You know he cut his ear off and painted Starry Night, but what else do you know about Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh? I was lucky enough to visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam this summer, and was quite surprised by what I found out. This month for Arty-facts, we’ll learn a bit more about the life of one of the world’s most famous artists.
Vincent Van Gogh is an inspiration not just for his masterful artworks, but for his mastery of his own humanity. He started his life being judged as a disappointment- from the very beginning he never seemed to fit in. He quit school, drifted from job to job, and continuously returned to the Netherlands to live with his parents. He became deeply religious, but lacked the will to study for the ministry entrance exams. At the age of 27, Vincent decided to serve god as an artist. He was unsuccessful at selling his works though, and for the rest of his days he was financially supported by his brother Theo.
And yet… despite all the discouragement and his lifelong struggle with mental health, he pursued his passion for art. He understood and worked towards accepting himself. He expressed it best in his letters to his brother Theo:
“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”
For ten years until his suicide at the age of 37, he fervently painted and drew, continuously learning and evolving his style and use of color. In the beginning, his paintings reflected his struggles with distinctly dark tones and focus on village life. You can see this in one of his first masterpieces, The Potato Eaters.
Vincent was told his paintings were not good enough to sell- they were too dark for society’s liking. He didn’t listen and kept painting. Eventually he moved to Paris in 1886 and was influenced by the use of color in works artists there such as Claude
Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Emile Bernard. In 1888 he moved to Arles where he experimented with intense colors and exaggerated brush strokes. He painted not what he saw, but the scene of what he felt. He used the colors to portray the emotions of his models, not just their bone structures. Some of his exceptional works were painted during his time of collaborating with his roommate, Paul Gauguin. But that turbulent relationship ended in the famous incident of Vincent cutting off a part of his ear. It seemed his mental health struggles were taking a turn for the worse.
Despite his struggles with depression, he continued to grow as an artist. One of the most amazing aspects of Vincent Van Gogh is how prolific he was in both painting and writing. In that ten year period, he produced more than 2,000 artworks, most being produced in his last two years of life. Some doctors credit this to his numerous illnesses- he suffered from epilepsy, bipolar disorder, hypergraphia, and possibly thujone and lead poisoning. His manic and hypergraphic episodes lead to days or weeks of living on coffee, bread, and absinthe while feverishly painting and writing letters to his brother. He struggled and he worked. And he felt, deeply.
According to the BBC, “he spent time in psychiatric hospitals and swung between periods of inertia, depression and incredibly concentrated artistic activity, his work reflecting the intense colors and strong light of the countryside around him.” He was suffering, and he was lonely. He wrote that,
“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.”
If only he could have known that he would change the direction of modern art and thousands of aspiring artists would someday study his works. But in his lifetime, he was trapped in the cycles of his mind. During the time living in the hospital, he created many masterpieces, including one of his most famous works- Starry Night.
When you look at this painting, you can understand how deeply he felt and how incredibly complex his relationship with life was. The sky swirls with intensity. Its turbulence contrasts with the sleepy town below it. The whirling nebulae are focuses of light and beauty, while the Cypress tree brings us back down to the darkened earth. The painting is balanced and alive, swirling in motion and yet grounded. It’s incredibly powerful.
Some of the last works of art that he painted were the wheat fields in Auvers.
These paintings show the vastness of nature, with rich colors and textures and an intense beauty that can be said to represent the artist himself. They reflect his sadness, his loneliness, but also his love of nature and the feeling of being close to God. He painted these landscapes and wrote his brother Theo:
‘. . . knowing clearly what I wanted I’ve painted another three large canvases since then. They’re immense stretches of wheatfields under turbulent skies, and I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness. You’ll see this soon, I hope – for I hope to bring them to you in Paris as soon as possible, since I’d almost believe that these canvases will tell you what I can’t say in words, what I consider healthy and fortifying about the countryside.’
Shortly thereafter, on July 27th 1890, Vincent Van Gogh walked into the wheat fields and shot himself in the chest. There is some debate over whether he himself pulled the trigger, but we’ll never know. If someone else indeed shot him, he never named them in his last hours before death. In the end, he died in his brother’s arms never knowing that he was professionally successful, but knowing that he was loved. He had begun the artistic movement of Post Impressionism and his emotional, gestural canvases fathered modern movements including Fauvism, Expressionism, and Abstract Expressionism. His short life forever changed the face of art and was a testimony to the power of living your own truth.