We explore the life of Vincent van Gogh in the hopes of discovering the man behind the art. We will also answer a few important questions about his life and works. Was van Gogh truly as sad as historians make him out to be? Why did he cut off his own ear? What was Vincent van Gogh’s relationship with his brother, Theo, and how did it impact his art? Finally, why did his art become so popular after his death? Let’s explore all of this together!
The son of a Protestant minister, Vincent Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853. The artist first studied to be a minister like his father in the mining region of Borinage. Here the artist found his first true love: the human condition. In one of his earliest paintings, The Potato Eaters, we can see the coal miners that he met at sermons, as well as the gloomy colors of the surrounding landscape. The focus on the miners’ hands emphasizes the dignity of their humble work and relatively simple lives.
The Potato Eaters (1885)
When he was 27, Vincent decided to dedicate his life to art and move to Paris. In France, he met some of the most prominent Impressionist painters of the time, which profoundly impacted his art. At this point in his career, his colors became brighter, but his feelings were not equally bright. He realized that the utopian community of artists he searched for did not exist anymore, and his style, focused on human nature, was not yet appreciated. Through art, van Gogh hoped to express himself, with all his fragilities and strengths, using contrasting colors and Expressionist deformations. However, the public at the time was not all that interested.
In search of even brighter colors, van Gogh moved to the south of France in 1888. In Arles, still dreaming of a colony of artists living freely in the countryside, he invited Paul Gauguin to join him in the iconic “Yellow House.” Gauguin’s temperament led to a troubled friendship, which was also reflected in the paintings of both artists. If we compare the painting of Gauguin’s chair (1888) with van Gogh’s own paintings, we can come to understand their divergent ideas about art and life. Van Gogh’s modesty is symbolized by a pipe, tobacco, and onions. Alternatively, Gauguin’s work reflected that of a more elitist artist, particularly with the inclusion of candles and literature. In any case, one thing is for sure: both artists were misunderstood, brilliant, and incapable of understanding one another!
In Arles, van Gogh also began to experience periodic psychotic episodes. After one particularly bad episode, a frightened Gauguin fled the Yellow House, never to return. Feeling abandoned, Vincent cut off his ear and brought it to a prostitute in a bag, as a request for help and love. His loneliness is well represented in the famous Bedroom in Arles painting. The room expresses a sense of relaxation, but simultaneously, through the nervous lines, a sort of instability. This metaphor of solitude could be seen as a form of unconventional self-portrait.
Bedroom in Arles, 1888
Due to his mental distress, van Gogh was hospitalized later in life. While in the clinic, inspired by feverish productivity, he painted some of the greatest masterpieces of his career. Despite this success, van Gogh was unable to sell any of them. Starry Night (1889), with its swirling, disturbing clouds, is probably the artwork that best expresses van Gogh’s hallucinatory visions and artistic genius. It exhibits the power of his imagination, but also the disorienting effects of his mental state.
Starry Night (1889)
In August of 1890, concerned with the worsening of his mental condition and his quickly depleting finances, van Gogh committed suicide in the middle of a wheatfield. Wheatfield With Crows (1890) represents the peak of his inner agitation: a somber sense of death and a small road leading to the unknown. Evaluating this painting today, we can understand how Vincent van Gogh was not alienated from reality. He felt the power of nature, but the intensity of his sensations had become intolerable.
Wheatfield With Crows (1890)
Soon after, his beloved brother, Theo, died as well. The posthumous success of the artist is curiously due to Theo’s widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger. She dedicated the rest of her life to selling Vincent’s artworks, organizing exhibitions, and publishing his letters to Theo.
The complex temperament of Van Gogh, which cannot be reduced to just a psychological illness, shines through his art. One can see this clearly in his iconic painting, Sunflowers.
The painting is not a dark or morbid “still life.” Instead, it symbolizes his periodic joy and vitality. Van Gogh wanted to introduce colors, freshness, and brightness into his paintings, possibly in the hopes of bringing those feelings into his own life, too. Sadly, that would never come to fruition. In 1890, van Gogh was buried with a bouquet of sunflowers. As Gauguin said, these yellow flowers were “completely Vincent.”