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Art History

Happy Birthday Vincent van Gogh

Happy Birthday Vincent van Gogh, born on March 30 back in 1853.  Van Gogh was a Post-Impressionist painter and one of my favorite artists.  Most people have heard his name and have seen some of his work (even as they don’t know it was his by name).  The most difficult part of this week’s blog was narrowing down the pictures and information into a reasonable length.  There’s so many interesting tangents that I could have included, but we’ll stick to the basics for now and maybe I’ll do a post or two about him again later on.

Early Life

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in Groot Zundert, The Netherlands.  He was named after his grandfather and also an older brother who was stillborn on the same a year before.  Vincent was a common name throughout his extended family.  Vincent had two younger brothers and three younger sisters – he was the closest with his brother Theo.  

Vincent’s father was a minister at the Dutch Reform Church and his mother maintained the household.  Their family enjoyed high social standing in society and were provided with a house, maid, cooks, gardener, and horse and carriage by the church.  Vincent was taught by his mother and a governess his first few years of school, and then was sent to different schools and boarding schools.

Self-Portrait with Dark Felt Hat at the Easel by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting in muted tones of man dressed in dark colors looking sternly at view from behind an easel with paint palette in hand.
Self-Portrait with Dark Felt Hat at the Easel, Vincent van Gogh, 1886

In 1869 at the age of 16 Vincent began work as an art dealer with his uncle who was a partner at Goupil & Cie in The Hague.  He was transfer to the London branch in 1873 after he completed his training.  He was successful and later described this as the best year of his life.  After Vincent was rejected by his landlady’s daughter who he was infatuated with, his father and uncle arranged a transfer to the Paris office.  Vincent was fired a year later.

Vincent van Gogh tried several other careers over the next few years including working as a substitute teacher in boarding schools in England, a Methodist minister’s assistant, and bookshop worker in South Holland where he translated Bible passages into English, French, and German.  He took a deep interest in Christianity and decided to become a pastor.  In 1877 he went to live with his uncle while preparing to take the theology entrance exam at the University of Amsterdam, which he failed.  He then took a course at a Protestant missionary school near Brussels, which he also failed.  Vincent was a missionary for a short time in a poor mining town near Belgium, but was dismissed by church authorities for not upholding the dignity of the priesthood.  He had given away all his worldly possessions to live alongside his poor parishioners, taking a very literal interpretation of Christian teachings.  With some encouragement from his brother Theo, Vincent began his journey as an artist in 1880 at the age of 27.

The Goat Herd by Vincent van Gogh. Drawing of man dressed in long jacket, curved hat, and wooden clogs with walking stick next to a goat.
The Goat Herd, Vincent van Gogh, 1862
Peasant Woman Digging by Vincent van Gogh. Drawing of a woman in dress and bonnet from behind working in a field with shovel in hand digging the earth.
Peasant Woman Digging, Vincent van Gogh, 1885
Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting with dark background.
Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, Vincent van Gogh, 1886

Vincent van Gogh the Artist

Vincent Van Gogh’s interest in art was encouraged from a young age by his mother and he attended his first drawing class at age 13 while away at school at Willem II College in Tilburg by artist Constant Cornelis Huijsmans.  Vincent’s love for drawing was overshadowed by how unhappy he was being away from home though.  

Van Gogh’s return to art came in 1880 after being inspired to draw the scenes around him at the mining camp where he lived after things as a missionary didn’t work out.  He studied under Dutch artist Willem Roelofs (who his brother recommended) and was later convinced to attend school at Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1881 where he learned the basics of drawing – anatomy, proportions, and working from models.  Late in 1881 he studied under his cousin Dutch painter Anton Mauve in The Hague where he was introduced to watercolors and oils.  Van Gogh spent a lot of time drawing from nature and copying from anatomy books while learning.  

In 1883 Van Gogh moved to Drenthe, an isolated part of northern the Netherlands, where he painted rural life for three months before returning home to Nuenen (where his family now lived).  It was during this time that he painted his peasant series in somber earthtones and most famously painted “The Potato Eaters.”  

Three People Sharing a Meal (Potato Eaters) by Vincent van Gogh. Preliminary sketch for the Potato Eaters. Three people sitting with their backs to the viewer looking out a window.
Three People Sharing a Meal (Potato Eaters), Vincent van Gogh, 1885
The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting version of scene with five figures eating around a table in muted earthtones with dramatic overhead lamp.
The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh, 1885
The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting version of scene with five figures eating around a table in muted earthtones with dramatic overhead lamp.
The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh, 1885

After a brief three months as a student at Antwerp Academy in Belgium, in 1886 Vincent van Gogh traveled to Paris to live with his brother Theo who was now the manager of their uncle’s gallery.  During the two years that he was there, he met Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Paul Gauguin who were part of the Impressionist movement happening at that time.  He was able to see their and other Impressionists’ works up close in galleries as well as work from Neo-Impressionists like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.  Van Gogh experimented with these styles and his paintings began to see a big transformation in style incorporating color and visible brushstrokes similar to other artists in these movements.

Inspired, Vincent van Gogh hoped to gather a community of artists to form their own school of art.  In 1888 he moved south to The Yellow House in Arles, France.  He was inspired by the move and painted blooming landscapes and seascapes, as well as taking on portrait commissions and working on his famous sunflower series.  Paul Gauguin joined Van Gogh at The Yellow House in October 1888 and the two experienced a prolific period of painting.  

Gauguin and Van Gogh argued frequently and the arrangement didn’t end up working out.  Gauguin finally left after an argument between them that led to Van Gogh cutting off the tip of his earlobe with a razor in late December of 1888.  After this breakdown, Van Gogh had his first stay at Arles hospital.  

“I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.” (Vincent van Gogh)

Landscape Under a Stormy Sky by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting of green field with trees and buildings in the distance, blue sky with dramatic grey clouds
Landscape Under a Stormy Sky, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Orchid in Blossom Bordered by Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting of a line of trees in blossom along a path with a line of cypress behind them.
Orchid in Blossom Bordered by Cypresses, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Enclosed Field with Rising Sun by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting of lawn surrounded with a large fence in the distance, the sun rising in the background over distant hills melting away the cold shadows of night.
Enclosed Field with Rising Sun, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Fearing the deterioration of his mental health, Vincent van Gogh admitted himself into the asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence in May 1889 for what ended up being a twelve month stay.  In between alternating periods of severe depression and stability, he painted over 150 paintings during his stay.  His paintings were limited by the direct observation of the hospital grounds and still lifes around him, and his memory.  Van Gogh completed many of his most well-known series during this time – cypresses, olive trees, irises, self-portraits, and the Starry Night paintings to name a few.  

After leaving the asylum in 1890, he moved to a rented room in the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise under the care of Dr. Paul Gachet and was closer to where his brother lived in Paris.  Here he was again inspired by the rural scenes around him, and painted several churches and farms.  His wheatfield series came from this time period.

Starry Night

The Starry Night (Sketch) by Vincent van Gogh. A preliminary sketch for his masterpiece nighttime painting.
The Starry Night (Sketch), Vincent van Gogh, 1889
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting of night scene with swirled blue sky with radiating stars and moon, over looking the town with a giant cypress tree in the foreground and hills in the background.
The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Vincent van Gogh’s most famous painting is “The Starry Night” which he painted in 1889 from his room in the asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence.  He was inspired by the night sky viewed from his hospital room, however he painted the scene mostly from memory and emotion during the daytime, so the resulting painting evoked a feeling of a place more than it recorded an exact duplicate of an actual scene.  

“At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.” (Vincent van Gogh)

Although “The Starry Night” was the most well-known, other paintings in the series include: “Starry Night Over the Rhone,” “Cafe Terrace at Night,” and “Road with Cypress and Star.”

Have you been able to see it in person?  If you get the chance it’s at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. 

Road with Men Walking Carriage Cypress Star and Crescent Moon (sketch from letter) by Vincent van Gogh.
Road with Men Walking Carriage Cypress Star and Crescent Moon (sketch from letter), Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Road with Cypress and Star by Vincent van Gogh. Painting with swirls of blue and yellow in the sky, two people walking on a road near wheatfields and a large cypress tree in the center.
Road with Cypress and Star, Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Cafe Terrace at Night by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting of a Paris street, a cafe outdoor seating area lit in yellow on the left, blue star-filled sky in the background
Cafe Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Style & Themes

While Vincent van Gogh is most known for his paintings, his artistic journey started with drawing, insisting that he needed to fully understand the principles of form and movement before adding color.  His drawings were done in pencil, chalk, charcoal, or sometimes a combination of those materials.  

Even after he started oil painting, Van Gogh would sketch out a painting first, many times including them on letters that he sent to his brother Theo to get his feedback.  It wasn’t uncommon for there to be multiple sketches and sometimes multiple preliminary paintings for the finished piece.  He also often revisited the same subjects, painting nearly identical paintings or a set (series) of very similar ones.

Vincent van Gogh’s painting style began with genre paintings with somber muted earthtones and dramatic lighting, such as his peasant series and most famously “The Potato Eaters.”  This early period of paintings was inspired by artists such as the Barbizon artists – especially French artist Jean-François Millet – and later Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.  The Barbizon Art School was a group of realism painters who painted landscapes and genre paintings – paintings of people at work in their everyday lives, typically working in fields on farms. 

After meeting the Impressionists in Paris during the height of the Impressionist movement, Van Gogh’s work began to incorporate more color (still muted compared to his later works)  and use visual short brushstrokes.  He focused on depicting light with color like other artists of the movement.  He also played with Neo-Impressionist techniques such as pointillism (small dotted brushstrokes) during that timeframe.

Van Gogh soon started developing his own style that broke away from the Impressionist style – which is why he is generally classified as a Post-Impressionist painter.  The artists of the Post-Impressionism art movement didn’t follow the rules of Impressionism and started using individualistic styles led by personal perception rather than observing the truth of the scene.  Van Gogh began using curving lines of bright exaggerated colors fueled by emotion.  He used an impasto style of painting, using thick expressive globs of paint that created layers of texture and colors.  His brushwork brought movement and energy to his pieces.  (Like many pieces of art, you really need to see them in person to really experience them – pictures don’t do them justice.) 

Vincent's Bedroom in Arles by Vincent van Gogh. Sketch of room with wooden bed to right side, two wooden chairs and a small side table, paintings hanging up on the walls.
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles (Sketch), Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles by Vincent van Gogh. Room with blue wall, wooden bed to the right, two wooden chairs and a small side table, paintings hanging up on the walls.
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Old Man in Sorrow on the Threshold of Eternity by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting of man in blue sitting in wooden chair with his head in his hands.
Old Man in Sorrow on the Threshold of Eternity, Vincent van Gogh, 1890

Death & Legacy

Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France at the age of 37 of a gunshot wound, possibly self-inflicted two days before.  His brother Theo who was already in ill health died just six months after.  Theo’s body was later exhumed and reburied next to his brother so that he could live eternally by his side.  

Over the ten year period that Van Gogh painted, he created nearly 900 paintings and 1100 drawings, most were completed during the last two years of his life.  Van Gogh wasn’t fully appreciated during his time, though he was starting to be acknowledged in the last couple years of his career.  He exhibited at the Salon des Independants in Paris between 1888 and 1890 and Les XX in Brussels in 1890.  He only sold one painting during his lifetime – The Red Vineyards at Arles, which sold for 400 francs (about $2000 today) in 1890 during the art show in Brussels to Belgian artist Anna Boch. However he did paint several commission pieces during his career. 

“I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.” (Vincent van Gogh)

Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh, is the reason that Vincent van Gogh is known to the extent that he is today.  After his death she collected and translated Vincent’s letters that he had written to Theo.  We have a unique view into Van Gogh’s life and mental state through the letters that he wrote to his brother throughout his adult life.  Johanna used her husband’s contacts in the art world and dedicated the rest of her life to sharing Vincent van Gogh’s legacy.  

Van Gogh’s artist style helped to springboard the modern art movement and impacted the Fauvism, Expressionism, and Modernism art movements that came after him.  It also unfortunately helped to perpetuate a stereotype of the “tortured artist” – an artist who works in isolation, has severe mental health issues, and struggles financially.  Some of these traits were common for the other artists of the Post-Impressionism movements too, who tended to work alone unlike the close-knit group of artists that made up the Impressionism movement.  

“Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.” (Vincent van Gogh)

The Red Vineyards at Arles by Vincent van Gogh. Colorful painting of people working in a field near a river with the sun rising (or setting).
The Red Vineyards at Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh. Man with red hair and beard dressed in blue suit looking at the camera, swirled light blue background.
Self-Portrait, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Resources & Further Learning

Still Life Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting of yellow vase with sunflowers on yellow table with yellow background.
Still Life Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Irises by Vincent van Gogh. Oil painting of blue iris flowers in a field with one white iris.
Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

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About the Artist

Photo of Laura Jaen Smith

Laura Jaen Smith is an artist who lives and works out of Horseheads, New York. Her inspiration comes from observing the beauty she sees around her.  After a decade living out west, she returned back to New York State and started seeing the same old places with new eyes.  She is most interested in capturing small moments in nature that might otherwise be overlooked.

Visit her shop or ask about available works.

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