VINCENT VAN GOGH - Biography
Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Groot-Zundert, a village in the south of the Netherlands, on the Belgian border. He was the eldest son
of Theodorus Van Gogh, a handsome preacher, and his kind-hearted wife, Anna Cornelia Carbentus. He was named Vincent Willem after his two grandfathers. He was followed by a sister, Anna, born in 1855, and in 1857, his brother,
Theodorus (Theo), was born.
Vincent van Gogh
at age eighteen
Vincent and Theo were both copper-haired and blue-eyed, although the younger Theo was of slighter build. Over time, two more daughters and another son were added to the family.
Vincent's father was known as the "handsome preacher" in the village. His congregation was small and provided a meager living for the Van Gogh family.
Although money was tight, Vincent and Theo formed a bond that would last their entire lives. They kept each other company and spent their days among the wheat fields, the heath and the pine forests.
Vincent attended the village school until his parents, worried that the peasant children might make their son rough, hired a governess to teach their children at home. Vincent was only eleven when his parents sent him to boarding school. The separation from home made a deep impression on Vincent and was the beginning of a life lived in loneliness and isolation.
Eventually, at age 16, like many young men of his time, his parents decided that he'd had enough schooling and Vincent was apprenticed to learn a trade. Three of his uncles owned successful art galleries. Vincent was apprenticed to the most successful, Uncle Cent (Vincent) and began work in The Hague branch of Goupil & Cie.
"... it felt strange not to find you there when I came home in the afternoons... "
Always your loving
After Vincent had been in The Hague three years, his brother Theo came to visit him. A brief note, thanking Theo for visiting, is the first surviving letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother. The letter is dated August 18, 1872.
Vincent Van Gogh was doing well in his work at the art gallery when his brother, Theo, also began his apprenticeship with the firm. The director wrote to the Van Gogh's expressing his confidence in Vincent and notifying them that he was to be transferred to the London office as a promotion. He noted that both the clients and painters enjoyed dealing with Vincent and expected him to have success.
Vincent developed an affection for the daughter of the landlady of his boarding house, Eugénie. Eugénie was slim, dark-haired and charming. She was also engaged to be married. Shy, twenty-years-old with no experience with women, Vincent was brokenhearted.
There was a sudden, dramatic change in Vincent's personality after this rejection. He turned silent, moody and difficult, and refused to go out. For the first time, people called him "eccentric".
Two years later, Goupil transferred Vincent to Paris, hoping the change of scenery would improve his outlook. Vincent did spend time in the Louvre and the Luxembourg Palace, but was not attracted to the lively Parisian nightlife. He began to attend church regularly, for the first time since he'd left his father's parish.
Theo van Gogh
at age thirty-two
Van Gogh began to read the Bible in all his spare time. He seemed to his family to be bordering on the fanatic. He even suggested to Theo that he burn all his books except his Bible.
Eventually, Goupil's art gallery had enough of Van Gogh's frequent absences, his rude treatment of clients and his strange choices in clothing. He was fired.
Van Gogh managed to land a job teaching young boys at a London boarding school for room and board. And then moved to another similar teaching job where he was given room and board plus a small salary. More interesting to Vincent, however, was the fact that in this second teaching job, he was allowed to preach. His letters home were full of religious aphorisms and meditations. His father didn't have any objection to his son becoming a preacher, but he wanted him to start the necessary studies rather than dabbling in such an unpractical way.
When Van Gogh returned home that Christmas, Vincent's sister Elizabeth found him "groggy with piety." At the age of twenty-four, Vincent announced his intention to become a clergyman. In order to become a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, Vincent would need to pass state entrance exams. Because he lacked a high-school diploma, this would mean at least two years of tutoring. Then, once he passed the exams, he would have to train for six expensive years at the theological seminary in Amsterdam. Without all this, Vincent would be unable to acquire a meaningful job in the church. The whole extended Van Gogh family pitched in to help Vincent with room and board and tutoring.
Vincent didn't enjoy his studies. He began to feel constantly anxious. He felt he was letting down his family. He began to punish himself by beating his back with a rope. Sometimes he locked himself out of his uncle's house and slept in the cold shed without even a blanket. After a year of struggling, Vincent gave up. He would never pass the entrance exams.
|"There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it...
Letter to Theo
As a compromise, Vincent and his father enrolled him in an evangelical course that took three years instead of six. Vincent was accepted on a trial basis. After six months, realizing even this trial was a failure, Vincent landed an assignment as an evangelist and left for the grim mining district in southwestern Belgium called the Borinage.
Vincent began trying to identify with the miners. He moved into a hovel where he slept on a straw mattress. He gave his warm clothes to the needy and stopped washing the coal dust from his face. Vincent's determination to follow Christ's example made people uncomfortable. The mission sponsors refused to renew his appointment. This began a period of time when Vincent was homeless and hungry. He lost touch with his family, refusing to write even to Theo for nine months.
During the summer of 1879, Vincent wrote to his first boss at Goupil to request some watercolors, a sketchbook and two manuals on learning how to draw. Vincent began trying to sketch the miners and peasants. He made slow progress, but persisted. Eventually, hungry, tired, and desperate, he went home.
His earlier desire to help his fellow man as a clergyman gradually developed into an urge (as he later wrote) to leave "some memento in the form of drawings or paintingsnot made to please any particular movement, but to express a sincere human feeling."
His parents, however, did not support this plan and financial responsibility for Vincent passed to his brother, Theo. Throughout Van Gogh's life, Theo provided material and emotional support. Finally, Van Gogh came to regard his work as a kind of a collaboration with Theo, based on the support and kindness Theo offered him.
|"I think all the fellows in the drawing class all work badly and in an absolutely wrong way... it is correct, it is whatever you like, but it is dead."
Letter to Theo
When Vincent van Gogh decided to become an artist, no one, not even Vincent himself, suspected that he had extraordinary gifts. He progressed rapidly from inept novice to a truly original master. His work was eventually characterized by bold, harmonious colors and simple but memorable compositions.
Van Gogh went to Brussels to study at the academy to prepare for his new career. He left after only nine months. In April, 1881, he went to live with his parents and taught himself how to draw.
|"I still remember telling you... that I would sooner be with a bad whore than be alone."
Letter to Theo
Van Gogh moved to The Hague to learn drawing from his cousin, Anton Mauve. However, in addition to Van Gogh's prickly personality, Mauve and the rest of Vincent's family disapproved of Vincent's relationship with Sien Hoornik, a prostitute pregnant with her second illigitimate child. For Van Gogh, this was a brief idyllic period, when he had a little family and access to a live model.
Eventually, Van Gogh broke off the relationship with Sien and ended up living with his parents again, this time in Nuenen.
|"In a way I am glad that I never learned painting. In all probability I would then have learned to ignore such effects as this."
Letter to Theo
In Nuenen, Van Gogh began painting in the style of one of the artists he most admired, Jean-Francois Millet. Millet was famous at the time for his scenes of the harsh life of peasants ant this theme struck a resonant chord with Vincent. Van Gogh painted and drew a major series of heads and peasant hands in preparation for The Potato Eaters, which he completed in 1884.
It took Van Gogh a while to convince the peasants to pose for him as they worked, they wanted to wear their best and sit stiffly for portraits. Not too long after, however, a rumor that Van Gogh had fathered a peasant girl's illegitimate child caused the local priest to forbid his parishioners to pose for Vincent. Undaunted, Van Gogh turned to landscapes instead.
In 1885, Van Gogh decided he would try formal schooling again and enrolled at the academy in Antwerp. He revelled in the museums but found the lessons tedious. It was here that he discovered the work of Rubens and also discovered Japanese prints.
|"Last year I painted almost nothing but flowers so as to get used to colors other than grey..."
Letter to Vincent's sister Wil
Van Gogh went to live with Theo in 1886 in Paris. He was at last confronted with the full impact of modern art and the work of contemporary painters, both Impressionists and post-Impressionists.
Impressed with the brighter palette of the Impressionists, Van Gogh began to paint still lifes of flowers. He continued to experiment with Impressionist styles, post-Impressionist, and Japanese-influenced painting. By the end of the two years spent in Paris, Vincent van Gogh had forged his own highly personal style.
In early 1888 Van Gogh moved south to Arles, in Provence. He was attracted to the area because he believed the stronger light would enable him to paint more truthfully. His hope was to create a working community of artists who would revolutionize color.
Van Gogh was enchanted by the landscape around Arles and began to make a personal contribution to modern art with his daring, exaggerated color combinations.
It was typical of his confidence in his work that Van Gogh chose not to try to sell any work until he had thirty top-class pictures with which to announce himself to the world.
His ambition for an artist's colony seemed to take a promising turn when Gauguin arrived to live with him in October 1888.
By the end of the year, however, his hopes were shattered when the first signs of his illness appeared. Diagnosed as a kind of epilepsy, it was characterized by delusions and psychotic attacks. During these episodes, Van Gogh ate paint or dirt. He saw things. It was during one of these seizures that Van Gogh cut off his earlobe. Gauguin quickly moved out.
|"I am risking my life for my work and my reason has half-foundered because of it."
Letter to Theo
23 July 1890
Van Gogh, hounded by the villagers in Arles for his illness, decided to move to nearby Saint-Rémy and check himself into the asylum as a voluntary patient. Thanks once more to Theo's continued support, the asylum wasn't so bad. Vincent had a bedroom and a room for a studio. The only treatment was "hydrotherapy" which consisted of two-hour long baths twice a week. When Vincent wasn't suffering from his illness, he was clear-headed and able to work on his art.
His use of intense color became more muted and his brushwork began to resemble the hatchings and scorings of graphic work.
He had the beginnings of professional recognition here when two of his painitngs were shown at the fifth exhibition of the Société des artistes indépendants.
Van Gogh made a large number of "translations in color" of prints by his favorite artists. These paintings were both good practice for Van Gogh and were consoling. In January of 1890, Van Gogh's first critical acclaim was published in an article by Albert Aurier who praised Van Gogh's work.
|"The truth is, we can only make our pictures speak."
Letter to Theo
23 July 1890
Van Gogh left the asylum in May 1890 for the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. He stopped for a few days to visit his brother, Theo, his wife Joanna, and their infant son, Vincent Willem Van Gogh.
Van Gogh was only in Auvers for two months, but he produced around eighty paintings. But the burden of living had become too great to bear. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself in the chest. Two days later, he died of an infection caused by the bullet which hadn't been removed.
Van Gogh's funeral was attended by many of his artist friends and supportersincluding Bernard, Laval, Lucien Pissarro and Père Tanguy. Bernard described how the coffin had been covered with yellow flowers "his favourite color ... a symbol of the light of which he dreamed both in his heart and in his work." Van Gogh was buried in a sunny spot among the wheat fields. Theo was heartbroken. A month later, he became ill and six months later, Theo died.
From that point on, Theo's young widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger became the champion and hero of Vincent's life. She returned to Holland with the collection of Van Gogh's art, which had been left to Theo, and dedicated herself to getting the recognition that Vincent van Gogh deserved.
Johanna wisely held Vincent's letters back from the public. She insisted on first having Van Gogh's stature as a master of modern art established. Finally, in 1914, she published the correspondence between the two brothers.