Most of my readers know my love for Vincent van Gogh. It’s been six months since I’ve written an article about him, so I decided it was time to dedicate another post. There’s a wonderful Youtube video at the end, but I’ve chosen to give a brief biography as well. It’s not a full biography, I focused on his most troubling times. Most of which I can relate to.
Manic depression (bipolar disorder) couldn’t be medically diagnosed at that time, however, most historians believe he suffered from bipolar disorder. Because of my strong attachment to him, I believe this as well. When I read “Lust for Life,” which is an excellent biography based on the letters between van Gogh and his brother. I cried many times. The incredible Getty Center museum, located here in Los Angeles, has Vincent’s painting “Irise,”s as well as some sketches. It is impossible for me to see them and not have tears well up in my eyes.
Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853, in the Netherlands.
At age 15, van Gogh’s family was struggling financially, and he was forced to leave school and go to work. He got a job at his Uncle’s’ art dealership, Goupil & Cie, a firm of art dealers in The Hague
June of 1873, van Gogh was transferred to the Groupil Gallery in London where he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, Eugenie Loyer. When she rejected his marriage proposal, van Gogh suffered a breakdown. He threw away all his books except for the Bible, and devoted his life to God. He became angry with people at work, telling customers not to buy the “worthless art,” and was eventually fired.
In 1878, van Gogh volunteered to move to an impoverished coal mining town in the south of Belgium. He preached and ministered to the sick, and also drew pictures of the miners and their families. The evangelical committees disagreed with van Gogh’s lifestyle. He had given many of possessions away, including his bed. He slept on a bed of straw. The church felt he was acting in a manner unbecoming of a minister. van Gogh was forced to find another occupation.
Van Gogh, The Artist
Failing as an art dealer and a minister, van Gogh decided to become an artist in 1880. He moved to The Hague and fell in love with Sien, an alcoholic prostitute. She already had one child and was pregnant with another. She became his companion, mistress and model. Van Gogh became attached to her children yet was unable to support Sien and her family. When Sien went back to prostitution, van Gogh became depressed. At his brothers urging, van Gogh left her in 1883, ending the only domestic relationship he was ever to have.
In Paris, van Gogh first saw impressionist art, and he was inspired by the color and light. He began studying with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro and others. Van Gogh was passionate, and he argued with other painters about their works, alienating those who became tired of his bickering.
In 1888, van Gogh moved to Arles in southern France to begin his dream of starting an artist colony. He moved into the “little yellow house” and spent his money on paint rather than food. He lived on coffee, bread and absinthe, and found himself feeling sick. Before long, it became apparent that in addition to suffering from physical illness, his psychological health was declining. He is known to have sipped on turpentine and eaten paint.
Vincent’s brother Theo, an art dealer was representing Paul Gauguin. Vincent respected Gauguin and thought him the perfect painter to join him in Arles. With some convincing from Theo, including financial backing, Gauguin agreed to live with van Gogh.
Gauguin had a calming effect on Vincent. The painters got along well for weeks. They ate together, they drank together, and they painted together. In the small house they were together almost all of the time. Things didn’t stay happy for long. Eventually Gauguin was finding it hard to live with Vincent. This situation was becoming stressful to both men. At times Vincent still showed affection to Gauguin, but at others he detested him.
When I was younger I was told that van Gogh cut off his ear to show his love to a woman. The true story is that Vincent asked Gauguin if he was planning to leave. When Gauguin said yes, Vincent was devastated. After supper Gauguin left the house to go for a walk. Barely out of the yellow house, he heard the footsteps of Vincent approaching. When he turned to look, he saw Vincent stalking him with a razor in his hand. Vincent stopped and returned home. Gaugin spent the night in a hotel.
Later that night, Vincent took a razor, but did not cut off his ear. He cut off a portion of his ear lobe. Vincent took the piece, wrapped it in newspaper. And went to a brothel close to the house. There he asked for a girl named Rachel who he gave the ear to saying “Guard this object carefully.”
The doctors at the hospital assured Theo that his brother would live and would be taken good care of. Theo and Gaugin left Arles together and Vincent never saw Gaugin again
After the people of Arles signed a petition saying that van Gogh was dangerous, he moved to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. In November 1889, he was invited to exhibit his paintings in Brussels. He sent six paintings, including “Irises.” None of them sold. In 1890 Theo sold Red Vineyard at Arles. It was the first and only painting sold while Vincent was alive.
In July of 1890, van Gogh went out to paint in the morning as usual, but he carried a loaded pistol. He shot himself in the chest, but the bullet did not kill him. He was taken to a nearby hospital and his doctors sent for Theo. Theo and Vincent spent the next couple of days talking together. On July 29, 1890, Vincent van Gogh died in the arms of his brother. He was 37 years old.
My favorite van Gogh painting is “Wheat Field With Crows.” While it was not Vincent’s final painting, it was painted during the last month of his life. The painting shows the black crows flying away which I interpret that he knew he was nearing the end of his life. I’ve never read any theories that this was the case, it’s just how I view it in my mind.
I have barely scratched the surface regarding Vincent’s life. To learn more I’d highly recommend the book “Lust for Life.” At the very least check out the 1956 movie of the same name starring Kirk Douglas. I suggest the book, though, it’s hard to tell the story of a persons life in 122 minutes.
“Vincent Willem van Gogh.” 2014. The Biography.com website. May 02 2014