Born on March 30, 1853 in Zundert, Brabant, in the south of the Netherlands, Vincent Willem van Gogh was a Post Impressionist painter and one of history’s most famous artists. An active artist for only ten years, Van Gogh produced approximately 1000 watercolours, drawings and sketches and about 1250 paintings.
At age 16, Van Gogh worked as an apprentice for the art dealer Goupil & Cie in Hague at a gallery run by his uncle. Between 1873 and 1876, Van Gogh moved between the London and Paris branches of Goupil. During this time, he learned a great deal about Old Master and contemporary painting. While in England he began collecting illustrations. In 1876, Van Gogh was dismissed from his position, at which point, he decided to become a minister.
In 1877, Van Gogh moved to Amsterdam where he attempted to enroll in theology school. After giving up his preparatory studies, Van Gogh moved to the coal mining town Borinage in Belgium where he worked as a lay preacher. Living like a pauper among the miners, Van Gogh slept on the floor and gave away his belongings. His obsessive commitment was frowned upon by the church and he was dismissed.
In 1880, Van Gogh decided finally that he would become an artist. He moved to Brussels and studied independently, and occasionally with Dutch artist Anthon van Rappard. Van Gogh’s brother Theo, who worked at Goupil’s Paris branch, sent him money during this time and would continue to support him regularly until the end of Van Gogh’s life. Van Gogh also studied briefly in The Hague with Anton Mauve, where he was introduced to watercolour and oil technique, and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp in 1886, but withdrew after two months.
Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 where he lived with his brother Theo in the artists’ quarter of Montmartre. As a manager at the Montmartre branch of Goupil’s, Theo introduced Van Gogh to the works of Claude Monet and other Impressionists. Van Gogh studied for four months at the studio of Fernand Cormon where he met other artists including Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, and Camille Pissarro.
Van Gogh began painting in brighter colours and his brushwork became more broken. Like the Impressionists, he chose his subjects from the city’s cafés and streets, as well as the countryside along the Seine River. During this time, Van Gogh dreamed of creating an artistic community in which they lived and worked together in harmony.
In February 1888, Van Gogh left Paris and traveled to Provence in the south of France. Still hoping to establish his artists’ cooperative, Van Gogh rented a studio (The Yellow House) in Arles and invited Gauguin to join him. Gauguin finally agreed and from October 1888 spent nine weeks working and discussing art with Van Gogh. However, tension began to grow between the two artists. In December, an argument occurred resulting with the infamous “cutting off his own ear” story.
There are two schools of thought about how Vincent van Gogh lost part of his left ear on December 23, 1888. Some believe that Paul Gauguin cut off van Gogh’s ear in self-defense during a quarrel. Others think that he slashed his own left ear lobe after learning that his brother, Theo, was getting married. Whether the wound was self-inflicted or not, there is no doubt that Van Gogh, bleeding from his wound, staggered into a bordello and gave a prostitute friend named Rachel his severed ear, telling her to ‘keep this object carefully’.
Gauguin left Arles, and Van Gogh, while being treated for his ear in the hospital, experienced the first serious onset of insanity. After Van Gogh was discharged from the hospital, he was unable to set up a new studio or organize his life. In May 1889, he admitted himself into a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy, near Arles. Van Gogh continued to paint and converted a cell into a studio where he produced 150 paintings over the course of one year. Van Gogh sent his paintings to Theo in Paris. During this time and despite his illness, Van Gogh continued to produce one masterpiece after another including Irises, Cypresses, and The Starry Night.
Van Gogh’s work began to receive some recognition. In 1890, the Belgian artist group Les Vingt included six of his paintings in their exhibition. As well, the critic Albert Aurier published a favorable review of Van Gogh’s paintings in January 1890, linking his work to the Symbolists. It was at this time that he sold his painting the Red Vineyard to the painter Anna Boch. It was the only painting he would ever sell.
In 1890, Van Gogh left the hospital and moved Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. While there, he placed himself under the care of the homeopathic physician Paul Gachet. Gachet had previously treated several artists and was an amateur artist himself. Van Gogh became prolific in his work producing nearly one painting a day for two months.
In June, 1890, Van Gogh visited Theo, who expressed his desire to go into business for himself which would mean a tightening of finances, including his support of his brother. Van Gogh was deeply troubled by Theo’s dissatisfaction and became very worried: “…but my life too is threatened at its very root, and my step is unsteady too.”
On 27 July 1890, Vincent Van Gogh walked into a wheat field and shot himself in the chest. He died two days later, on July 29. “He was buried in Auvers the next day. Among the mourners were Lucien Pissarro, Emile Bernard and Père Tanguy. Bernard later described Van Gogh’s coffin, covered with yellow flowers, and his easel and brushes lying on the ground next to the casket. Van Gogh’s paintings were left to Theo who died six months later.”
In 1914 the two brothers were re-interred next to each other at the cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise.
“Part of van Gogh’s fame is based on his extraordinary personal letters, the most numerous of which were to Theo. From France he also wrote a series of letters to his sister Wilhelmina, in which he regularly included explanations of artistic concepts that he considered superfluous in his letters to Theo. In addition, two other sets of letters have been preserved: those to Anthon van Rappard from 1881 to 1885, and those to Emile Bernard. He also corresponded and exchanged paintings with Gauguin. The abundance of biographical data and the diary-like character of the letters were important contributory factors in the making of van Gogh’s reputation. Due to the existence of the letters, many of the works are provided with the interpretation and commentary of van Gogh himself, to a far greater extent than with his predecessors and contemporaries.” (from MoMA)
Sources: Van Gogh Musem, MoMA