Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch painter who exemplified the idea of artist as tortured genius. His paintings are characterized by thick brush strokes, brilliant colors, and jagged lines, through which Van Gogh expressed his emotional response to his subjects rather than providing an accurate description of them. As a result he became a leader in the development of expressionism in painting.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands, the son of a Dutch Protestant pastor. Early in life he displayed a moody, restless temperament that was to thwart his every pursuit. By the age of 27 he had been in turn a salesman in an art gallery, a French tutor, a theological student, and an evangelist among the miners at Wasmes in Belgium. During the nearly two years he spent living among the miners and sharing their poverty, he lost his faith, but he found in art—through the charcoal drawings he made of the landscapes and people around him—the possibility of a new career. Van Gogh was mostly self-taught as an artist. He copied from prints, especially those of Jean François Millet, a popular French painter of rural life.
Van Gogh’s experiences as a preacher are reflected in his first paintings of peasants and potato diggers. Of these early works, the best known is the rough, earthy Potato Eaters (1885, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam), which depicts peasants at their meager evening meal. Dark and somber, sometimes crude, these early works demonstrate van Gogh’s sympathy for working people and his intense desire to express the misery and poverty of humanity as he saw them among the miners in Belgium.
From the early 1880s on, van Gogh was supported by his brother Théo van Gogh, an art dealer in Paris who provided encouragement as well as financial assistance. Van Gogh corresponded frequently with Théo for the rest of his life, describing in detail his daily life and the ideas for his works.
In 1886 van Gogh went to live with Théo in Paris, where he became familiar with the new art movements developing at the time. Théo’s gallery was attempting to sell works by impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro (see Impressionism), and van Gogh saw for the first time the brighter colors and less sentimental subject matter of impressionist painting. As a result he began to abandon the dark colors of his early works for a much lighter and brighter palette.
In Paris van Gogh also came to know many of the younger artists, among them Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Émile Bernard, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat. Through these painters he learned to admire the work of Japanese printmakers such as Hiroshige and Hokusai. The linear patterns and flat areas of color in Japanese prints had a profound effect on his style. Under the influence of the French painters, van Gogh began to experiment with current techniques, especially with Seurat’s pointillist technique, which used many tiny dots of different colors to model forms in paint. This influence can be seen in van Gogh’s portrait of Père Tanguy (1887-1888, Musée Rodin, Paris) and in a series of self-portraits in which he used short strokes of bright colors to model the human form.
In 1888 van Gogh left Paris for Arles in southern France. There, under the burning sun of Provence, he painted scenes of the fields, cypress trees, peasants, and rustic life characteristic of the region. During this period, he began to use the swirling brush strokes and intense yellows, greens, and blues associated with such typical works as The Postman Roulin (1888, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and his Bedroom at Arles (1888-1889, versions in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; and Art Institute of Chicago). For van Gogh all visible phenomena, whether he painted or drew them, seemed to be endowed with a physical and spiritual vitality.
In his enthusiasm van Gogh wanted to form a community of artists, and in late 1888 he persuaded Gauguin to leave Brittany in northern France and join him in Arles. After less than two months they began to have violent disagreements, culminating in a quarrel in which van Gogh wildly threatened Gauguin with a razor; the same night, in deep remorse, van Gogh cut off part of his own ear. This was the first serious sign of mental illness. Although Gauguin left Arles, the two remained in touch.
For a time Van Gogh was in a hospital at Arles. He then voluntarily entered the nearby asylum of Saint-Rémy. During his year there, periods of clarity and intense artistic activity alternated with spells of depression and inertia. The paintings of this time include landscapes of cypresses and olive trees and still lifes of flowers. His torment is expressed in the writhing forms of many of his paintings from this period, such as A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889, National Gallery, London) and Starry Night (1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York City).
Van Gogh spent the last three months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, under the care of a sympathetic doctor with an interest in art, Paul Gachet, whose portrait he painted (Dr. Gachet, 1890, Louvre, Paris). As he had done throughout his life, van Gogh depicted his surroundings, as shown in paintings of the village church and landscapes of wheatfields. The brooding, ominous atmosphere of van Gogh’s last painting, Crows in a Wheatfield (1890, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh), is considered a reflection of the artist’s disturbed state of mind at the end of his life. Soon after finishing it, van Gogh shot himself on July 27, 1890, and died two days later.
The more than 700 letters that van Gogh wrote to his brother Théo (published 1911, translated 1958) constitute a remarkably illuminating record of the life of an artist and a thorough documentation of his unusually fertile output—about 750 paintings and 1,600 drawings. The French painter Chaïm Soutine, and the German painters Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Emil Nolde, owe more to van Gogh than to any other single source. Many of van Gogh’s paintings remained in his family after his death, passing from Théo to his widow and then to their son, and are now on view at the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam. The museum opened in 1973 and contains some 200 paintings, 500 drawings, and 700 letters, along with the artist’s collection of Japanese prints.
Although Van Gogh’s works failed to find an appreciative audience during his lifetime, their popularity rose steadily during the 20th century. His paintings brought record prices at auctions: His Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), for example, sold at Christie's in 1990 for $82.5 million. Exhibitions of van Gogh’s works have proved to be enormous crowd-pleasers, including Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum (1998-1999), Van Gogh: Face to Face (an exhibition of portraits, 2000-2001), and Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South (2001-2002).
See also Postimpressionism.