Vincent van Gogh

A short essay on artist Vincent van Gogh.

 Vincent van Gogh has long been famous for his influence on impressionism, expressionism, and simply the way we understand art today. Many artists today still consider van Gogh’s style to be the perfect art, which cannot be reached again, despite that his dying was over one hundred years ago. Artists inspired by van Gogh can count in thousands. One clear example is Stefan Duncan, who often is referred to as “America’s van Gogh”, and whose style is very much alike the old master’s. What has inspired the most artists over time is van Gogh’s way of choosing and using colours, which is easily shown for example on his Sunflowers pieces.

 

Post-artistic life

The artist who grew to change art history was born on March 30, 1853, in the Dutch city of Groot-Zundert. Little is known about his childhood, except that he didn’t show any interest in art whatsoever until 1870, when he was employed by the Hague gallery. In 1873, he was transferred to London and to Paris two years later. However, after this van Gogh gave up his dreams of becoming a professional art dealer, to instead follow in his father’s religious footsteps and began taking lessons in evangelization. He soon abandoned this idea too, and joined the miners of Borinage to found a ministry. This experience with the working class later enabled him to draw several of his paintings, most clearly his famous painting The Potato Eaters, and inspired him of the idea of depicting peasant life.

 

Becoming an artist

At this period of van Gogh’s life, his brother Theo was pushing him to start making something out of his life, to leave some kind of a trace of himself into the memory of human kind. Together with his brother, he decided to become an artist. His talent was doubted both by himself and by his parents, as he was inexperienced on the subject from before. But as his brother offered to support him both mentally and financially, he decided to try this new way of life.

            In 1880, he started a nine-month education in Brussels, and in 1881 he moved home to continue his training individually, trying out different types of drawing with different subjects, colours and styles. Van Gogh’s first sketches and paintings depicted peasant life, probably inspired by his earlier years in Borinage. In the end of 1881, he moved away from home to acquire lessons in drawing from Anton Mauve, his cousin by marriage. At the same time, he started a controversial relationship with Sien Hoomik, a pregnant prostitute who also already had a child. Mauve heavily criticised his choice of partner, leading to them parting ways, though van Gogh continued training his skills on his own, and often used Hoomik as his model.

            In 1882, he decided to end his relationship with Hoomik, and moved to Drenthe, as had artists such as van Rappard and Mauve done before him. It didn’t take long until he moved back, home to his parents. This was when his personal style took off, after being introduced to France’s newfound artist JeanFranqois Millet, of whom he started to model many of his drawings. He soon moved from home again, renting a studio from a Catholic church, in which he started studying anatomy.

 

The Potato Eaters and Paris

His first greater piece was entitled The Potato Eaters, finished in 1885. The piece did prove his talent, but not until after his death. After this failure, he decided to search for further education, and joined thus an academy in Antwerp, where he first heard of Peter Paul Rubens and several Japanese artists. Both these factors would affect his style enormously.

            In 1886, van Gogh and his brother Theo moved to Paris and experienced the art of many post-impressionistic artists. He realised how out of date the darker colours he had used in The Potato Eaters were, and dropped this palette in order to start experimenting with brighter colours. At the same time he started trying out the styles he had found in Japanese artworks a year earlier, mixing this with the ‘normal’, Western style.

 

Sunflowers and mental illness

Moving to Paris had resulted in many new connections in the artistic and post-impressionistic world, such as Gauguin, Pissarro, Monet and Bernard. Van Gogh and Gauguin moved together to Arles to create a school of art, and it was in Arles that van Gogh started drawing the sunflowers that later would be one of his essential pieces.

            By the fall of 1888, van Gogh started to show his first signs of mental illness. He started suffering from epilepsy as well as psychotic attacks and delusions. After threatening Gauguin with a knife, he returned to their home and cut his own ear off, and gave it to a prostitute as a gift. This episode had him hospitalized, and when he later was released he found that Gauguin has turned his back on him, leaving Arles, thus leaving van Gogh’s dream to shatter.

            In the end of 1888, van Gogh travelled to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he committed himself to a mental institution. Even though this led to impossibility to draw for long periods of time, he still managed to complete The Starry Night, which is seen as one of the central pieces of his life. As in all of the works during his asylum period, The Starry Night is covered with swirling lines and circles, which by many is believed to symbolize his mental state.

 

Death and after-life

After leaving the mental institution in 1890, van Gogh suffered from a period of depression, believing his life to be miserably wasted. He actively created several new paintings for a while, until he on July 27, 1890 attempted suicide; he shot himself in the chest, thus dying from the wounds two days later.

            After Vincent van Gogh’s death, his brother Theo took care his paintings, and after his own death half a year later, so did his widow, who dedicated the rest of life to give him the recognition he deserved. Almost immediately his painting started selling massively in Holland, and it didn’t take long till he was known worldwide as one of the world’s greatest artists. The man who only sold one painting in his lifetime still is considered one of the most ingenious men.

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  • If you’re interested in van Gogh you may enjoy reading his letters, transcribed and available online via WebExhibits. I used their excellent resource recently for an article about van Gogh and his experiences of living in London:

    http://dulwichonview.org.uk/2008/08/29/a-trip-back-in-time-with-vincent-van-gogh/

  • Yes, one of the things on my list of things I must do is visit the Van Gogh Musem.

  • Thank you for mentioning me in your great essay. It is the greatest of honors to be compared to such a great unreachable master. I sought to create my style of ”Squiggleism”. I studied his style, read all the letters, asked many questions….I pretended he was my mentor. Then, I thought to myself had Van Gogh continued to live and he wanted to advance his style, what one way may he do that? If his strokes were piano notes they would be like ”ding….ding….ding…ding….” and mine in comparison are like the same notes but with my foot on the pedal making the notes ”ddddiIIIIIInnnnGGGGggg, curvy and with unblended colors. I do only one color at a time applied in a kind of staggered, flowing formation. I always do the last things first on my canvas such as the sky, clouds, landscape, then the central object like a tree. Stefan Duncan, Monroe, North Carolina. http://www.stefanduncan.com Attached is the ”Glory Tree” one of my first ”Squiggleism” works.