Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch painter whose formal distortions and humanistic concerns made him a principal forerunner of 20th-century expressionism.

Born on March 30, 1853, at Groot-Zundert in the province of Brabant, Vincent Van Gogh was the son of a Protestant minister. His uncle was a partner in Goupil and Company, art dealers, and Vincent entered the firm at the age of 16 and remained with it for 6 years. He served the firm first in The Hague and then in London, where he fell in love with his landlady's daughter, who rejected him; then he worked for Goupil's branch in Paris.

Because of Van Gogh's irritability, Goupil dismissed him in 1876, and that year he returned to England, worked at a small school at Ramsgate, and did some preaching. In early 1877 he clerked in a bookshop in Dordrecht; then, convinced that the ministry ought to be his vocation, he entered a religious seminary in Brussels. He left 3 months later to become an evangelist in a poor mining section of Belgium, the Borinage. Van Gogh exhibited the zeal and devotion of a martyr, even giving away his clothes, but his eccentricities alienated the miners, and he was dismissed in July 1879. This period was a dark one for Van Gogh. He wished to give himself to others but was constantly being rejected.

After much introspection, Van Gogh decided in 1880 to devote his life to art, a profession he accepted as a spiritual calling. When in London, he had visited museums, and he had done some drawing while in the Borinage. In October 1880 he attended an art school in Brussels, where he studied the rudiments of perspective and anatomy. From April to December 1881 he stayed with his parents, who were then in Etten, and continued to work at his art. At this time his cousin from Amsterdam, a widow with a 4-year-old son, rejected him, and he subsequently formed a close relationship with a pregnant prostitute, a move that precipitated a break with his family. At this time, too, he studied at the academic art school at The Hague, where his cousin Anton Mauve, who worked in the sentimentalized fashion of the Barbizon painters, taught.

Dutch Period

During his Dutch period (1880-1886) Van Gogh executed works in which his overriding humanitarian concerns were overtly manifest. His subjects were poor people, miners, peasants, and inhabitants of almshouses. Among his favorite painters at this time were Jean François Millet, Rembrandt, Honoré Daumier; among his favorite authors, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—all of them interested in the poor and dispossessed. Complementing Van Gogh's dismal subject matter of this time were his colors, dark brownish and greenish tones. The masterpiece of the Dutch period is the Potato Eaters (1885), a night scene in which peasants sit at their meal around a table. The coarseness of the peasants is emphasized; in rendering them Van Gogh approached caricature. Yet he caught, too, a warm communality, a remarkable sense of love and fellowship which his painted peasants seem to share.

Years in Paris

Van Gogh decided to go to Paris in early 1886, partially because he was drawn to the bohemian life and artistic activity of the French city. His brother, Theo, was then living in Paris, where he directed a small gallery maintained by Goupil's. Theo supported Vincent financially and emotionally from the time he decided to become a painter. The letters between the brothers are among the most moving documents in all the history of Western art. Vincent shared Theo's apartment and studied at an art school run by the conventional painter Fernand Cormon, where he met Émile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who became his friends. In part through the contacts provided by Theo, Vincent met the leaders of impressionism—Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Gauguin—and the neo-impressionist Georges Seurat.

Largely under the influence of the impressionists, especially Pissarro, Van Gogh was persuaded to give up the gloomy tones of his Dutch period for bright, high-keyed colors. Also, his subject matter changed from the world of peasants to a typically impressionist subject matter, such as cafés and cityscapes about Montmartre, and he copied Japanese prints. But while subjects and handling were obviously derived from impressionism, there could frequently be detected a certain forlorn quality, as in a scene of Montmartre (1886), where pedestrians are pushed poignantly to the periphery of an open square.

Van Gogh remained in Paris for 20 months and profited from his stay. Under the influence of impressionism his palette was liberated. But the frenetic life was too much for him; he wanted a place of light and warmth, and he did not want to be entirely financially dependent on Theo, so in February 1888 he left for Arles in southern France.

Stay at Arles

The pleasant country about Arles and the warmth of the place restored Van Gogh to health. He worked feverishly: in his 15 months there he painted over 200 pictures. At this time he applied color in simplified, highly saturated masses, his drawing became more virile and incisive than ever before, and objects seemed to radiate a light of their own without giving off shadows. During this period he also turned to portraiture and executed several self-portraits. Among the masterpieces of his Arles period are the Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries (June 1888); the Night Café (September); and the Artist's Bedroom at Arles (October), where the chairs about the bed seem to be acting out a spectacle and almost appear to be living beings conversing.

At Arles, Van Gogh suffered fainting spells and seizures. The local population began to object to him. Gauguin, responding to his invitation, visited him in October 1888, but the two men quarreled violently; Gauguin left for Paris, and Van Gogh in a fit of remorse and anger cut off his ear. On May 9, 1889, he asked to be interned in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de Provence.

Production at Saint-Rémy

In the year he spent at the asylum Van Gogh worked as feverishly as at Arles and produced 150 paintings and hundreds of drawings. He copied engravings after Rembrandt, Eugène Delacroix, and Millet. Van Gogh suffered several attacks but was completely lucid in between. At this time he received his first critical acclaim, an article by the writer Albert Aurier.

During Van Gogh's stay at Saint-Rémy his art changed markedly. His colors lost the intensity of the Arles period: yellows became coppered, vermilions verged toward brownish tones. His lines became writhing and restless. He applied the paint more violently with thicker impasto. Van Gogh was drawn to objects in nature under stress: whirling suns, twisted cypresses, and surging mountains. In Starry Night (1889) the whole world seems engulfed by a paroxysm of circular movements. Some critics have attempted to link the linear movements of his Saint-Rémy period with the vogue of Art Nouveau, but Van Gogh's paintings at this time reveal an intensity and convulsive force found in none of the Art Nouveau painters.

Van Gogh went to Paris on May 17, 1890, to visit his brother. On the advice of Pissarro, Theo had Vincent go to Auvers, just outside Paris, to submit to the care of Dr. Paul Gachet, himself an amateur painter and a friend of Pissarro and Paul Cézanne.

Last Year at Auvers

Van Gogh arrived at Auvers on May 21. He painted a portrait of Dr. Gachet and portraits of his daughters, as well as the Church of Auvers, agitated by a baroque rhythm with the church silhouetted against a cobalt sky. The blue of the Auvers period was not the fully saturated blue of Arles but a more mysterious, flickering blue. In his last painting, the Cornfield with Crows, Van Gogh showed a topsy-turvy world: the spectator himself becomes the object of perspective, and it is toward him that the crows appear to be flying.

At first Van Gogh felt relieved at Auvers, but toward the end of June he experienced fits of temper. He quarreled with Gachet. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself in a lonely field and died the morning of the 29th. Theo died insane 6 months later in the Netherlands, and his body was taken to France to be buried next to that of his brother.

Further Reading on Vincent Van Gogh

The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh (3 vols., 1958) is more engrossing than most novels. The catalogue raisonné is by J. Bernard de la Faille, ed., L'Oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh (4 vols., 1928). A good introduction to Van Gogh's life and works is Abraham M. Hammacher, Genius and Disaster: The Ten Creative Years of Vincent van Gogh (1968). An excellent study of the artist is Marc Edo Tralbaut, Vincent Van Gogh (1969). Other useful studies are H. R. Graetz, The Symbolic Language of Vincent van Gogh (1963), and Frank Elgar, Van Gogh: A Study of His Life and Work trans. 1966). Brilliant analyses of a selected number of paintings are in Meyer Schapiro, Vincent van Gogh (1950). See also John Rewald, Post-impressionism (vol. 1 1956; 2d ed. 1962).