Early life (1853 - 1879)
1853 - Youth & Family
Theodorus van Gogh, a preacher in the Dutch Reformed
Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus, daughter of a bookseller,
marry in 1851. Their son Vincent Willem van Gogh, the eldest of
six children, is born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, a village
in Brabant, in the south of the Netherlands. Four years later,
in 1857,Vincent's favorite brother, Theodorus (Theo), is born.
Vincent begins his education at the village school in 1861, and
subsequently attends two boarding schools. He excels in languages,
studying French, English, and German. In March 1868, in the middle
of the academic year, he abruptly leaves school and returns to
Zundert. He does not resume his formal education.
1869 - Youg art dealer
In July 1869, Vincent starts an apprenticeship
at Goupil & Cie, international art dealers with headquarters in
Paris. He works in the Hague at a branch gallery established by
his uncle Vincent. From the Hague, in August 1872, Vincent begins
writing regular letters to Theo. Their correspondence continues
for almost 18 years. Theo accepts a position at Goupil's in January
1873, working in Brussels before transferring to the Hague in
November of that year.
1873 - Life in England
Vincent moves to the London Goupil branch in
June 1873. Daily contact with works of art kindles his appreciation
of paintings and drawings. In the city's museums and galleries,
he admires the realistic paintings of peasant life by Jean-François
Millet and Jules Breton. Gradually Vincent loses interest in his
work and turns to the Bible. He is transferred in 1874 to Goupil's
Paris branch, where he remains for three months before returning
to London. Vincent's performance at Goupil's continues to deteriorate.
In May 1875 he is sent again to Paris. He attends art exhibitions
at the Salon and the Louvre, and decorates his room with art prints
by Hague School and Barbizon artists. In late March 1876 Vincent
is dismissed from Goupil's. Driven by a growing desire to help
his fellow man, he decides to become a clergyman.
1876 - Uncommon devotion
Vincent returns to England in 1876 to teach at
a boarding school. In July he is offered a position as a teacher
and assistant preacher at Isleworth, near London. On November
4, Van Gogh delivers his first sermon. His interest in evangelical
Christianity and ministering to the poor becomes obsessional.
On a visit to his parents, Vincent is persuaded not to return
to England. Determined to become a minister nonetheless, he moves
to Amsterdam in 1877 and attempts to enroll in theology school.
When he is refused admittance, Vincent briefly enters a missionary
school near Brussels and in December 1878 leaves for the Borinage,
a coal-mining district in southern Belgium, to work as a lay preacher.
Vincent lives like a pauper among the miners, sleeping on the
floor and giving away his belongings. His extreme commitment draws
disfavor from the church and he is dismissed, although he continues
Young artists 1880 - 1885
Art & Faith
Wrestling with his desire to be useful, in 1880
Vincent decides he can become an artist and still be in God's
service. He writes: "To try to understand the real significance
of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their
masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a
book; another, in a picture." Vincent moves to Brussels and considers
enrolling at the art academy, but instead tries to study independently,
sometimes in the company of Dutch artist Anthon van Rappard. Because
Vincent has no livelihood, Theo, who is at Goupil's Paris branch,
sends him money. He was to do this regularly until the end of
Vincent's life. In Etten in 1881, Vincent falls in love with his
cousin Kee Vos-Stricker, who rejects his advances. His dogged
pursuit of Kee causes a rift with his parents. His intense religiosity
begins to dissipate.
Learning to paint
Vincent spends several weeks in The Hague in
late 1881 taking painting lessons from his cousin by marriage,
Anton Mauve, a leading member of the Hague School. Mauve introduces
him to watercolor and oil technique. After an argument with his
father, Vincent leaves his parents' house in Etten. He rents a
studio and takes additional lessons from Mauve in 1882. Vincent
scandalizes his family and Mauve when he takes his model, a pregnant,
unmarried prostitute named Sien Hoornik, and her young daughter
into his household. Vincent makes his first independent watercolor
and painted studies in the summer of 1882. His uncle Cornelis
van Gogh commissions him to produce 12 views of The Hague.
The "peasant painter"
|The Potato-Eaters, 1885
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh
In September 1883 Vincent travels to the province
of Drenthe in the northeastern Netherlands. He paints the bleak
landscape and peasant workers, but lonely and lacking proper materials,
he soon leaves for Nuenen, in Brabant, to live with his parents.
Following in the footsteps of Millet and Breton, by 1884 Vincent
resolves to be a painter of peasant life. He sketches and paints
the weavers of Nuenen and completes 40 painted studies of peasant
heads. Tensions develop when Vincent accuses Theo of not making
a sincere enough effort to sell the paintings Vincent has begun
to send him. Theo admonishes Vincent that his darkly colored paintings
are not in the current Parisian style, where Impressionist artists
are now using a bright palette. On March 26, 1885, Vincent's father
dies suddenly from a stroke. Shortly afterward, Vincent completes
the Potato Eaters, his first large-scale composition and first
Arrival in Antwerp
In part because local clergymen continually thwart
his attempts to find models, Vincent leaves the Netherlands for
the Belgian city of Antwerp in November 1885. He will never return
to his native country. Van Gogh is invigorated by Antwerp's urbaneness:
"I find here the friction of ideas I want." He has access to better
art supplies, the opportunity to draw from nude models, and is
exposed to the substantial collections of Dutch and Belgian art
in the city's museums and galleries, particularly the paintings
of Peter Paul Rubens. Among the exotic goods entering Europe through
Antwerp are Japanese woodblock prints, which Vincent begins to
collect. In January 1886 Vincent enrolls in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts
in Antwerp. He grows impatient with the pedantic style of academic
training, and within two months he withdraws.
Paris 1886 - 1887
Impressionism and the city
|Le pont du Carrousel
et le Louvre, 1886
(Collection F. Herman)
On February 27, 1886, Vincent arrives in Paris.
He lives with Theo in Montmartre, an artists' quarter. The move
is formative in the development of his painting style. Theo, who
manages the Montmartre branch of Goupil's (now called Boussod,
Valadon & Cie), acquaints Vincent with the works of Claude Monet
and other Impressionists. Previously he had known only Dutch painting
and the French Realists; now he sees for himself how the Impressionists
handle light and color, and treat their original themes from the
town and country. For four months Van Gogh studies at the prestigious
teaching atelier of Fernand Cormon, and he begins to meet the
city's modern artists, including Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,
Emile Bernard, Camille Pissarro, and John Russell.
Vincent's Paris work is an effort to assimilate
the influences around him. As he begins to formulate his own artistic
idiom, he progresses through the styles and subjects of the Impressionists.
His palette becomes brighter, his brushwork more broken. Like
the Impressionists, Vincent takes his subjects from the city's
cafés and boulevards, and the open countryside along the Seine
River. Through Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, he discovers the
stippling technique of Neoimpressionism, also called Pointillism,
and freely experiments with the style. "What is required in art
nowadays," he writes, "is something very much alive, very strong
in color, very much intensified."
|*Self-Portrait as an Artist,
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Interested in portraiture as a source of income,
but unable to afford models while perfecting his skills, Vincent
turns to his own image: "I deliberately bought a good mirror so
that if I lacked a model I could work from my own likeness." He
paints at least 20 self-portraits in Paris. The range of his experiments
in style and color can be read in the series. The earliest are
executed in the grays and browns of his Brabant period; these
somber colors soon give way to yellows, reds, greens, and blues,
and his brushwork takes on the disconnected stroke of the Impressionists.
To his sister he writes: "My intention is to show that a variety
of very different portraits can be made of the same person." One
of the last portraits Vincent paints in Paris, Self-Portrait as
an Artist, is a dramatic illustration of his personal and artistic
Experiments in color
Soon after arriving in Paris, Vincent senses
how outmoded his dark-hued palette has become. He paints studies
of flowers, which Theo describes as "finger exercises"-practice
pieces in which he tries to "render intense color and not a gray
harmony." Vincent keeps balls of wool with threads in different
hues-red and orange, blue and yellow, orange and gray-to sample
and test the effect of different color combinations. His palette
gradually lightens, and his sensitivity to color in the landscape
intensifies. Vincent regularly paints outdoors in Asnières, a
village near Paris where the Impressionists often set up their
easels. Later, he writes to his sister Wil: "And when I painted
the landscape in Asnières this summer, I saw more colors there
than ever before."
Artists of the petit boulevard (1887)
|*The Bridge in the Rain (after
1887 Van Gogh Museum,
Among his new friends Vincent counts the painters
he refers to as the "artists of the Petit Boulevard" -- Toulouse-Lautrec,
Signac, Bernard, and Louis Anquetin-artists who are younger and
not as famous as the Impressionists. Vincent envisions creating
a harmonious artistic community in which they will all live and
work together. In 1887 he organizes a group show of his and his
friends' paintings at a Paris restaurant. They often gather at
Père Tanguy's paint shop, where Vincent regularly sees Gauguin.
Tanguy, who generously advances supplies to many young artists,
occasionally displays Vincent's paintings in his store window.
Vincent buys Japanese prints from the noted art dealer Siegfried
Bing and studies them intensively. He arranges an exhibition of
Japanese woodcuts at a Paris café and makes a few "copies" after
Japanese prints. His own work takes on the stylized contours and
expressive coloration of his Japanese examples.
The studio of the south
|*The Yellow House, 1888
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Worn down by his activities in Paris, on February
19, 1888, Vincent leaves for Provence in the south of France.
Still hoping to establish an artists' cooperative, he rents a
studio in Arles, the "Yellow House," and invites Gauguin to join
him. In anticipation of his arrival, Vincent paints still lifes
of sunflowers to decorate Gauguin's room. The flowers represent
the sun, the dominant feature of the Provencal summer; Gauguin
describes the paintings as "completely Vincent."
Madame Roulin rocking the cradle
1888, Art Institute of Chicago
Inspired by the bright colors and strong light
of Provence, Vincent executes painting after painting in his own
powerful language. "I am getting an eye for this kind of country,"
he writes to Theo. Whereas in Paris his works covered a broad
range of subjects and techniques, the Arles paintings are consistent
in approach, fusing painterly drawing with intensely saturated
color. Vincent enters a period of sustained creative activity.
He has little to distract him from his painting, for he knows
almost no one: "Whole days go by without my speaking a single
word to anyone." He befriends the local postman, Joseph Roulin,
and paints portraits of his entire family as well as of his few
Captivated by the spectacle of spring in Provence,
Vincent paints the landscape. He concentrates on blossoming fruit
trees and later, in summer, on scenes of rural life. He paints
outdoors, often in a single long session: "Working directly on
the spot all the time, I tried to grasp what is essential." He
identifies each season and subject with characteristic colors:
"The orchards stand for pink and white, the wheatfields for yellow."
Color also becomes an expressive tool by which Vincent conveys
particular emotions, an innovation that aligns his work with Postimpressionism.
For Bedroom in Arles, he depicts his room with a stark simplicity,
using uniform patches of complimentary orange and blue, yellow
and violet, red and green. He writes to Gauguin: "I wanted all
these different colors to express a totally restful feeling."
|Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London
Gauguin finally arrives in Arles in October 1888.
For nine weeks he and Vincent work together, painting and discussing
art. Gauguin makes a portrait of Vincent in front of one of his
sunflower canvases, which Vincent describes as "certainly me,
but me gone mad." Personal tensions grow between the two men.
In December Vincent experiences a psychotic episode in which he
threatens Gauguin with a razor and later cuts off a piece of his
own left ear. He is admitted to a hospital in Arles and remains
there through January of 1889. Theo, in Paris, marries Johanna
Bonger in the spring.
To the asylum
After his discharge from the hospital in Arles,
Vincent is unable to organize his life or set up a new studio.
He attributes his breakdown to excessive drink and perhaps tobacco,
although he gives up neither. Fearful of a relapse, in May 1889
he voluntarily admits himself to the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy,
15 miles from Arles: "I wish to remain shut up as much for my
own peace of mind as for other people's." The admitting physician,
Dr. Théophile Peyron, notes that Vincent suffers from "acute mania
with hallucinations of sight and hearing."
The therapy and the painting
Vincent converts an adjacent cell into a studio,
and although subject to intermittent attacks, he produces 150
paintings during the year he stays at Saint-Rémy. His doctor initially
confines him to the immediate asylum grounds, so Vincent paints
the world he sees from his room, deleting the bars that obscure
his view. In the asylum's walled garden he paints irises, lilacs,
and ivy-covered trees. Later he is allowed to venture farther
afield, and he paints the wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress
trees of the surrounding countryside. The imposed regimen of asylum
life gives Vincent a hard-won stability: "I feel happier here
with my work than I could be outside. By staying here a good long
time, I shall have learned regular habits and in the long run
the result will be more order in my life."
Translations in color
Vincent is sometimes without the stamina or confidence
to execute original works. He regains his bearings by painting
copies after his favorite artists, including Millet, Rembrandt,
and Delacroix. Relying on his collection of prints, Vincent translates
the black and white reproductions into his own intensely personal
color compositions. He makes more than twenty copies of Millet's
peasant scenes, and he reinvents Delacroix's Pieta, in which the
bearded Christ bears some resemblance to himself. After one particularly
violent attack, in which he attempts to poison himself by swallowing
paint, Vincent is forced for a time to confine himself to drawing.
A period of masterpieces
|The Starry Night, 1889
While in Arles, and Saint-Rémy as well, Vincent
sends his canvases to Theo in Paris. Despite his illness, he paints
one masterwork after another during this time, including Irises,
Cypresses, and The Starry Night. Theo praises the new paintings:
"They have an intensity of color you have not attained before
. . . but you have gone even further than that. . . . I see that
you have achieved in many of your canvases . . . the quintessence
of your thoughts about nature and living beings." Others are beginning
to notice Vincent's work, too. The progressive Belgian artists'
group Les Vingt includes six of his paintings in their 1890 exhibition.
When Vincent exhibits recent work at the Salon des Indépendants
- two canvases in 1889 and ten in 1890 - friends in Paris assure
him of their success. "Many artists think your work has been the
most striking at the exhibition," writes Gauguin.
Critic Albert Aurier publishes a favorable review
of Vincent's paintings in January 1890 in which he links the artist
to the Symbolists. The Symbolists and other Postimpressionist
groups such as The Nabis, had gained critical attention throughout
the 1890s for their antirealist artworks. Vincent is moved by
Aurier's article but denies his significance as an artist in a
letter to the writer: "For the role attaching to me, or that will
be attached to me, will remain, I assure you, of very secondary
importance." Theo's son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, is born in January
|Dr. Paul Gachet, 1890
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Searching for an alternative to his confinement
at Saint-Rémy, in May 1890 Vincent leaves for Auvers-sur-Oise,
near Paris. The location is ideal; he is removed from the immoderate
pace of life in Paris, but close enough that he can easily visit
Theo. Vincent places himself in the care of Paul Gachet, a homeopathic
physician and himself an amateur painter. Vincent warms to Gachet
immediately, writing to Theo that he had "found a perfect friend
in Dr. Gachet, something like another brother." Gachet advises
Vincent to put his ailment out of his mind and concentrate entirely
on his painting.
The need to paint
|*Wheatfield with Crows, 1890
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Vincent sets about painting portraits of his
new acquaintances and the local landscape, including nearby wheatfields
and the garden of the painter Daubigny. Working with great intensity,
he produces nearly a painting a day over the next two months.
A series of 12 canvases in a distinctive panoramic format celebrates
country life: "I'm all but certain that in those canvases I have
formulated what I cannot express in words, namely how healthy
and heartening I find the countryside." Although he worries that
he might again become mentally unstable, Vincent briefly enjoys
a peaceful period.
In early July Vincent visits Theo in Paris. Frustrated
by his work at Boussod's, Theo is considering setting up his own
business, and he warns Vincent that they will all have to tighten
their belts. Strongly affected by Theo's dissatisfaction, Vincent
grows increasingly tense: "My life is also threatened at the very
root, and my steps are also wavering." On July 27, 1890, Vincent
walks to a wheatfield and shoots himself in the chest. He stumbles
back to his lodging, where he dies two days later, on July 29,
with Theo at his side. He is buried in Auvers on July 30. Among
the mourners are Lucien Pissarro, Emile Bernard, and Père Tanguy.
Bernard describes how Vincent's coffin is covered with yellow
flowers, "his favorite color. . . . Close by, too, his easel,
his camp stool, and his brushes had been placed on the ground
beside the coffin." Vincent's paintings are left to Theo, but
his true legacy will be realized in his powerful influence on
artists of the twentieth century.
Theo holds a memorial exhibition of Vincent's
paintings in September 1890 in his Paris apartment. His own health
suffers a precipitous decline, and on January 25, 1891, Theo dies.
His widow returns to the Netherlands with their infant son and
her husband's legacy, the collection of Vincent's paintings. After
Johanna's death in 1925 the collection is inherited by her son,
Vincent Willem van Gogh (1890-1978). On the initiative of the
Dutch state, which pledges to build a museum devoted to Van Gogh,
Vincent Willem van Gogh, in 1962, transfers the works he owns
to the newly formed Vincent van Gogh Foundation. Construction
of the museum building, designed by the modernist Dutch architect
Gerrit Rietveld, begins in 1969. The museum officially opens its
doors in 1973. Since then, the building houses the largest collection
of works by Vincent van Gogh, on loan from the Vincent van Gogh
*Images from the Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van
Text from the Van Gogh Museum Web site www.vangoghmuseum.nl