I have a terrible need of -- dare I say the word? -- religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars...
- Vincent van Gogh, Arles, 1888
Everybody knows Vincent van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890). Well, almost everyone. Even if they don't know his artworks, they know the name. Since the 1960s, perhaps earlier, young people have taken Vincent to heart. He has had a hit pop song written about him (Vincent - also known as Starry,Starry Night by Don McLean), as well as a piece of classical music (Timbres, Espace, Mouvement, by Henri Dutilleux, also inspired by Vincent's painting Starry Night). There have been several films of his life. And Playhouse Disney uses Vincent's paintings more than any other artist in their children's program Little Einsteins. Books of letters between him and his brother Theo have sold in the millions. Why has he become a cultural phenomena? Perhaps there is something in his works that modern men and women relate to. Perhaps it is his sad life or the words he writes to his brother and the love the two of them had for each other.
What would Vincent make of all this. I think he would be bewildered by it, not quite understanding it.
Vincent lived in abject poverty his whole adult life. If it wasn't for his brother Theo, he never would have lived as long as he did. Everything he tried was a failure. Often he undermined his own success. He worked as an art dealer, book clerk, teacher, and preacher. He tried to study theology. He felt his calling was in the ministry, his father's calling. Eventually he obtained a position as a missionary in a coal-mining district in Borinage, Belgium. Here he felt he should live like those he preached to, sleeping on straw. He was dismissed by church authorities and returned to the Netherlands to his parents but the conflict between him and his father forced him to leave. He returned to Borinage and bordered with a local baker. It was at this time he began to draw. By 1880 he had taken up art as his profession and went to Brussels to study art.
He returned to the Netherlands where he was constantly sketching,
his surroundings, his neighbors, bird's nests. In 1885 he produced his first major work, The Potato Eaters.
He wanted to show people behaving naturally,
not posed. There are a lot of subtle details, the rafters, the pouring of coffee, lines in the window, etc. Vincent had planned out this painting for at least 2 years. He had hoped that it would make his name. It was not successful nor was it accepted by the Salon. Today it is considered his first great painting.
In late 1885 he moved to Antwerp. There he discovered the works of Peter Paul Rubens and also Japanese painting. He began to study color theory. He also began to drink heavily and his health began to deteriorate.
In 1886 he moved to Paris. He saw Impressionist painting for the first time as well as Neo Impressionist - Seurat, for example. Vincent began to adopt some of the pointillism style, juxaposing complementary colors (i.e. blue and orange) to form vibrant contrasts.
In November of 1887 he met and befriended the artist Paul Gaughin (he's the one who went to Tahiti). Then in February 1888 he arrived in Arles. He asked Gaughin to come down and stay. The landscapes were beautiful, the light perfect for an artist. But by the end of the year their friendship had come apart and Vincent was showing signs of a mental breakdown. It was at this time, after Gaughin left, that he cut off his ear. There are several different versions of what happened. Some say that it was actually Gaughin who cut off the ear. Whatever happened, Vincent spent several days in critical condition .
In May 1889 Van Gogh had himself committed to a hospital in Saint-Remy, about 20 miles from Arles. It was here that he painted Starry Night. He started getting recognition and respect from his fellow artists. His works were displayed in several avant-garde exhibitions.
In May 1890 he went to Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris where he was closer to his brother, who was now married. But he depression deepened and in July 1890 he walked out into a field and shot himself, dying 2 days later. Theo's grief overwhelmed him and he died 6 months later.
There are many theories about the state of his health.* Some say he was epiliptic, others say he had a brain disorder.
Vincent's paintings are often turbulent, swirls of color moving about. The sun, the stars are brilliant lights moving around the sky. Cypresses that seem to be crawling up the painting.
Vincent sold one painting in his lifetime - The Red Vineyards of Arles. Today his paintings are sold for millions of dollars.
* This article has a section at towards the bottom of the page about his health.
An aside - in November 2004 a dutch filmmaker was assassinated by a Muslim extremist because of a 10 minute made by this filmmaker. Called Submission, it was about the violent treatment of women in some Islamic countries. The name of this film maker was Theo Van Gogh, great -grandson of Vincent's brother
Paintings below: (Left top) Red Vineyards of Arles (1888); (right) one of the many self-portraits he did. (bottom left) Starry Night (1889); (right) Cypresses (1889)