Vincent’s life was a short 37 years with only the last 10 being occupied with being a painter. In those 10 years of effort, he created nearly 1000 oil paintings and as many drawings and sketches. His canvases, though highly prized now, were not received well by critics nor by more than a few fellow artists until the final months of his difficult life.
Young Vincent was a loner and a bit outcast as a schoolboy and grew up a pious young man in the house of the town vicar of Nuenen, the Netherlands. His father, Theodorus (Dorus to the family) was a pastor of the conservative Protestant Dutch Reformed Church in a town that was predominately Catholic.
Vincent had seven brothers and sisters, some of whom were afflicted with mental illness as was he in later years. He had a close bond and partnership with his younger brother by 5 years, Theo, who became an art dealer in the family business. Theo Van Gogh did as much as anyone at the time to support the impressionist artists’ break from the realism popular in the salons of Paris in the 1880s and Theo supported Vincent and Paul Gauguin and other neo-impressionists as they broke even farther away.
After Vincent fails at being an art dealer in his early 20’s, he fails at following in his father’s footsteps in becoming a preacher in the coal mines of Belgium, and even again fails early in his training as an artist. Fortunately, he and Theo have a plan to ally the talented but as yet unaccepted post-impressionist artists of Paris in a studio of the south where the art they produce will be sold by Theo to pay for their living and painting expenses. If only they had more time, it might have worked and along the way, Theo helped many impressionists and post impressionists by purchasing and re-selling their work while he was a Paris dealer for Goupil et Cie.
The timeline of Vincent’s short and passionate life is a fascinating one of a misunderstood and highly principled genius of color who put himself in an asylum for a time but rarely stopped producing brilliant pieces in a prolific manner. Vincent’s life is one of a pilgrim on a long and difficult journey to a meeting with his Lord, a metaphor which struck him early and perhaps stayed with him in spirit through his final canvas.
Vincent was born in Zundert, Holland (The Netherlands) in 1853, the first surviving child of Theodorus and Anna Van Gogh. Vincent’s father was a protestant preacher from a known dutch family of artists, dealers, the admiralty and other higher echelon positions held by Van Goghs. Vincent’s mother came from The Hague, Netherlands. and was a bit of an artist herself and her father was a royal bookbinder in The Hague.
The Van Goghs had tried to deliver a baby boy exactly one year before Vincent was born on March 30th, but he was stillborn and buried in the Zundert cemetery with the same name they would give their eldest child, Vincent Van Gogh. The Van Gogh household was regimented as one would expect with the responsibility of community leader Theodorus at head of household and all the scrutiny that comes with that leadership. Being the vicar of a small Protestant congregation in the predominantly Catholic community of Brabant would have Vincent again on the outside looking in.
All of the Van Gogh children were provided top notch educations with the family sacrificing over half of its monthly income to put their children through the best schools available. Young Vincent was described as being different as a child and not fitting in well with classmates, more of a loner. Vincent goes away to boarding school in Zevenburg at the young age of 11 to Jan Provily’s school. At age 14 he moves on to Tilburg and The Modern School for his final two years of education and great difficulty learning Greek in the aggressive curriculum and academic environment.
He is a humble and pious young man and while he feels misunderstood, the fires of ambition, toil and self sacrifice already burn within. He walks out of the Tilburg school at 15 and walks home to Zundert from the school, a journey of seven hours. He lives at home for the next 16 difficult months and then moves away to The Hague, Netherlands for his first job at 16 and a half years old and lives in its environs where he will live and work for the next four years.
Vincent’s first job is through his uncle Cent’s firm, Goupil & Cie at Plaats 14 in The Hague. Vincent begins his employment as a clerk at the art dealership. Less than a year later, February of 1870, reverend Van Gogh moves his family from Zundert to Helvoirt. In August of 1872, a 15 year old younger brother Theo visits Vincent in The Hague and the brothers tour the dealership and the museums together and discuss the masters and technique.
London and Paris and art dealing Teaching Sunday School Studying to become a preacher
The Borinage Turning to becoming an artist, schools and training Theo, Goupil and Valladon and Paris
Paris – Vincent arrives by train from Antwerp in February of 1886 without notice to Theo, and heads to the Louvre where he sends a message to Theo – an invite to come meet him. Theo comes and they spend the afternoon walking amongst the works of the masters and talking art. Vincent moves in with Theo in a small apartment for a few months while he attends an art school/studio or atelier, Cormon’s school. By June, the brothers have moved to Montmartre and Vincent has left Cormon’s abruptly and begun to experiment with a lighter and brighter palette of color of the impressionists and the shorter brushtrokes, dashes and dots of the pointillists. Within the next 18 months he will create several hundred canvases, have a fleeting relationship with an old favored model – turned cafe owner, and embark on his own path of color combinations, flat and cloisonné inspired canvases with deeply impasto paint application, sometimes directly from the tube to the canvas. He is still outcast and his work underappreciated but he, Signac and Bernard have spent a summer in dialogue and toil along the Seine in Asnieres and Vincent is ready for a change in scenery.
Arles, – Vincent moves to Arles in Provence for some relief from two long, cold winters in Paris and for the fabled Mediterranean light of the south of France. Arriving in February by train from Paris, he is greeted by a foot of snow on the ground and a snowstorm which lasts for a week. For nearly a month he is kept indoors as a stubborn Provence winter maintains its grip longer than normal.
He first lives in a small room by the train station at a restaurant called Le Carrel. He negotiates his rate down to 4 francs a day and eats most of his meals in the restaurant. Once he can paint outdoors, he heads off north of town on the road to Montmajour, Fontveille and Tarascon and paints the orchards coming into bloom in April and May along with the vast fields and farmhouses he sees along the way. He paints locations around the outskirts of Arles as he explores the views for landscapes and paints in the fierce Provencal winds, the mistrals.
In May Vincent rents a new place to stay after another dispute with another landlord. This is the famed “Yellow House” on Place Lamartine in which he has visions of creating an “artists’ studio of the south” where he and like-minded painters (Gauguin, Bernard, Russell, Anquetin) will pursue the bond between color and emotion in an environment conducive to simple living, working outdoors and doing both with a minimum of expense and a maximum of camaraderie.
In late May, Vincent sees Arles speckled with the caravans and processions of the gypsies on pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer. Vincent heads to the Mediterranean Sea for four days and captures his only views of the windswept shores of south Provence. Vincent returns to Arles and begins repainting the house and studio and purchasing furniture in advance of the forthcoming artists he and his brother seek to convince to paint in the south. Only Gauguin comes to join Vincent, not the desired Bernard or Russell.
When their views on life and art and their resilient passions driving underneath, the famed studio of the south does not pan out. Vincent has a falling out with his friend and mentor and a loss of lucidity where he threatens others and cut off part of his ear with a razor, delivering it to a prostitute as a bull’s ear is presented by a matador in the Arles arena where bullfights are attended. Vincent is admitted to a hospital in Arles until he recovers. He finds that painting relieves him of anxiety to some degree and continues to create canvases from inside the hospital.
When he is released, 80 townspeople convince the mayor he is still a danger to the community and Vincent is asked to leave town and enter the hospital again. He soon chooses to leave Arles altogether and selects an old monastery turned hospital in Saint Remy, only 30 kilometers to the northeast for his self-imposed treatment. He paints Sunflowers, Wheat Fields, Cypresses and Olive trees in studies of color and texture while in Arles and many critics feel his work peaks here. He applies color in bold combinations and shades, beginning to seek heartily the ability to create emotion with colors and their juxtaposition on the canvas.
Saint Remy – Vincent selects the St. Paul asylum in Saint Remy, Provence for his seclusion and treatment. At first, he is limited to the grounds to create his canvases but soon he is allowed to go outside the walls of the hospital and paint the surrounding countryside. Vincent receives his first favorable critique from a respected French writer and art critic in XX of 1889 while still in St. Remy. He is dreadfully worried about the inevitable fall that must come from what he perceives as the critic’s lofty praises and lack of mention of his fellow artists he perceives to be with him in the struggle of the post impressionists to advance painted art. He writes back to Feneon in thanks and to admonish him for publicizing Vincent as a soloist in opposition to Vincent’s view that he is working hand in hand with Gauguin, Bernard and Anquetin and Signac in their search for a new path forward. He also receives word that one of his paintings has sold after a show to Anna Boch, a fellow post impressionist painter and collector in her own right. It is with this uneasy affirmation from the outside and a deep sense of foreboding within that Vincent leaves St. Remy to live amongst society again and remove himself from living with the unbalanced.
Auvers Sur Oise – Vincent moves to Auvers at the suggestion of Theo and Camille Pissarro, so Vincent can be out of the asylum but still in the close care of a physician (of sorts) who also happens to paint and collect artwork as a hobby. Less than an hour by train from Paris and on a beautiful bend in the Seine, Vincent is hoping for peace and portraits and landscapes to paint and moves into the Ravoux Inn and a room just above the kitchen and restaurant of the hotel. Vincent meets his new physician and confidant, Dr. Gachet in the first week of living in Auvers and for these last six months, they will strike a new friendship, fueled by Gachet’s admiration of Vincent’s work. Vincent creates an average of over one canvas per day in Auvers, setting off into the fields and roads of the small village in the suburbs of Paris. He paints wheatfields and portraits and clouds and threatening skies. Death – Vincent goes out to paint in the fields on July XX 1890 and comes back after dark with a bullet wound in his chest, self inflicted he reports. He has borrowed the revolver of the Ravoux Inn owner, Claude, and shot himself around the middle of the day and was rendered unconscious. When he awoke it was after dark and he limped back to his room above the inn and was found there asleep and bleeding. Gachet was summonsed and he sent word to Theo in Paris of Vincent’s dire situation. Theo came by train the next morning and spent the day with his brother, talking while Vincent smoked his pipe as they hoped Vincent would recover from this like so many other previous maladies.
His pilgrimage apparently complete, Vincent died before dawn the next morning and was buried the following day in the cemetery in Auvers Sur Oise, where Theo would join him in less than a year. A grief stricken Theo Van Gogh has a fit of madness and is sent to a hospital where he dies six months later. Theo’s wife Joanna cared for much of the work the brothers had created and began a review, cataloguing and dating of all surviving letters between the brothers. It is because of Joanna and her descendants so much of the story of Vincent can be told and the brothers who ushered in a path forward in art.
The Feel of Paris in the 1880s: Vincent lived and worked in Paris during the Belle Epoque or “Beautiful Era” as the city explored the refinement of La Joie de Vivre before the turn of the 20th century. The second industrial revolution is creating a wealthier nouveau riche class of bourgeoisie in Paris and this period before World War One and after the Franco Prussian war is a time for reflection. Paris is growing and in 1889 hosts the Worlds Fair and creates the Eiffel Tower as an entrance. At the time Eiffel builds his tower from the steel and rivets of the industrial age, it is the tallest structure made by man in the world. For the first time, people can see a bird’s eye view of Paris without ascending in a balloon. Where Vincent lives in Montmartre, a great quarry is unearthing stone for the construction of the Sacre Coeur cathedral. The suburbs of Paris are accessible by train and the Parisians seek relief from the heat of the summer in the city by heading to smaller villages along the Seine like Asnieres. While the wealthy are parading at Maxim’s and discussing the latest in Paris haute couture (high fashion), and dining on Escoffier’s creations at the Ritz and the foundation of haute cuisine, there is a more bohemian underside also flourishing. In the cabarets like the Moulin Rouge and the Chat Noir, entertainment is enjoyed along with a new liqueur supposed to enhance artist’s capabilities, absinthe. It is now known to contribute to brain disease but most artists of the time, including Vincent, partook freely of its effects.
Champagne production has been brought to new levels of quality during this gilded age of Paris and art nouveau is just around the corner. The musicians of the time include Vincent purchased most of his canvas from his brother Theo and most of his paints and painting supplies from Tanguy’s small shop while in Paris. When Vincent moves to Provence and later to Auvers, Theo continues to send supplies from Tanguys and Tasset’s, a rival paint source. Vincent’s canvases are stretched and coated with a preparatory solution and let to dry before applying paints. His paints are (tube paint, colors, cost, lead)… His brushes… His palette… His style and influences…