The most comprehensive primary source on Van Gogh is the correspondence between him and his younger brother, Theo. Their lifelong friendship, and most of what is known of Vincent's thoughts and theories of art, are recorded in the hundreds of letters they exchanged from 1872 until 1890. Theo van Gogh was an art dealer and provided his brother with financial and emotional support, and access to influential people on the contemporary art scene.
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.
There was interest from a dealer in Paris early in 1885. Theo asked Vincent if he had paintings ready to exhibit. In May, Van Gogh responded with his first major work, The Potato Eaters, and a series of "peasant character studies" which were the culmination of several years of work. When he complained that Theo was not making enough effort to sell his paintings in Paris, his brother responded that they were too dark, and not in keeping with the bright style of Impressionism. In August his work was publicly exhibited for the first time, in the shop windows of the dealer Leurs in The Hague. One of his young peasant sitters became pregnant in September 1885; Van Gogh was accused of forcing himself upon her, and the village priest forbade parishioners to model for him.
Gogh, Vincent van: Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant)Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant), oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh, 1889; in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. 73.66 × 92.07 cm.Photograph by Jenny O'Donnell. Indianapolis Museum of Art, gift of Mrs James W. Fesler in memory of Daniel W. and Elizabeth C. Marmon, 44.74
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Between 1885 and his death in 1890, Van Gogh appears to have been building an oeuvre, a collection that reflected his personal vision, and could be commercially successful. He was influenced by Blanc's definition of style, that a true painting required optimal use of colour, perspective and brushstrokes. Van Gogh applied the word "purposeful" to paintings he thought he had mastered, as opposed to those he thought of as studies. He painted many series of studies; most of which were still lifes, many executed as colour experiments or as gifts to friends. The work in Arles contributed considerably to his oeuvre: those he thought the most important from that time were The Sower, Night Cafe, Memory of the Garden in Etten and Starry Night. With their broad brushstrokes, inventive perspectives, colours, contours and designs, these paintings represent the style he sought.
Van Gogh stayed there for 12 months, haunted by recurrent attacks, alternating between moods of calm and despair, and working intermittently: The Starry Night, Garden of the Asylum, Cypresses, Olive Trees, Les Alpilles, portraits of doctors, and interpretations of paintings by Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Millet date from this period. The keynote of this phase (1889–90) is fear of losing touch with reality, as well as a certain sadness. Confined for long periods to his cell or the asylum garden, having no choice of subjects, and realizing that his inspiration depended on direct observation, van Gogh fought against having to work from memory. At Saint-Rémy he muted the vivid, sun-drenched colours of the previous summer and tried to make his painting more calm. As he repressed his excitement, however, he involved himself more imaginatively in the drama of the elements, developing a style based on dynamic forms and a vigorous use of line (he often equated line with colour). The best of his Saint-Rémy pictures are thus bolder and more visionary than those of Arles.
On 27 July 1890, aged 37, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. There were no witnesses and he died 30 hours after the incident. The shooting may have taken place in the wheat field in which he had been painting, or a local barn. The bullet was deflected by a rib and passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal organs – probably stopped by his spine. He was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux, where he was attended to by two doctors, but without a surgeon present the bullet could not be removed. The doctors tended to him as best they could, then left him alone in his room, smoking his pipe. The following morning Theo rushed to his brother's side, finding him in good spirits. But within hours Vincent began to fail, suffering from an untreated infection resulting from the wound. He died in the early hours of 29 July. According to Theo, Vincent's last words were: "The sadness will last forever".
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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Many of the late paintings are sombre but essentially optimistic and, right up to the time of Van Gogh's death, reflect his desire to return to lucid mental health. Yet some of his final works reflect his deepening concerns. Writing in July 1890, from Auvers, Van Gogh said that he had become absorbed "in the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow".
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In Paris in 1901 a large Van Gogh retrospective was held at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, which excited André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, and contributed to the emergence of Fauvism. Important group exhibitions took place with the Sonderbund artists in Cologne in 1912, the Armory Show, New York in 1913, and Berlin in 1914. Henk Bremmer was instrumental in teaching and talking about Van Gogh, and introduced Helene Kröller-Müller to Van Gogh's art; she became an avid collector of his work. The early figures in German Expressionism such as Emil Nolde acknowledged a debt to Van Gogh's work. Bremmer assisted Jacob Baart de la Faille, whose catalogue raisonné L'Oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh appeared in 1928.[note 15]
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Van Gogh moved to Paris in March 1886 where he shared Theo's rue Laval apartment in Montmartre, and studied at Fernand Cormon's studio. In June the brothers took a larger flat at 54 rue Lepic. In Paris, Vincent painted portraits of friends and acquaintances, still life paintings, views of Le Moulin de la Galette, scenes in Montmartre, Asnières and along the Seine. In 1885 in Antwerp he had become interested in Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and had used them to decorate the walls of his studio; while in Paris he collected hundreds of them. He tried his hand at Japonaiserie, tracing a figure from a reproduction on the cover of the magazine Paris Illustre, The Courtesan or Oiran (1887), after Keisai Eisen, which he then graphically enlarged in a painting.
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Van Gogh himself brought this period to an end. Oppressed by homesickness—he painted souvenirs of Holland—and loneliness, he longed to see Theo and the north once more and arrived in Paris in May 1890. Four days later he went to stay with a homeopathic doctor-artist, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a friend of Pissarro and Paul Cézanne, at Auvers-sur-Oise. Back in a village community such as he had not known since Nuenen, four years earlier, van Gogh worked at first enthusiastically; his choice of subjects such as fields of corn, the river valley, peasants’ cottages, the church, and the town hall reflects his spiritual relief. A modification of his style followed: the natural forms in his paintings became less contorted, and in the northern light he adopted cooler, fresh tonalities. His brushwork became broader and more expressive and his vision of nature more lyrical. Everything in these pictures seems to be moving, living. This phase was short, however, and ended in quarrels with Gachet and feelings of guilt at his financial dependence on Theo (now married and with a son) and his inability to succeed.
His artistic career was extremely short, lasting only the 10 years from 1880 to 1890. During the first four years of this period, while acquiring technical proficiency, he confined himself almost entirely to drawings and watercolours. First, he went to study drawing at the Brussels Academy; in 1881 he moved to his father’s parsonage at Etten, Netherlands, and began to work from nature.
While in Asnières Van Gogh painted parks, restaurants and the Seine, including Bridges across the Seine at Asnières. In November 1887, Theo and Vincent befriended Paul Gauguin who had just arrived in Paris. Towards the end of the year, Vincent arranged an exhibition alongside Bernard, Anquetin, and probably Toulouse-Lautrec, at the Grand-Bouillon Restaurant du Chalet, 43 avenue de Clichy, Montmartre. In a contemporary account, Bernard wrote that the exhibition was ahead of anything else in Paris. There Bernard and Anquetin sold their first paintings, and Van Gogh exchanged work with Gauguin. Discussions on art, artists, and their social situations started during this exhibition, continued and expanded to include visitors to the show, like Camille Pissarro and his son Lucien, Signac and Seurat. In February 1888, feeling worn out from life in Paris, Van Gogh left, having painted more than 200 paintings during his two years there. Hours before his departure, accompanied by Theo, he paid his first and only visit to Seurat in his studio.
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Largely on the basis of the works of the last three years of his life, van Gogh is generally considered one of the greatest Dutch painters of all time. His work exerted a powerful influence on the development of much modern painting, in particular on the works of the Fauve painters, Chaim Soutine, and the German Expressionists. Yet of the more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings that constitute his life’s work, he sold only one in his lifetime. Always desperately poor, he was sustained by his faith in the urgency of what he had to communicate and by the generosity of Theo, who believed in him implicitly. The letters that he wrote to Theo from 1872 onward, and to other friends, give such a vivid account of his aims and beliefs, his hopes and disappointments, and his fluctuating physical and mental state that they form a unique and touching biographical record that is also a great human document.
Mauve took Van Gogh on as a student and introduced him to watercolour, which he worked on for the next month before returning home for Christmas. He quarrelled with his father, refusing to attend church, and left for The Hague.[note 5] Within a month Van Gogh and Mauve fell out, possibly over the viability of drawing from plaster casts. Van Gogh could afford to hire only people from the street as models, a practice of which Mauve seems to have disapproved. In June Van Gogh suffered a bout of gonorrhoea and spent three weeks in hospital. Soon after, he first painted in oils, bought with money borrowed from Theo. He liked the medium, and spread the paint liberally, scraping from the canvas and working back with the brush. He wrote that he was surprised at how good the results were.
Born into an upper-middle-class family, Van Gogh drew as a child and was serious, quiet and thoughtful. As a young man he worked as an art dealer, often travelling, but became depressed after he was transferred to London. He turned to religion and spent time as a Protestant missionary in southern Belgium. He drifted in ill health and solitude before taking up painting in 1881, having moved back home with his parents. His younger brother Theo supported him financially, and the two kept up a long correspondence by letter. His early works, mostly still lifes and depictions of peasant labourers, contain few signs of the vivid colour that distinguished his later work. In 1886, he moved to Paris, where he met members of the avant-garde, including Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, who were reacting against the Impressionist sensibility. As his work developed he created a new approach to still lifes and local landscapes. His paintings grew brighter in colour as he developed a style that became fully realised during his stay in Arles in the south of France in 1888. During this period he broadened his subject matter to include series of olive trees, wheat fields and sunflowers.
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Categories: Vincent van Gogh1853 births1890 deathsDutch male paintersDutch landscape paintersDutch still life paintersFlower artistsPost-impressionist paintersDutch people with disabilitiesDutch ProtestantsPainters who committed suicidePeople from ZundertPeople with borderline personality disorderDutch ChristiansDutch expatriates in BelgiumDutch expatriates in FranceDutch expatriates in the United KingdomRoyal Academy of Fine Arts (Antwerp) alumniSuicides by firearm in FrancePeople of MontmartreMale suicidesAcadémie Royale des Beaux-Arts alumni
During his last weeks, at Saint-Rémy, his thoughts returned to "memories of the North", and several of the approximately 70 oils, painted during as many days in Auvers-sur-Oise, are reminiscent of northern scenes. In June 1890, he painted several portraits of his doctor, including Portrait of Dr Gachet, and his only etching. In each the emphasis is on Gachet's melancholic disposition. There are other paintings which are probably unfinished, including Thatched Cottages by a Hill.
In 1957 Francis Bacon based a series of paintings on reproductions of Van Gogh's The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, the original of which was destroyed during the Second World War. Bacon was inspired by an image he described as "haunting", and regarded Van Gogh as an alienated outsider, a position which resonated with him. Bacon identified with Van Gogh's theories of art and quoted lines written to Theo: "[R]eal painters do not paint things as they are ... [T]hey paint them as they themselves feel them to be."
The name of van Gogh was virtually unknown when he killed himself: only one article about him had appeared during his lifetime. He had exhibited a few canvases at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris between 1888 and 1890 and in Brussels in 1890; both salons showed small commemorative groups of his work in 1891. One-man shows of his work did not occur until 1892.