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Vincent van Gogh was arguably one of the most influential artists in the human history. Through his use of color and imagery, he managed to communicate many different emotions and messages to each viewer of his paintings. He is most infamously known for the incident in which he chopped off his ear, supposedly mailing it to a woman in a box. For this reason, how he grew up and who he was as a person is particularly interesting to the public, as well as psychoanalysts. Regardless of if he was deeply troubled or not, one thing is clear, his life eventually led to the creation of incredible artwork.
Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Groot Zundbert, Holland, according to Eileen Lucas, author of “Vincent van Gogh.” His mother was Anna Cornelia Carbentus and his father was Reverend Theodorus van Gogh, a reverend of the protestant church. Because of the time, there was no testing available to let the parents know that young Vincent would spend most of his life tortured by his own mind. Many speculate it was his torment that led to his most tremendous artwork. Driven by an unquenchable need to belong, Steven W. Naifeh and William White Smith explain in their book that van Gogh’s natural love of art became a way to connect to others .
The artist had two brothers, Theo and Cor, and three sisters, Wil, Anna, and Elizabeth. Little is known about these early years other than no known interest in art was shown. Van Gogh was educated informally until 1870 when he began working at the Hague gallery. He was hired by Goupil et Cie at only 16, as cited in one of his own letters to his mother . From there he worked at a gallery in London, finally being transferred to Paris in 1875. He lost interest in art after this transfer and began acting as his father did, attempting to help the poor. He soon abandoned this effort, forming his own ministry with miners in Borinage. His interactions with the working class later emerged, as mentioned by in the article “Pattern as Inspiration and Mode of Communication in the Works of Van Gogh” as depictions of peasant life . His work with the miners encouraged van Gogh to leave something of his own behind. With no discernible artistic talent, but the support of his family and financial assistance of his brother, Theo, van Gogh began his artistic career .
At 27, van Gogh completed 9 months of formal education in Brussels and moved back home with his parents. While there he began teaching himself how to draw, testing different methods and drawing different subjects. He also practiced shading, perspective, and anatomy . His earliest ambitions were to draw figures. He began an apprenticeship under the tutelage of Anton Mauve in 1881 in hopes of improving his skills. During this time, according to his letters, van Gogh also struck up a relationship with Sien Hoomick . She was a pregnant prostitute from Amsterdam who already had one child who she had acquired out of wedlock. Mauve, van Gogh’s cousin through marriage, shunned van Gogh for the relationship. Their friendship, as well as the apprenticeship ended. However, van Gogh continued to refine his skills, using the prostitute as a model .
As his mental health continued to deteriorate, van Gogh became more irritable. He soon broke off the relationship with Hoomik and began living with Van Rappard and Mauve to Drenthe. The two were fellow artists and van Gogh felt he could learn from them. However, van Gogh soon lost motivation and had trouble finding models. He moved back in with his parents where he was first introduced to the works of Jean-Franqois Millet. Millet was a French painter, famous throughout Europe for his works depicting the lives of peasants. Millet’s work inspired van Gogh to paint; he forced himself to paint in Millet’s style rather than developing his own.
Though his beginning ambitions were to draw figures, primarily the human form, in 1884 van Gogh began working on depicting weathered, aging hands. Slowly he began to work on showing the aging forms of other features in an effort to continue depicting the life of a peasant. His ultimate plan was to create a collection with multiple fluent pieces that would bring him respect within the artistic community . He was particularly proud of a piece called The Potato Eaters, depicted below, but it was a widely decided failure in comparison to several of his other works.
After the Potato Eaters did not receive the success he believed it deserved, van Gogh decided he needed classical training. He enrolled in an academy in Antwerp where he began studying Japanese art and the art of Peter Paul Rubens, both of which greatly influenced van Gogh. Later, in 1886, he moved to Paris to live with his brother, Theo, and put his training to work . He experienced many examples of modern art while in Paris, as well as many examples of impressionist art. The dark colors he had normally used in his work were slowly replaced as he realized that his work was too old-fashioned to be appreciated by a modern audience. His new palette was bright and vibrant, like the colors he had begun to seen in post-impressionist art. He became so confident of his new style that he hoped fellow artists Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, and Emile Bernard would help him begin a school of art. It was only Gauguin that later joined van Gogh in Arles. Van Gogh painted sunflowers around Gauguin’s bedroom in an effort to decorate it. At the time it was a seemingly careless act but the design became one of van Gogh’s signature works.
Unfortunately, as his art began to take shape in 1888, van Gogh’s mental illness also began to fully emerge. He began suffering from epilepsy, delusions, and psychosis . One infamous episode, detailed by van Gogh in a letter to his brother, Theo, tells how van Gogh attacked Gauguin with a knife. Later that day, van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute as a present . He was hospitalized and upon release he had found that Gauguin had fled Arles; his dream of a school was over. Van Gogh eventually committed himself, where he began painting feverishly. It was in the asylum that he created his most famous painting, The Starry Night. It is hypothesized that the swirling night sky demonstrates his mental illness because the same swirling, tumultuous style is seen throughout all of the pieces created in the asylum .
Essentially van Gogh was always trying to convey the life of peasants through his work. He began drawing figures but has his artistic style took shape he realized that he was able to say something through his work. His time spent with the miners had impacted him; he decided he wanted to tell their story. Pieces like The Potato Eaters were meant to show the public what it was like to live the life of a poor individual. His exploration in drawing and painting aging, weathered hands, eyes, faces, and other body parts were also essential to his message. However, as his mental illness took shape, the message began to change. While in the asylum, after the unfortunate incident with his ear, van Gogh continued to paint. His style was different. It was brighter and more chaotic. Many artistic scholars hypothesize that this newly-found chaotic style was his mental illness emerging onto the canvas. They suggest that van Gogh was attempting to convey the chaos in his mind, projecting it into his art. It is hard for scholars to know if it was his mental illness or something else that inspired the new style. His suicide attempt, however, suggests that it was his mental illness that inspired his new style.
The following year van Gogh was released from the asylum and began writing Theo again. He was also painting rapidly, making one piece per day. His mental illness caused him to view his life as a waste and despite his body of work, on July 27, 1990, he tried to shoot himself . He survived initially but succumbed to the chest wound two days later. Theo died six months after, but not before collecting most of van Gogh’s work. Theo’s widow dedicated her life to making sure van Gogh’s work was recognized.
Vincent van Gogh’s life was tragic, but inspiration. It was filled with the beauty of hart, but also the sadness and horror of mental illness. Though he died of a gunshot wound, brought on by his own illness, how showed that wondrous things can grow out of the darkest places. The art he created, even in an asylum, is some of the most profound work the world has ever seen. Van Gogh’s story is a tale that tells us young minds need to be nurtured, as well as cared for. Though he believed his life was a waste, his work has spoken to many people and is renowned all over the world.
Charles, M., & Telis, K. (2009). Pattern as Inspiration and Mode of Communication in the Works of Van Gogh. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 238-262.
Lucas, E. (2012). Vincent van Gogh. Minneapolis: Milbrook Press.
Naifeh, S. W., & White Smith, W. (2011). Van Gogh: The Life. New York: Random House LLC.
Van Gogh, V. (2000). The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.