Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter associated with the Post-Impressionist movement who became one of the most famous icons in art history – if not the most – creating over two thousand artworks during about a decade of production. Van Gogh concluded an astounding amount of paintings during his relatively brief career. A deeply afflicted person, Van Gogh's biography one of the most emblematic examples of a "tortured artist."
Willem van Gogh, mostly known as Vincent Van Gogh was born in the southern Netherlands, in a town called Zundert, in March of 1853. The artist grew up in a religious household, and his father was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, a path Van Gogh was passionate about and began to study after his work as an art dealer with his uncle.
Following a period spent lodged with a miner, Van Gogh's earliest artistic inspiration became scenes and people that surrounded him. Following his brother Theo's encouragement to pursue a career as an artist, it was only at twenty-seven years of age that Van Gogh began following his own artistic career. In 1880, he enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts located in Brussels, Belgium.
He returned to the city of Etten in 1881, where he continued to sketch, often using the neighbors as subjects. At some point, the artist went to The Hague to sell paintings and meet Anton Mauve, his second cousin, who promptly invited Van Gogh to a second visit, and in the meantime, Mauve suggested that Van Gogh should work on charcoal and pastels, which he did. Soon, Mauve took Van Gogh as an apprentice and introduced the artist to watercolor, and later, oil painting. The teacher would even lend him money to establish a studio.
Always struggling financially, the artist could not afford models, hiring only people from the street as his subjects. Soon, aided by his brother, Van Gogh started to paint in oils, a medium he promptly became fond of, using deliberately thick paint surfaces, which he scraped off from the canvas and reworked with the brush. Much of the artist's biography is known through Van Gogh's letters sent to his brother.
During two years in Neuen, between 1883 and 1885, Van Gogh was highly prolific, producing several watercolors, drawing, and nearly two-hundred oil paintings. In 1885, the artist created many still-lifes. During this period, Van Gogh's palette was quite charged with somber tones, significantly different from the intense colors that would define his later production.
Also in 1885, the Dutch artist concluded his first masterpiece entitled The Potato Eaters, an oil painting portraying a family of peasants sitting at the table in a dark room. This composition, along with many other of Van Gogh's early production, was influenced by the past Dutch masters of the Baroque movement like Peter Paul Rubens, with its dramatic shadows, as well as the Realists, whose artworks often depicted workers of the rural areas.
The artist soon began to study color theory, which would broaden his palette by using cobalt blue, carmine, and emerald green, as well as spending much time in museums studying other artists, especially Peter Paul Rubens' artworks. Van Gogh was also exposed to and bought Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, an influence that manifested later in his paintings, probably the most symbolic of them is Flowering Plum Tree, executed after Utagawa Hiroshige's Plum Garden over Shin-Ohashi. Another notable mention of Van Gogh's early Japonaiserie is Japonaiserie: Oiran, made after Keisai Eisen's artworks of the same name.
After seeing a portrait by the French artist Adolphe Monticelli, whose artworks were executed dense layers of paint, Van Gogh was inspired to experiment with a brighter color palette and employ them with boldly executed brushstrokes. An excellent example of such a process is Seascape at Saintes-Maries.
Van Gogh worked for a short period at the studio of Fernand Cormon. There, the artist met the Australian artist John Peter Russell, who became a lifelong friend. He also met fellow artists such as Louis Anquetin, Emile Bernard, and especially Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Despite meeting Impressionist artists and his brother Theo Van Gogh maintaining a large stock of Impressionist artworks in his gallery, Van Gogh was quite slow the accompany the new developments in art. By 1887, the artist met the Neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac, whose Pointillist technique influenced Van Gogh's production. While in Paris, the artist produced over 200 paintings.
In 1888, the artist moved to the city of Arles. This period proved to be quite prolific, as the completed 200 oil paintings, as well as several drawings and watercolors. The artist was enchanted by the city and its countryside and lights. His production from this period is especially marked by the heavy use of the colors mauve, ultramarine, and yellow. There are several noteworthy mentions from this period. However, his most iconic paintings of that time are probably Bedroom in Arles, Cafe Terrace on the Place Du Forum, and Starry Night Over the Rhone.
After constant pleads by Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin agreed to move, live, and work with Van Gogh in his Yellow House in Arles, where the artist intended to develop an artist colony in the city and saw Gauguin as a pivotal figure to that. During this period, following Gauguin's suggestion, Van Gogh started to paint from memory, resulting in artworks such as the breathtaking Memory of the Garden at Etten. During his time with Van Gogh, Gauguin would only finish one canvas, Vincent van Gogh Painting Sun Flowers.
Soon, Van Gogh's relationship with Gauguin would deteriorate. Van Gogh admired the latter and wanted to be seen and treated as equal. However, Gauguin was domineering and arrogant, which deeply disturbed Van Gogh. They quarrels became more constant as Van Gogh increasingly felt his fellow artist would abandon him, rapidly resulting in dire consequences.
Possibly the most notorious moment in the artist's life was the episode he severed his ear with a razor; accounts differ whether in part or wholly. How the sequence of events happened that led to such a point is unclear. However, the main trigger to the situation was the aforementioned fear he felt on Gauguin abandoning him. He probably learned Gauguin's intentions to leave, which led to another quarrel. Following their altercation, Van Gogh returned to his room, where he became afflicted by voice hallucinations, leading to the cut of his ear. Subsequently, the artist was able to bandage the wound, wrap his ear in a paper, and deliver it to a brothel both artists frequented.
Van Gogh was found unconscious in the next morning, Christmas Day, with no recollection of what happened, suggesting a severe mental breakdown in which the hospital diagnosed as acute mania with generalized delirium. Within a few days, the policed ordered the Van Gogh should be placed under hospital care. Gauguin left Arles and would never see Van Gogh again. However, they would still maintain their friendship and exchanged correspondences.
Although the artist always had a troubled mind, this event proved to be a turning point for Van Gogh's overall mental health and art production. Despite receiving a pessimistic diagnosis, Van Gogh returned to the Yellow House on January 7, 1889. However, Van Gogh would spend the following month between home and hospital, suffering bouts hallucinations and poisoning delusions. Soon after, in March, the police closed his house following a petition by 30 townspeople who described him as "the redheaded madman." Thereafter, Van Gogh returned to the hospital. Paul Signac visited the artist twice that month.
During this process, Van Gogh was under the care of Dr. Felix Rey. As a token of gratitude, the artist gave his Portrait of Doctor Felix Rey. The physician was not amused by the portrait and would even use it to mend a chicken coup and then gave it away. In 2016, the said painting was estimated to worth over 50 million dollars.
Soon, Van Gogh left the city of Arles and entered an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, voluntarily. There, the artist lived in two cells with barred windows, which one he used as a studio. During this period, Van Gogh's main subjects focused on the clinic and its garden, producing several sketches of the clinic's interior. The use of swirly brushstrokes characterizes this period's production, resulting in striking compositions, such as Cypresses, The Alpilles with Olive Trees in the Foreground, Wheatfield with Cypresses, and probably the most iconic of them is Starry Night.
The limited liberty led to a shortage of Van Gogh's subject matters. Instead, the artist worked on reimagining other artists' artworks, such as Jean-Francois Millet's Noonday Rest and The Sower. Van Gogh also painted Prisoners Exercising, after an engraving by Gustave Dore. Scholars suggest that the central figure looking at the observer is Van Gogh himself.
For a few months during 1890, Van Gogh suffered an acute relapse, which plunged him into depression and was barely able to paint. Scholars state that this was the only period that his mental instability hindered Van Gogh’s production.
Van Gogh asked Theo and his mother to send him sketches he produced during the 1880s so that he could turn them into fully realized paintings, such as Old Man in Sorrow. During his last weeks, Van Gogh's artworks show reminiscence of years past, during his period painting in the Netherlands. He also painted several portraits of his physician Dr. Paul Gachet.
In late July 1890, Van Gogh attempted suicide by shooting himself on the chest. However, the bullet did not do any apparent damage to his internal organs. He was even able to walk back to the hostel he was lodged. Theo promptly rushed to his brother's side. The doctors tended to him the best they could; however, without a surgeon, the bullet remained lodged in his body, which led to a severe infection that victimized the artist.
According to Theo, a profoundly melancholic and troubled soul, Van Gogh's last words, "The sadness will last forever."
Vincent Willem Van Gogh passed away on July 29, 1890. Although he was commercially unsuccessful and significantly neglected during his life, Van Gogh became one of the most influential and one of a kind artists of the 19th century and influenced generations of artists for years to come.
Although the life of Vincent Van Gogh raises interest by itself, due to its turbulence and intensity, one can not stress enough the artist's relevance for modern painting and art as a whole, especially regarding his rather short period of activity.
Van Gogh's artworks immediately influenced the production of immediate subsequent artists, and his presence would be felt for generations to come. His inspired use of color was an influence on the Fauvist movement and the German Expressionists.
Van Gogh's loose and expressive brushstrokes influenced the works of the Abstract Expressionists during the mid-20th century and even of Neo-Expressionists during the 1980s, with artists such as Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel.