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By: John Keaton


“And my aim in my life is to make pictures and drawings, as many and as well as I can; then, at the end of my life, I hope to pass away, looking back with love and tender regret, and thinking, 'Oh, the pictures I might have made!'"

-Vincent Van Gogh, Letter 338, 9 November 1883

In the annals of art history, there is no comparison to the enduringly tragic and passionate life of Vincent Van Gogh. His works have been embraced and are treasured by a world which once scarcely understood or accepted this tragic and tortured genius.
The beauty of his remarkably prolific career lies in the intensity and conviction of heart, which he placed in his images. His works remain etched and embossed within our subconscious and still linger in our minds long after this tormented soul’s dramatic departure from this life.
Born March 30, 1853, Vincent Wilhelm Van Gogh’s young life was overshadowed by the death of a brother exactly one year prior to Vincent’s birth. Ironically, the brother’s name was also Vincent. Imagine the confusion of a meditative young boy dealing with the concept of being a replacement child and actually visiting a grave on a regular basis bearing his name. Nevertheless, the mournful and desolate countryside of Vincent’s birthplace in Groot-Zundert, Holland became the nurturing source and breeding ground for Van Gogh’s intense exploration of nature and the world around him.
His favorite brother was Theo, who became and remained a beacon of hope, support and encouragement throughout Van Gogh’s entire life. They were kindred spirits and their eloquent and tender correspondences (over 700 letters) are thoroughly archived as a living testimony to their symbiotic closeness.
In May of 1873, Vincent was sent to London to work at the Goupil Gallery as a young art salesman, where he began to explore and developed an appreciation for art of all sorts. While there he met a young woman named Ursula Loyer of whom Vincent became completely enamored and proposed marriage. Ursula mocked him and refused his advances with nothing short of contempt for the 21-year-old Van Gogh.
This disappointment, the basis of a lifetime of isolation and despair, became an awe-consuming event which shattered his expectations of a “normal life” While this may seem a childish exaggeration, this pattern of rejection was to repeat itself many times over the course of Vincent’s Life and influence his perception of the world around him.

The Emerging Artist: Nuenen

While speculation on Van Gogh’s personal life, emotional and physical troubles could fill volumes; we will focus on his art. This is best achieved by concentrating on the specific regions in which Van Gogh lived and worked and his reasons for being there, as opposed to a lengthy analysis of his coming and goings. Van Gogh did travel quite extensively for someone of his stature and class, but more relevant are the images themselves, which were created in a certain area at a significant point in his artistic growth.

The son of a Dutch protestant minister, Vincent’s early life was spent studying theology and acting as lay preacher for the miners of the region. Herein lies his fascination with common folk and workers of the lands and fields.
In one of the artist’s earliest works entitled Sorrow, the trials and tribulations of life take on an overwhelming somber tone.

In his first truly serious painting, The Potato Eaters, painted in Nuenen in April of 1885, we see a poverty stricken world with characters neatly sculpted in sharp, deep tones of thickly applied oil paint. It was during this stage of the artist’s development that the themes of the harvest and character studies of the miners took priority. The 192 canvases painted during this period are portraits of courage and dignity in spite of oppressive poverty and depressive circumstances.

"The point is that I have tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labor and -- a meal honestly earned."

-Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Theo, c. 30 April 1885

Antwerp : Academic Reinforcement

During Van Gogh’s brief stay in the city of Antwerp, he attended the Academic Royale des Beaux Art. Although he painted only seven paintings during his three month tenure, the focus was on academic precision and it’s inclusion in the refinement of his art and technique. Arising from his studies of anatomy and the human figure, Van Gogh produced this rather startling macabre image entitled, Skull with Burning Cigarette. Perhaps Vincent was reflecting on his own ill health at the time with complaints of rotting teeth and stomach ailments.

Paris : Pivotal Artistic Exploration

In 1886 Vincent moved to Paris to stay with his brother Theo, now an art dealer. This period of Vincent’s life is remarkable in Van Gogh’s exposure to new art movements and his willingness to experiment and apply these new concepts to his own creations. Influenced by the Impressionists, his palette became much lighter and the colors more brilliant. Other influences include Japanese prints with their flat, decorative panels of color, which were highly popular at the time. Vincent incorporated many of these new influences in this incredibly vibrant stage of his life and career.
The painting Interior of a Restaurant with its speckles of yellow, gold and green, clearly displays the influence of Divisionism and even Pointillism, a technique developed by George Seurat. During his stay in Paris, Van Gogh met and associated with many of the premiere impressionists of his day, among them, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissaro, Seurat and of Course, Gauguin. Upon viewing Vincent’s work for the first time, Gauguin remarked, “You really do paint like a madman!”

This incident took place in an art supply store, which was run by Pere Tanguy, who also displayed paintings and considered himself an art dealer. Van Gogh’s Portrait of Pere Tanguy. is of special interest with the colorful Japanese prints and woodcuts, which profoundly influenced Vincent’s work at the time, that form the background of this unique portrait.

Painted in the late summer months of 1887, the painting, Two Cut Sunflowers, is particularly striking. Vincent’s fascination with the vivid yellow of these huge flowers is well known. The intensity of the color is only matched with Van Gogh’s seemingly manic strokes. During his stay in Paris, Vincent painted 222 paintings, many of which are considered masterpieces. Rural scenes of the area, numerous self-portraits and landscapes of the city itself are the subjects of Vincent’s incredible outpour of vivacious and enchanting imagery.

Arles : A New Hope Turns Tragic

Arriving in Arles on February 20, 1888, Vincent had most certainly hoped that the light of provence would inspire his work and raise his artistic abilities to a new, creative plateau. By this point, the plein-air painting he had explored along with the influence of impressionism and the japonaisse elements he utilized were fused and became, certainly without his own realization, the style that would become distinctly “Vincent “

The Sower, painted in June of 1888, displays a return to one of Van Gogh’s favorite motifs, and his lifelong fascination with the work of Millet. At one point, Vincent painted seven copies of the Sower in one week. Here in Arles, the Sower takes on a majestic quality with the brilliant sun blazing across the fields with a divine intensity.

It is a well know fact that Vincent could not afford to hire models for his paintings and very often painted himself. No fewer than 35 of these portraits exist, certainly more self-portraits than any artist had ever painted.

They are intriguing, not merely for the versatility of style, but also because they provide insight into Vincent’s state of mind at the particular point of time in which they were created.
The Self Portrait with Pipe and Straw Hat was painted in August of 1888. In my view, it is a charming portrayal of the artist’s optimism and hope for a productive, creative period of his life. There is a sense of peace and renewal evident in his face and in the simple, yet confident brush strokes.

Vincent’s intention in Arles was to create a colony of artists in the southern provincial city. The Painter, Paul Gauguin joined him for a brief time on this artistic excursion of pure expression. Their time together proved to be short-lived however, as their temperaments were vastly different.
While boarding at the yellow house, a bizarre incident occurred which was to mark the end of their relationship. In an atmosphere fueled by alcohol and Vincent’s delusional tantrums, the two personalities clashed, an argument ensued, and Van Gogh cut off a portion of his ear and delivered it to a prostitute named Rachel.

Much has been written regarding this episode and some of the facts have been misconstrued by dramatic interpretations. It is clear that Vincent suffered from both visual and aural hallucinations and that he also partook heavily in the drinking of absinthe, a highly potent mixture, with the same effects as opium. More than likely, the combination of all these elements, along with Vincent’s damaged self-esteem and string of emotional disappointments, led to this bizarre act.
Of the 187 Painting created in Arles, many are Vincent’s best loved works. The painting, Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles, is considered the best of five different versions of the scene. Vincent was so pleased with the work that he wrote highly detailed letters describing the painting: “In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.”

The unusual forced perspective of the room with its slanted back wall is in fact a contradiction to Vincent’s intended vision. Once again we see a composition influenced by Vincent’s preoccupation with Asian art, some prints of which can be seen on the walls. The room grows narrow and perhaps reflect Van Gogh’s sense of isolation and an attempt to record some sense of order in a world of lonely chaos.

“I feel the desire to renew myself and to try to apologize for the fact that my pictures are after all almost a cry of anguish, although in the rustic sunflower they may symbolize gratitude.”

-Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Wil, Letter W20
c.20 February 1890

After Van Gogh’s self mutilation episode on a December Sunday in 1888, the young surgeon, Doctor Felix Rey, was placed in charge of Vincent’s care. Perhaps as a token of his appreciation, Van Gogh immortalized the doctor in a portrait in January 1889.

By this point the citizens of Arles had registered a formal complaint against Van Gogh and considered him a threat to the stability and security of their peaceful community.
Doctor Rey’s parents were so mortified by the portrait that they actually used the painting to patch up a hole in their chicken coop. Some twenty years later, Rey rescued the painting which now resides in the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow.

Saint-Remy: The Elation of Heightened Nature

Perhaps realizing the seriousness of his own mental deterioration, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to a mental asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence in May of 1889. This was to be one of the most difficult years of his life, ironically though, and in the true spirit of this gifted artist, it was also to be one of Vincent’s most productive periods. Despite being at times completely incapacitated and at battle with his own horrific demons, Van Gogh created some of the most enduring images of all time. We see them now, and they appear to us as old friends. Stars and Trees, etched upon our conscious. This is perhaps Vincent’s greatest gift to us: The depth of his passion transformed through the tragedy of madness into visions that transcend time and space and become tangible visual icons of the human experience.

In this enchanting work, there is a rolling energy as stars explode across the cool blue sky while wild cypress trees rise like flames from the tiny hamlet created entirely from imagination and memory. Considering the popularity of this exquisite painting, let’s take a look at a drawing of the very same composition from Moscow’s Museum of Architecture.

During his convalescence, Van Gogh created no less than 142 paintings from May of 1889 to May of 1890. An ardent admirer of Eugene Delacroix and Rembrandt, he painted his own unique interpretations of their works. Perhaps sensing his own demise, the tormented artist reinterpreted Delacroix’s Pieta. A compelling work, Vincent’s Pieta, is one of compassion and expresses a return to the religious roots of his childhood. The image of Christ being taken down from the cross is much lighter in color than the heavier, more classically influenced work of Delacroix. Nevertheless the emotion and power of expression are clearly evident.

The Painting, Road with Cypress and Stars, is nearly a companion piece to Starry Night. There is a bit of human activity in the foreground and we even see a carriage with two passengers on the far left. The Cypress Tree is the main focus with its turbulent fiery presence in front a blazing sky.
The chisel-like brushwork and amplified surface texture had become hallmarks of Vincent’s work by this time. This was to be one of Van Gogh’s last paintings at the Asylum in Saint Remy.
Upon the advice of his brother, Theo, Vincent moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris. Here he was placed under the care of the Flemish Doctor Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a sixty two year old specialist in mental illness. While Gachet’s competency was questionable, the situation of Van Gogh’s increasingly tragic sense of melancholy called for some drastic measure. An avid admirer of Vincent’s work, Dr. Gachet was thoroughly delighted with his Portrait.
In more recent years, The Portrait of Dr. Gachet fetched an astounding 82.5 Million Dollars at Christie’s Auction House in New York, the highest price ever paid for a painting.
An image of turbulent vitality and vividly colored anguish, Wheat Fields With Crows is considered Van Gogh’s last painting. While this may or not be true, the painting is explosive and there is a terrific atmosphere of an ominous and even sinister nature.

Armed with a revolver, Van Gogh shot himself on the afternoon of July 27, 1890. Two days later, Vincent died with his brother Theo and Paul Gachet, the doctor’s son at his side. Leaving behind a tormented and emotionally disastrous past fraught with despair and sorrow, Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic contribution is unrivalled in its emotional complexity and the sheer power of a tormented soul’s creative capacity.

An Overview

In the course of his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh created a veritable treasure trove of artwork. Over 1000 Drawings, 870 Paintings, 150 Watercolors and more than 133 letter sketches form the body of his vast accomplishments as an artist. The majority of these works were done within a period of four years from 1886 to 1890. Barely recognized during his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh is now recognized as one of the world’s greatest and most influential Artists.

Website References:

The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery:

(This website is the absolute definitive source on all things Van Gogh. The site provides a comprehensive overview on Van Gogh’s life and work and is also endorsed by the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam)


Van Gogh By Pierre Cabanne
Copyright by Finest S.A.
Editions Pierre Terrail
Paris 2003

Living with Art
By Rita Gilbert
Copyright 1995 by Rita Gilbert
McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Van Gogh
By Rene Huyghe
Crown Publishers, Inc. New York
Printed in Italy
Copyright 1967 by Ufficipress
S.A. Lugano

By Kenneth Clark
Published by the BBC
Copyright 1969 by Kenneth Clark

ART: Context and Criticism
By John Kissick
Penn State University
Copyright 1993
By Wm. C. Brown Communications




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