Earlier this week I finished up my research on Vincent van Gogh by putting together this short summary:
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands to Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. He was given the name of his grandfather and of his brother stillborn exactly a year before his birth. He was the oldest of six, two brothers and three sisters.
Vincent was schooled at home. At age 7 began attending the local village school. At age 11 he was sent to boarding school. He later wrote that his youth was "austere and cold, and sterile". At age 15, Vincent's family was struggling financially and so he left school to find work. He got a job at his Uncle Cornelis' art dealership, Goupil & Cie., a firm of art dealers in The Hague. At age 20, he was transferred to the Groupil Gallery in London. There he visited art galleries and became a fan of the writings of Charles Dickens and George Eliot.
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, deciding 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.
In 1888, Vincent boarded a train to Arles in the south of France. He’d been told that the light there was different, similar to the light in Japan. He moved into the yellow house and painted intensely. He dreamed of starting an artists community there and invited his friend Paul Gauguin to join him.
Vincent’s temperament made him a difficult companion for Gauguin. Near the end of 1888, an incident led Gauguin to leave. It is said that van Gogh pursued him with an open razor, was stopped by Gauguin, and ended up cutting a portion of his own ear off. The police found Vincent unconscious the next morning and took him to the hospital.
After his release from the hospital, he returned to the Yellow House but he continued to alternate between fits of madness and lucidity. The police closed his house after a petition by the townspeople saying he was dangerous. Vincent voluntarily entered an asylum in Saint-Remy. During this time he was allowed short supervised walks, but he mostly painted from his cell.
In May of 1890, after a couple of years at the asylum, he seemed much better and went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise under the care of Dr. Gachet. But on July 27, 1890, Vincent van Gogh went out to paint, carrying a loaded pistol, and shot himself in the chest. He was found bleeding in his room. He was taken to a nearby hospital. He died on July 29, 1890, with Theo by his side. He was 37 years old.
There is no consensus on van Gogh’s health. We do know his symptoms from the letters that he wrote to Theo. Those include poor digestion, upset stomach, hallucinations, nightmares, manic and depressive episodes, impotence, insomnia, and anxiety.
Van Gogh began painting around age 27 and he died at age 37. In those 10 years he created more than 2000 pieces, around 900 paintings (averaging about 2 per week) and 1100 drawing/sketches. At least 36 of the 900 paintings were self portraits. During his career, he sold only one painting and lived in poverty.
This week I also got a chance to watch Loving Vincent and made some changes over on Patreon. Starting this month I'll have patches for each month. I'm also working on putting together an online quiz so Dead Artist Society Members can take it (for fun of course) and earn the patch like a merit badge. I'm really excited about it. (Nerd! I know.)
I found van Gogh to be really difficult to study. There’s so much speculation about him, his illness, his ear, his death. It was best to just focus on the letters he wrote and the people he loved.