The famous Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh, was a Post-Impressionist painter and a troubled genius. While his paintings have made him one of the art world’s most influential figures, his personal life was tormented by mental illness, causing him to cut off his own ear.
Born in Zundert, Netherlands, in 1853, he was a serious, thoughtful child, who enjoyed drawing. He worked as an art dealer as a young man, but after moving to London, he became depressed, initially turning to religion as solace. His father, Theodorus van Gogh, was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Eventually, he moved back in with his parents, finding employment in a bookshop and taking up painting in 1881, at the age of 28. His mother had always encouraged him to draw and paint since childhood. Although his early work was expressive, it didn’t match the intensity of his later paintings.
Initially, he studied the people and scenes around him and captured them on canvas as a record of everyday life. His younger brother, Theo, born in 1857, suggested Vincent should study with the renowned Dutch artist, Willem Roelofs. This was the start of his career as an artist.
He attended the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts at Roelofs’ suggestion and studied anatomy and the rules of perspective and modelling. He then studied watercolour painting under his second cousin, Anton Mauve, who was a successful artist.
His first recognised works included Peasant Character Studies painted between 1881 and 1885 when he travelled around painting ordinary working class people, such as weavers in their cottages. By 1885, he had painted around 200 still-life oil paintings and additional watercolours.
His first major work was an oil painting dating from 1885, The Potato Eaters, depicting peasant workers dining together around a wooden table. His work was exhibited for the first time in the shop window of the art dealer, Leurs in The Hague.
Sadly, Van Gogh’s genius wasn’t recognised during his lifetime. His early works, painted mainly in muted brown tones, were deemed “too dark” and not in keeping with the popular, colourful style of the day. He was renting a room in Antwerp by this time and lived in poverty, eating poorly.
Theo supported him by sending money for food, but Vincent preferred to spend it on art materials and generally neglected himself. He was a prolific painter and despite his lack of commercial success, he produced works of art that are recognised today as some of the greatest masterpieces in history.
Bedroom in Arles
His classics include Bedroom in Arles, which was a painting of his own bedroom in 1888. It was damaged by the flood of the Rhône, so he painted the same scene twice more in 1889. The original painting remained in the ownership of the artist’s family. It is on permanent loan to the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
The second painting is in Chicago’s Art Institute and a smaller version is in the Musée d’Orsay in France. The latter was originally painted for Van Gogh’s family. He wrote a letter to Theo, explaining the inspiration for Bedroom in Arles.
He wished to show the simplicity of his room, describing the floor’s “uneven, faded red” hue, the “pale lilac” walls, the “chrome yellow” bed and chairs and the “pale lime green” sheet and pillows.
He described the “tranquillity” of his room, despite the mix of bold colours, including the “blood-red” blanket, blue wash basin, orange washstand and green window.
He likened the decor of his room to those favoured by the Japanese, claiming they lived in “very simple interiors”. In the letter, he exclaimed to Theo, “What great artists have lived in that country!”
For Vincent, his “empty bedroom with a wooden bed and two chairs” depicts a sparseness which is emphasised by his simple composition of straight lines. Critics have said the combination of colours makes up for what they describe as the “instability of the perspective”.
The second version of Bedroom in Arles, painted in oil on canvas and measuring 72cm x 90cm, featured bolder colours than its predecessor, while the third version, measuring 57.5cm x 74cm, depicted slightly different hues again. All three paintings were brought together in 2016 for a one-off special exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
As a prolific artist, all of his paintings are now recognised as masterpieces. These include Starry Night, depicting the view from his window in Saint-Rémy in 1889, which is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Another of his most famous paintings, the still life, Vase with Twelve Sunflowers (better known as Sunflowers) was painted in August 1888. It is on display at the Neue Pinakothek, in Munich.
In another letter to Theo, Vincent described how he was “painting with gusto”. He loved painting natural flowers. He described his ambition to live in a studio with his brother, where the decoration was “nothing but large sunflowers”.
Despite his wonderful talent as a painter, Van Gogh battled mental illness and depression his entire life. This led to alcoholism. At one point, he cut off part of his own left ear with a razor in 1888, while drinking heavily. It followed a confrontation with his former friend, the artist Paul Gauguin, which left him enraged.
Van Gogh was said to suffer from hallucinations and psychotic episodes. He died in July 1890, at the age of only 37, committing suicide by shooting himself with a revolver. It was a great tragedy that his genius as an artist was recognised only after his death. He has left a legacy of hundreds of unique works of art for future generations.
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