Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) is one of the most famous Dutch artists, although he only worked as a painter for ten years. During this time he produced more than 840 paintings and more than 1,000 drawings. However, his works were not appreciated until after his death.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Groot-Zundert, a small municipality in the Netherlands. As a child he was not interested in art or painting.  Only at the age of 27 did he begin to draw. Before that he worked in various professions. At the age of 16 he began to work as a salesman in an art shop. This profession also took him to the cities of London and Paris. Van Gogh finally lost the desire to be a professional art dealer and decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a Protestant priest.

Image from dieleinwand.de

Vincent quickly abandoned his theological studies and began a ministry with the miners of Borinage. The life of the hard-working population was to accompany him throughout his life in his artistic works. During his activity as a preacher he is said to have already painted. Inspired by his brother Theo, he finally decided to become a painter in 1880.

Through self-study to become a painter

One of his early works from 1883: It shows flower beds in Holland. One of his early works from 1883: It shows flower beds in Holland.

Vincent van Gogh mainly painted landscapes, fields, villages and country roads. It was always important to him to paint the “living model” and therefore he made many drawings of farmers at work. However, since he had no artistic training at all, he went to Brussels in 1880 and studied anatomical and perspective drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts. Van Gogh saw art as an opportunity to enter into a relationship with the environment. However, this view was not shared by other artists of the time. He abandoned his studies and began to teach himself how to draw and paint.

  1. At the end of 1881 he went to The Hague, where he was taught by the then well-known painter Anton Mauve, his cousin.
  2. During this time van Gogh had a relationship with Sien Hoomik, a pregnant prostitute who already had an illegitimate child.
  3. Because of this relationship, van Gogh had problems with his family and his friendship with Anton Mauve broke up. Nevertheless, he continued the relationship for two more years. During this time Sien Hoomik was his model.

After the separation in September 1883, van Gogh oved to the Dutch province of Drenthe to draw landscapes and farmers. Because he felt lonely, lacked sufficient models and inspiration, he moved back to his parents, who now lived in Nuenen. There he first came into contact with paintings by Jean-François Millet, who became his role model. Just like him, van Gogh wanted to portray the life of the simple, working population. In the winter of 1884/85, for example, he produced numerous pictures of peasants and attached importance to depicting the signs of work as if they were hands shaped by the weather.

The great success initially failed to materialise

These drawings were the basis for his first major work “The Potato Eaters”. The painting, created in April 1885, is regarded by some experts as one of his masterpieces. The painting, painted in dark colours, shows a farmer’s family having dinner together, sharing a single plate of potatoes in the light of an oil lamp. With this painting van Gogh wanted to depict a realistic picture of peasant life. Some artists became aware of him, but the hoped for great success was still missing. At the end of 1885 he went to Antwerp to deepen his skills in figure painting while studying at the academy of arts. There he was influenced by the works of Paul Rubens and some Japanese artists.

In 1886 van Gogh moved to Paris with his brother Theo. The influence of the artists there and the modern art of the time (Impressionism) let him quickly replace the dark colours used up to then with lighter and lively ones. Especially yellow was reflected again and again in his expressive paintings. In Paris, van Gogh met the artists Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet, among others. He had a close friendship with Gauguin. In a house in Arles (southern France), where van Gogh later lived with Gauguin, he painted sunflowers to decorate his roommate’s bedroom. These sunflower paintings are now among his most famous works of art.

But also light-flooded southern landscapes, portraits and self-portraits were his preferred motifs at this time. Since van Gogh had no money for models, he often painted himself. During his stay in Paris alone, more than 27 self-portraits are said to have been made. In addition to painting, van Gogh wrote many letters to his brother Theo, with the help of which we now know a great deal about van Gogh’s life, thoughts and background to his paintings.

The tragic end

At the end of 1888 the first signs of van Gogh’s illness appeared. He suffered from epilepsy and mental disorders. In a kind of seizure he threatened his roommate Gauguin with a knife and later cut off a piece of his own ear. Vincent was then sent to a psychiatric institution in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he was able to continue some of his work.

During this time he also created the most popular and influential work “Die Sternennacht” (The Starry Night). The brushstrokes of this oil painting are seen by some experts as an interpretation of his confused mental state. In 1890 van Gogh left the institution and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a village of artists near Paris. He saw his life as pure waste and missed. Therefore, on July 27, 1890, he tried to kill himself with a shot in the chest. He survived this at first, but died two days later as a result of the wounding.

Later fame

The wife of van Gogh’s brother Theo, who died six months later, dedicated herself to the dissemination of Vincent van Gogh’s works, which quickly made him famous. The fame he now enjoyed was denied him for the rest of his life. After van Gogh was only able to sell one painting during his lifetime, his paintings are now worth millions. In total, van Gogh created more than 1,800 paintings and drawings. Some of them are still preserved and hang in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, named after him.

The style of painting in van Gogh’s paintings is associated with late Impressionism, an art style created between 1880 and 1905. This style of art is a kind of transition from Impressionism to Expressionism. Van Gogh’s paintings contain both Impressionist and Expressionist features, especially since his stay in Paris.

While the painting style of Impressionism  was characterized by fleeting impressions of nature drawn with short brush strokes, reality in the pictures of Expressionism (“expression” is the French term for “expression”) was often distorted, abstract (i.e. unreal) and depicted with bright, strong colors. Thus van Gogh had a very individual style, which inspired and influenced later artists. His style of painting is regarded as a precursor of Expressionism, and thus van Gogh’s works, among others, were groundbreaking for modern art.