In 1878, Vincent left to do missionary work in a coal-mining region in southwestern Belgium. Living among the poor, he gave away all his possessions. He was later dismissed by the church for his over enthusiasm and a too-literal interpretation of Christian teaching.
He sank into a deep depression. “They think I’m a madman,” he told an acquaintance, “because I wanted to be a true Christian. They turned me out like a dog, saying that I was causing a scandal.” He began to draw. He decided that he could become an artist and still serve God.
He wrote: "To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture."
In the 1880’s Vincent studied perspective and anatomy at the Academy in Brussels. His brother Theo began to support him financially (this continued to the end of Vincent’s life.) He learned watercolor from the painter Anton Mauve, a cousin by marriage. Then he began experimenting with oils. In 1885 he painted what is considered his first great work, The Potato Eaters.
In 1886 Vincent moved to Paris and lived with Theo. He studied with French painter, Fernand Cormon and through him was introduced to his other students: John Russell, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Emile Bernard. Theo who managed an art gallery introduced him to the works of the Impressionists. That year Vincent also became friends with Paul Gauguin.
Looking through van Gogh’s letters got me thinking about how Theo is Vincent's support system, both financially and emotionally. He’s also like an accountability partner for Vincent––he sends him sketches and tells him about his progress. It's got me thinking about how writing (for Vincent it was letters but today it could be journaling, emails, blog posts, etc.) helps clarify your thoughts and empty the noice from your head.