 1878 for short-term training as an evangelist in Brussels. A conflict with authority ensued when he disputed the orthodox doctrinal approach. Failing to get an appointment after three months, he left to do missionary work among the impoverished population of the Borinage, a coal-mining region in southwestern Belgium. There, in the winter of 1879–80, he experienced the first great spiritual crisis of his life. Living among the poor, he gave away all his worldly goods in an impassioned moment; he was thereupon dismissed by church authorities for a too-literal interpretation of Christian teaching.
"People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either. The portraits painted by Rembrandt are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation,” he later wrote to his brother. The works are now displayed in museums around the world, including in Washington, D.C., Paris, New York and Amsterdam.
Theo died in January 1891, removing Vincent's most vocal and well-connected champion. Theo's widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger was a Dutchwoman in her twenties who had not known either her husband or her brother-in law very long and who suddenly had to take care of several hundreds of paintings, letters and drawings, as well as her infant son, Vincent Willem van Gogh.[note 14] Gauguin was not inclined to offer assistance in promoting Van Gogh's reputation, and Johanna's brother Andries Bonger also seemed lukewarm about his work. Aurier, one of Van Gogh's earliest supporters among the critics, died of typhoid fever in 1892 at the age of twenty-seven.
In Nuenen, Van Gogh focused on painting and drawing. Working outside and very quickly, he completed sketches and paintings of weavers and their cottages. From August 1884, Margot Begemann, a neighbour's daughter ten years his senior, joined him on his forays; she fell in love and he reciprocated, though less enthusiastically. They wanted to marry, but neither side of their families were in favour. Margot was distraught and took an overdose of strychnine, but survived after Van Gogh rushed her to a nearby hospital. On 26 March 1885, his father died of a heart attack.
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Van Gogh's stylistic developments are usually linked to the periods he spent living in different places across Europe. He was inclined to immerse himself in local cultures and lighting conditions, although he maintained a highly individual visual outlook throughout. His evolution as an artist was slow, and he was aware of his painterly limitations. He moved home often, perhaps to expose himself to new visual stimuli, and through exposure develop his technical skill. Art historian Melissa McQuillan believes the moves also reflect later stylistic changes, and that Van Gogh used the moves to avoid conflict, and as a coping mechanism for when the idealistic artist was faced with the realities of his then current situation.
Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime, and was considered a madman and a failure. He became famous after his suicide, and exists in the public imagination as the quintessential misunderstood genius, the artist "where discourses on madness and creativity converge". His reputation began to grow in the early 20th century as elements of his painting style came to be incorporated by the Fauves and German Expressionists. He attained widespread critical, commercial and popular success over the ensuing decades, and is remembered as an important but tragic painter, whose troubled personality typifies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist. Today, Van Gogh's works are among the world's most expensive paintings to have ever sold at auction, and his legacy is honoured by a museum in his name, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which holds the world's largest collection of his paintings and drawings.