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.
The portrayals of the Arles landscape are informed by Van Gogh's Dutch upbringing; the patchworks of fields and avenues appear flat and lacking perspective, but excel in their use of colour. His new-found appreciation is seen in the range and scope of his work. In March 1888 he painted landscapes using a gridded "perspective frame"; three of the works were shown at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. In April, he was visited by the American artist Dodge MacKnight, who was living nearby at Fontvieille. On 1 May 1888, for 15 francs per month, he signed a lease for the eastern wing of the Yellow House at 2 place Lamartine. The rooms were unfurnished and had been uninhabited for months.
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."
Gogh, Vincent van: La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851–1930)La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851–1930), oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh, 1889; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1996, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002 (accession no. 1996.435); www.metmuseum.org
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".
Van Gogh learned about Fernand Cormon's atelier from Theo. He worked at the studio in April and May 1886, where he frequented the circle of the Australian artist John Peter Russell, who painted his portrait in 1886. Van Gogh also met fellow students Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – who painted a portrait of him in pastel. They met at Julien "Père" Tanguy's paint shop, (which was, at that time, the only place where Paul Cézanne's paintings were displayed). In 1886, two large exhibitions were staged there, showing Pointillism and Neo-impressionism for the first time, and bringing attention to Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Theo kept a stock of Impressionist paintings in his gallery on boulevard Montmartre, but Van Gogh was slow to acknowledge the new developments in art.
In 1892 Émile Bernard organised a small solo show of Van Gogh's paintings in Paris, and Julien Tanguy exhibited his Van Gogh paintings with several consigned from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. In April 1894 the Durand-Rue Gallery in Paris agreed to take 10 paintings on consignment from Van Gogh's estate. In 1896, the Fauvist painter Henri Matisse, then an unknown art student, visited John Peter Russell on Belle Île off Brittany. Russell had been a close friend of Van Gogh; he introduced Matisse to the Dutchman's work, and gave him a Van Gogh drawing. Influenced by Van Gogh, Matisse abandoned his earth-coloured palette for bright colours.
In these series, Van Gogh was not preoccupied by his usual interest in filling his paintings with subjectivity and emotion; rather the two series are intended to display his technical skill and working methods to Gauguin, who was about to visit. The 1888 paintings were created during a rare period of optimism for the artist. Vincent wrote to Theo in August 1888, "I'm painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won't surprise you when it's a question of painting large sunflowers ... If I carry out this plan there'll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it's a matter of doing the whole thing in one go."
By March 1882, Mauve appears to have gone cold towards Van Gogh, and stopped replying to his letters. He had learned of Van Gogh's new domestic arrangement with an alcoholic prostitute, Clasina Maria "Sien" Hoornik (1850–1904), and her young daughter. Van Gogh had met Sien towards the end of January 1882, when she had a five-year-old daughter and was pregnant. She had previously borne two children who died, but Van Gogh was unaware of this; on 2 July, she gave birth to a baby boy, Willem. When Van Gogh's father discovered the details of their relationship, he put pressure on his son to abandon Sien and her two children. Vincent at first defied him, and considered moving the family out of the city, but in late 1883, he left Sien and the children.
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Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 into a Dutch Reformed family in Groot-Zundert, in the predominantly Catholic province of North Brabant in the southern Netherlands. He was the oldest surviving child of Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. Van Gogh was given the name of his grandfather, and of a brother stillborn exactly a year before his birth.[note 2] Vincent was a common name in the Van Gogh family: his grandfather, Vincent (1789–1874), who received a degree in theology at the University of Leiden in 1811, had six sons, three of whom became art dealers. This Vincent may have been named after his own great-uncle, a sculptor (1729–1802).
Van Gogh stayed within what he called the "guise of reality", and was critical of overly stylised works. He wrote afterwards that the abstraction of Starry Night had gone too far and that reality had "receded too far in the background". Hughes describes it as a moment of extreme visionary ecstasy: the stars are in a great whirl, reminiscent of Hokusai's Great Wave, the movement in the heaven above is reflected by the movement of the cypress on the earth below, and the painter's vision is "translated into a thick, emphatic plasma of paint".
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Theo criticised The Potato Eaters for its dark palette, which he thought unsuitable for a modern style. During Van Gogh's stay in Paris between 1886 and 1887, he tried to master a new, lighter palette. His Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887) shows his success with the brighter palette, and is evidence of an evolving personal style. Charles Blanc's treatise on colour interested him greatly, and led him to work with complementary colours. Van Gogh came to believe that the effect of colour went beyond the descriptive; he said that "colour expresses something in itself". According to Hughes, Van Gogh perceived colour as having a "psychological and moral weight", as exemplified in the garish reds and greens of The Night Cafe, a work he wanted to "express the terrible passions of humanity". Yellow meant the most to him, because it symbolised emotional truth. He used yellow as a symbol for sunlight, life, and God.
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.
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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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.
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.