The Story of French Impressionism, Part XIII: Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) (pronounced either: “go” or “goff” or “gah”) was actually a Dutch artist, though he was certainly part of the extent group of French Post-Impressionists.

A head and shoulders portrait of a thirty something man, with a red beard, facing to the leftSelf-Portrait (1887) -one of many self-portraits he completed in his lifetime. He was an incredibly prolific artist, creating around 2,100 paintings (or something like 4 paintings every week). But he was wholly unsuccessful during his lifetime, at the time he was considered a failure and a lunatic. He has become the epitome of the tortured artist, the tragic and under-appreciated innovator. Somehow the allure of Van Gogh comes, in part, from his tragic biography. The modern audience hungers for the rarefied, mentally ill artist, roaming the world, capturing his unique perspective, shortly before ending his tortured life by suicide. Latter psychologists have attempted to diagnose Van Gogh: bipolar disorder, mania, depression, epilepsy and so on -exacerbated by insomnia, alcohol, overwork, and malnutrition for years.

He was born into a Dutch family in southern Netherlands. His family-name was actually quite a common Dutch name. He was a serious and thoughtful child. He took an early interest in art. He worked for an art dealership company in London for a short time, but he was never able to really hold a job for an extended time. He professed his love for a young woman who outrightly rejected him (she was secretly already engaged). He grew distant, working a variety of odd jobs: at a boarding school, as an assistant, and at a bookshop where he translated various portions of the Bible into English, French or German -splitting his time between the Netherlands and England.

He pursued something of a pious and monastic life. However, he failed the theology entrance exam in Amsterdam when he attempted to follow his father as a clergyman, and Van Gogh also failed out of a Protestant missionary school. Still he lived a life of poverty as a missionary for a time, returning home eventually to the disappointment of his father who thought he should be submitted to an asylum for his instability. Van Gogh began to study art in France.

He fell in love with his widowed cousin, who also promptly rejected him. His family continued their disapproval of his life choices, and he fled to the Hague to begin drawing  -still lifes, landscapes, people on the streets. He also moved in with his love, Clasina Maria “Siena” Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute and an alcoholic with a child. At the behest of his father, he eventually left Siena, and she later drowned herself in the River Scheldt in 1904 after giving away her children.

In his early works, Van Gogh created a series of peasant character studies:

The Potato Eaters (1885) -one of Van Gogh’s most successful paintings. It was a self-consciously class-focused work of art. Van Gogh always seemed to identify with the middle class, and a defender of the lower class, though he himself descended from an upper class, wealthy family.

Bulb Fields.jpg
Bulb Fields (1883)

Van Gogh - Pappelallee im Herbst.jpeg
Avenue of Poplars in Autumn (1884)

An image of a large opened bible on a table topStill Life with Bible (1885)

A skull smoking a cigaretteSkull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (1885-1886) -the painting is believed to be a satirical comment on the conservative nature of academia.

A woman facing away working with a spadePeasant Woman Digging, or Woman with a Spade, Seen from Behind (1885)

Throughout this time, Van Gogh continued to be financially supported by his brother, Theo (“tay-owe”), an art dealer. Van Gogh ate sparingly, preferring to spend his money on his artwork. He consumed a steady diet of bread, coffee, and tobacco. His health was in decline as his teeth became loose and painful. He drank heavily and may have been treated for syphilis.

In 1886, he moved to Paris and developed friendships with the avant-garde artists of France, like Paul Gauguin. He also developed an interest in Japanese woodcuts, much like other the Impressionists, like Monet (though Van Gogh is often considered a “Post-Impressionist”). Van Gogh was also exposed to Signac and the Pointillist movement.

Vincent van Gogh - Bridges across the Seine at Asnieres.jpg
Bridges Across the Seine at Asnieres (1887)

Van Gogh developed a strong smoker’s cough and moved to Arles (“arlay”), hoping to establish a painter’s artist commune among the rural, peaceful townsfolk. Here, he developed much of his most famous and prolific paintings. He went on long walks throughout the region on foot in the hot sun painting the sights, while his physical and mental health continued to decline. He movedinto “The Yellow House” -where he established a studio on the bottom floor. Throughout 1888, Van Gogh wished to create a portfolio of amazing works to showcase in his studio before presenting himself to the world. He was overjoyed when, after much pleading, Paul Gauguin agreed to visit Van Gogh in Arles. Van Gogh’s hopes for the artist commune rose.

A large house under a blue skyThe Yellow House (1888) -Van Gogh rented four rooms in the house, two on the bottom floor for his workshop. As with some other places portrayed during Van Gogh’s wanderings throughout Europe, the building was destroyed in WWII. A reconstruction currently stands.

A man sowing seeds in front of a giant sun going down near a large tree
The Sower with the Setting Sun (1888)

On the edge of the sea four boats on the water in the distance; closer, four boats are on the dry sand on the beachFishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries (1888)

Vincent van Gogh - De slaapkamer - Google Art Project.jpg
Bedroom in Arles (1888) -depicting Van Gogh’s upper bedroom in Arles at the Yellow House. He created several versions of the painting.

A billiard table in the centre of a room of a café surrounded by tables. Patrons are seated at several tables, and a man dressed in white stands behind the billiard table.
The Night Café (1888) -an indoor painting of his famous terrace scene, a cafe which had taken much of his money during this time. He stayed up for three consecutive nights to complete this painting, per his letters to his brother, Theo. He hoped the sale of the painting would pay his debts to the cafe owner.

Van Gogh - Terrasse des Cafés an der Place du Forum in Arles am Abend1.jpeg
Café Terrace at Night (1888) – a turning point for Van Gogh who began to be fascinated with the painting of starry nights. The location in Arles today has been refurbished to match the view from Van Gogh’s painting. Some believe the painting is partly inspired by a short story by Guy de Maupassant, the master of French short story writing. This theory is derived from letters Van Gogh sent to his siblings. Van Gogh never signed or titled the painting.

La Vigne rouge
The Red Vineyard (1888) -thought to be one of the only paintings Van Gogh sold during his lifetime?

A painting of a blossoming orchard of many trees near wooden fences bordered by large cypress trees under a bright blue sky.
Orchard in Blossom, Bordered by Cypresses (1888)

A close view of three blossoming trees behind which can be seen a large orchard and field in which a man is working, a village filled with buildings and houses in the background, under a bright skyView of Arles, Flowering Orchards (1889)

Van Gogh’s Chair (1888)

Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888)

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (1888) -Van Gogh completed a vast series of portrait s of Mr. Roulin.

Farmhouse in a Wheat Field (1888)

Harvest (1888)

Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, Vincent van Gogh, NGA.jpg
Farmhouse in Provence (1888)

Van Gogh - Wiese mit Blumen unter Gewitterhimmel.jpegMeadow with Flowers Under A Stormy Sky (1888)

Van Gogh - Das Restaurant Rispal in Asniéres.jpegRestaurant in Asnieres (1888)

Vincent van Gogh - La Maison de la Crau.jpgThe Old Mill (1888)

Van Gogh - Blühender Obstgarten2.jpeg
Orchard and House with Orange Roof (Orchard in Blossom) (1888)

A ceramic vase with sunflowers on a yellow surface against a bright yellow background.
Sunflowers (1889)

In 1888, when Gauguin was coming to visit Van Gogh in Arles, he completed a series of paintings to decorate the Yellow House. Van Gogh greatly admired Gauguin and wanted to be treated as his equal, however Gauguin was arrogant and domineering. The situation spiraled out of control. Some suggest they had a romantic relationship, as well. Gauguin was suspicious that Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, were trying to exploit Gauguin for money.

The two had some sort of altercation, the details are hazy, that led to Van Gogh’s ear being separated (perhaps he did it himself after hearing voices, or perhaps Gauguin was involved). At any rate, Van Gogh sent his severed ear to a prostitute at a brothel the two men frequented. Van . Gogh was found unconscious and delivered to a nearby hospital. He had no recollection of the event, indicating some sort of mental breakdown. Van Gogh was hospitalized. Gauguin fled Arles, never to see Van Gogh again.

A portrait of Vincent van Gogh from the right; he is smoking a pipe, wearing a winter hat. His ear is bandaged and he has no beard.Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889)

A courtyard garden of a large building with tree and fountain.
Courtyard at the Hospital at Arles (1889)

A portrait of Vincent van Gogh from the right; he is wearing a winter hat, his ear is bandaged and he has no beard.Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)

Van Gogh recovered enough to move back into his Yellow House in 1889, though he suffered from delusions and fabricated plots of poisoning. He became known in town as the “redheaded madman” and his house was eventually closed. Van Gogh admitted himself voluntarily to an asylum at Saint-Rémy, a former monastery near Arles in Southern France, where he created a variety of his now famous works, until he relapsed in 1890. Depressed, he worked on perfecting a number of his early sketches. Van Gogh began to receive praise outside in the world, from critics, as well as fellow painters, like Monet.

A painting of a scene at night with 10 swirly stars, Venus, and a bright yellow crescent Moon. In the background there are hills, in the middle ground there is a moonlit town with a church that has an elongated steeple, and in the foreground there is the dark green silhouette of a cypress tree and houses.
The Starry Night (1889) -painted from the east-facing window of his asylum room in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He added in a fictional village. This followed his infamous 1888 psychotic breakdown that resulted in the mutilation of his left ear. Just to the right of the standing cypress tree is Venus, which Van Gogh would have actually seen brightly that morning.

Green Field (1889)

Mountainous Landscape Behind Saint-Rémy (1889)

Green Wheat Field (1889)

View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint Remy (1889)

He moved to a suburb of Paris, and was fascinated with the countryside in his artwork.

An expansive painting of a wheatfield, with a footpath going through the centre underneath dark and forbidding skies, through which a flock of black crows fly.
Wheatfield with Crows (1890) -one of Van Gogh’s final paintings.

A bright squarish painting of a wheatfield, a river, houses, mountains and the rising sun.
Enclosed Wheat Field with Rising Sun (1889)

A squarish painting of a darkened wheatfield of stacks, with a river and mountains in the background under a rising full moon.
Wheat Fields (1889)

A painting of intense green gnarled old olive trees with distant rolling blue mountains behind under a light blue sky with a large fluffy white cloud in the center
Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape (1889) -thought to be the natural complement to Starry Night –he once wrote to Theo that the wheat fields and olive orchards were a metaphor for the great loneliness he experienced in life.

The White Cottage Among the Olive Trees (1889)

Olive Grove (1889)

Olive Grove: Orange Sky (1889)

Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun (1889)

A painting of two large cypress trees under a bright afternoon sky, next to a wheat field in a landscape of hills, bushes, flowers and trees
Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889)

Green Wheat Field with Cypress (1889)

Irises (1889)

An expansive painting of a wheatfield, with green hills through the centre underneath dark and forbidding skies.
Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds (1890)

Harvest near Auvers (1890)

Couple Walking among Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape with Crescent Moon (1890)

A squarish painting of a wheatfield, in the afternoon, with landscape and a white house in the background.
Wheat Field at Auvers with White House (1890)

Van Gogh - Häuser in Auvers.jpeg
Houses in Auvers (1890)

Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky 1890 Vincent van Gogh.jpg
Wheat Fields After The Rain (1890)

Marguerite Gachet in the Garden (1890)

File:Vincent van Gogh - Morning, going out to Work.jpg
Morning, Going Out To Work (1890)

A painting of a large cypress tree, on the side of a road, with two people walking, a wagon and horse behind them, and a green house in the background, under an intense starry sky.
Road with Cypresses and Star (1890)

The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the ChevetThe Church at Auvers (1890) -church is located northwest of Paris.

White House at Night (1890)

Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver spontaneously, either in a local barn or in a wheat field where he was painting. He passed out from injury but was startled awake by the cold. He walked back to his inn, and the innkeeper went to find a doctor, though there was not a surgeon present. Van Gogh was left alone in his room, smoking his pipe and sometimes groaning and grabbing his chest. He declared several times that he wanted to kill himself. When his brother, Theo arrived, Van Gogh was in somewhat good spirits, but he died of an infection from the bullet wound several hours later. According to Theo, his last words were: “The sadness will last forever.”

Theo also died shortly after his brother, by approximately six months, as he was unable to cope with the suicide of his brother. Van Gogh died believing himself to be a grand failure, despite a small but growing following at the end of his life. Van Gogh’s reputation was later salved by Theo’s widow who eventually published the two brother’s correspondences, as Van Gogh’s popularity increased worldwide.

Conspiracy theories continue to abound as the true nature of Van Gogh’s death.

Here are some of his self-portraits not already listed above:

Vincent van Gogh - National Gallery of Art.JPG Self-Portrait (Van Gogh September 1889).jpg Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Straw Hat 1887-Metropolitan.jpg

The only authenticated photo of Vincent van Gogh is now this portrait taken when he was 19This is the only known photo of Van Gogh, taken when he was 19.

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