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Vincent Willem van Gogh (Dutch: [ˈvɪnsɛnt ˈʋɪləm vɑn ˈɣɔx] ( listen);[note 1] 30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Post-Impressionist painter. He was a Dutch artist whose work had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art. His output includes portraits, self portraits, landscapes and still lifes of cypresses, wheat fields and sunflowers. He drew as a child but did not paint until his late twenties; he completed many of his best-known works during the last two years of his life. In just over a decade, he produced more than 2,100 artworks, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings, sketches and prints.
Van Gogh was born to upper middle class parents and spent his early adulthood working for a firm of art dealers. He traveled between The Hague, London and Paris, after which he taught in England at Isleworth and Ramsgate. He was deeply religious as a younger man and aspired to be a pastor. From 1879 he worked as a missionary in a mining region in Belgium, where he began to sketch people from the local community. In 1885 he painted The Potato Eaters, considered his first major work. His palette then consisted mainly of somber earth tones and showed no sign of the vivid coloration that distinguished his later paintings. In March 1886, he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. Later, he moved to the south of France and was influenced by the strong sunlight he found there. His paintings grew brighter in color, and he developed the unique and highly recognizable style that became fully realized during his stay in Arles in 1888.
After years of anxiety and frequent bouts of mental illness, he died aged 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The extent to which his mental health affected his painting has been widely debated by art historians. Despite a widespread tendency to romanticize his ill health, modern critics see an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence wrought through illness. His late paintings show an artist at the height of his abilities, completely in control, and according to art critic Robert Hughes, "longing for concision and grace".
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Groot-Zundert, a village close to Breda, in the predominantly Catholic province of North Brabant in the southern Netherlands. He was the oldest surviving child of Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. Vincent was given the name of his grandfather, and of a brother stillborn exactly a year before his birth.[note 2] The practice of reusing a name was not unusual. Vincent was a common name in the Van Gogh family: his grandfather, Vincent (1789–1874), had received his degree of theology at the University of Leiden in 1811. Grandfather Vincent had six sons, three of whom became art dealers, including another Vincent -referred to in the letters as "Uncle Cent". Grandfather Vincent had perhaps been named in turn after his own father's uncle, the successful sculptor Vincent van Gogh (1729–1802). Art and religion were the two occupations to which the Van Gogh family gravitated. His brother Theodorus "Theo" was born on 1 May 1857. He had another brother, Cor, and three sisters: Elisabeth, Anna, and Willemina "Wil".
Vincent was a serious, silent and thoughtful child. He attended the village school at Zundert from 1860, where a single Catholic teacher taught around 200 pupils. From 1861, he and his sister Anna were taught at home by a governess, until 1 October 1864, when he was placed in Jan Provily's boarding school at Zevenbergen about 20 miles (32 km) away. He was distressed to leave his family home. On 15 September 1866, he went to the new middle school, Willem II College in Tilburg. Constantijn C. Huysmans, a successful artist in Paris, taught Van Gogh to draw at the school and advocated a systematic approach to the subject. Vincent's interest in art began at an early age. He began to draw as a child and continued making drawings throughout the years leading to his decision to become an artist. Though well-done and expressive, his early drawings do not approach the intensity he developed in his later work. In March 1868, Van Gogh abruptly left school and returned home. A later comment on his early years was in an 1883 letter to Theo in which he wrote, "My youth was gloomy and cold and sterile."
In July 1869, his uncle Cent helped him obtain a position with the art dealer Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After his training, in June 1873, Goupil transferred him to London, where he lodged at 87 Hackford Road, Brixton, and worked at Messrs. Goupil & Co., 17 Southampton Street. This was a happy time for Vincent; he was successful at work and was, at 20, earning more than his father. Theo's wife later remarked that this was the happiest year of his life. He fell in love with his landlady's daughter, Eugénie Loyer, but when he finally confessed his feelings to her, she rejected him, saying that she was secretly engaged to a former lodger. He became increasingly isolated and fervent about religion; his father and uncle arranged for him to be transferred to Paris, where he became resentful at how art was treated as a commodity, a fact apparent to customers. On 1 April 1876, Goupil terminated his employment.
Van Gogh returned to England for unpaid work as a supply teacher in a small boarding school in Ramsgate. When the proprietor of the school relocated to Isleworth, Middlesex, Van Gogh moved with him, taking the train to Richmond and the remainder of the journey on foot. The arrangement did not work out and he left to become a Methodist minister's assistant, following his wish to "preach the gospel everywhere". At Christmas, he returned home and found work in a bookshop in Dordrecht for six months. He was not happy in this new position, and he spent much of his time either doodling or translating passages from the Bible into English, French, and German. According to his roommate of the time, a young teacher named Görlitz, Van Gogh ate frugally, and preferred not to eat meat.
Van Gogh's religious zeal grew until he felt he had found his true vocation. To support his effort to become a pastor, his family sent him to Amsterdam to study theology in May 1877, where he stayed with his uncle Jan van Gogh, a naval Vice Admiral. Vincent prepared for the entrance exam with his uncle Johannes Stricker, a respected theologian who published the first "Life of Jesus" in the Netherlands. Van Gogh failed the exam, and left his uncle Jan's house in July 1878. He then undertook, but failed, a three-month course at the Vlaamsche Opleidingsschool, a Protestant missionary school in Laeken, near Brussels.
In January 1879, he took a temporary post as a missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes[note 4] in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium at Charbonnage de Marcasse, Van Gogh lived like those he preached to, sleeping on straw in a small hut at the back of the baker's house where he was staying. The baker's wife reported hearing Van Gogh sobbing at night in the hut. His choice of squalid living conditions did not endear him to the appalled church authorities, who dismissed him for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood". He then walked to Brussels, returned briefly to the village of Cuesmes in the Borinage, but gave in to pressure from his parents to return home to Etten. He stayed there until around March the following year,[note 5] a cause of increasing concern and frustration for his parents. There was particular conflict between Vincent and his father, who made inquiries about having Vincent committed to the lunatic asylum at Geel.
Van Gogh moved with his parents to the Etten countryside in April 1881. He continued drawing, often using neighbors as subjects. During the first summer, he took long walks with his recently widowed cousin, Kee Vos-Stricker, daughter of his mother's older sister and Johannes Stricker. Kee was seven years older than Van Gogh and had an eight-year-old son. He proposed marriage, but she refused with the words "No, nay, never" ("nooit, neen, nimmer"). Late that November, Van Gogh wrote a strongly worded letter to Johannes, and then hurried to Amsterdam, where he spoke with him on several occasions. Kee refused to see him, and her parents wrote: "Your persistence is disgusting." In desperation, he held his left hand in the flame of a lamp, with the words: "Let me see her for as long as I can keep my hand in the flame." He did not recall the event well, but later assumed that his uncle blew out the flame. Kee's father made it clear to him that Kee's refusal should be heeded and that the two would not be married because of Van Gogh's inability to support himself. Van Gogh's perception of his uncle and former tutor's hypocrisy affected him deeply and put an end to his religious faith forever. That Christmas, he refused to go to church, quarreling violently with his father as a result and leading him to leave home the same day for The Hague.
He settled in the Hague in January 1882, where he visited his cousin-in-law, Anton Mauve, a Dutch realist painter and a leading member of the Hague School. Mauve introduced him to painting in both oil and watercolor and lent him money to set up a studio, but the two soon fell out, possibly over the issue of drawing from plaster casts. Van Gogh's uncle Cornelis, an art dealer, commissioned 12 ink drawings of views of the city, which Van Gogh completed soon after arriving in The Hague, along with a further seven drawings that May. In June, he spent three weeks in a hospital, suffering from gonorrhea, and that summer, he began to paint in oil.
Mauve appears to have suddenly gone cold towards Van Gogh and did not return some of his letters. Van Gogh supposed that Mauve had learned of his new domestic arrangement with an alcoholic prostitute, Clasina Maria "Sien" Hoornik (1850–1904), and her young daughter. He had met Sien towards the end of January, when she had a five-year-old daughter and was pregnant. She had already borne two children who died, although Van Gogh was unaware of this; and on 2 July, she gave birth to a baby boy, Willem. When Van Gogh's father discovered the details of their relationship, he put pressure on his son to abandon Sien and her children, although Vincent at first defied him. Vincent considered moving the family out of the city, but in the end, in the autumn of 1883 after a year with her, he left Sien and the two children. It is possible that lack of money pushed Sien back to prostitution; the home became less happy, and Van Gogh may have felt family life was irreconcilable with his artistic development. When he left, Sien gave her daughter to her mother and baby Willem to her brother. She then moved to Delft, and later to Antwerp.
Willem remembered being taken to visit his mother in Rotterdam at around the age of 12, where his uncle tried to persuade Sien to marry in order to legitimize the child. Willem remembered his mother saying, "But I know who the father is. He was an artist I lived with nearly 20 years ago in The Hague. His name was Van Gogh." She then turned to Willem and said "You are called after him." While Willem believed himself Van Gogh's son, the timing of his birth makes this unlikely. In 1904, Sien drowned herself in the River Scheldt. Van Gogh moved to the Dutch province of Drenthe, in the northern Netherlands. That December, driven by loneliness, he went to stay with his parents, who had been posted to Nuenen, North Brabant.
Nuenen and Antwerp (1883–1886)
In Nuenen, Van Gogh devoted himself to drawing, and he gave money to boys to bring him birds' nests for subject matter for paintings,[note 7] and he made many sketches and paintings of weavers in their cottages. In autumn 1884, Margot Begemann, a neighbor's daughter and ten years his senior, often joined him on his painting forays. She fell in love, and he reciprocated – though less enthusiastically. They decided to marry, but the idea was opposed by both families. As a result, Margot took an overdose of strychnine. She was saved when Van Gogh rushed her to a nearby hospital. On 26 March 1885, his father died of a heart attack and he grieved deeply at the loss.
Van Gogh traveled to Paris in March 1886, where he shared Theo's Rue Laval apartment on Montmartre, to study at Fernand Cormon's studio. In June, they took a larger apartment further uphill, at 54 Rue Lepic. Because they had no need to write letters to communicate, little is known about this stay in Paris. In Paris, he painted portraits of friends and acquaintances, still-life paintings, views of Le Moulin de la Galette, scenes in Montmartre, Asnières, and along the Seine. During his stay in Paris, he collected more Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints; he became interested in such works when, in 1885, in Antwerp he used them to decorate the walls of his studio. He collected hundreds of prints, which are visible in the backgrounds of several of his paintings. In his 1887 Portrait of Père Tanguy, several can be seen hanging on the wall behind the main figure. In The Courtesan or Oiran (after Kesai Eisen) (1887), Van Gogh traced the figure from a reproduction on the cover of the magazine Paris Illustre, which he then graphically enlarged in the painting. His 1888 Plum Tree in Blossom (After Hiroshige) is a vivid example of the admiration he had for the prints he collected. His version is slightly bolder than Hiroshige's original.
Move to Arles (1888–1889)
Van Gogh moved to Arles, hoping for refuge at a time when he was ill from drink and suffering from smoker's cough. He arrived on 21 February 1888 and took a room at the Hôtel-Restaurant Carrel, which he had idealistically expected to look like one of Hokusai (1760–1849) or Utamaro's (1753–1806) prints. He seems to have moved to the town with thoughts of founding a utopian art colony. The Danish artist Christian Mourier-Petersen (1858–1945) became his companion for two months, and at first Arles appeared exotic and filthy. In a letter, he described it as a foreign country: "The Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlesiennes going to their First Communion, the priest in his surplice, who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the people drinking absinthe, all seem to me creatures from another world." A hundred years later, Van Gogh was remembered by 113-year-old Jeanne Calment — who, as a 13-year-old, was serving in her uncle's fabric shop where Van Gogh wanted to buy some canvas — as "dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable", and "very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick". She also recalled selling him colored pencils.
When Gauguin agreed to visit Arles, Van Gogh hoped for friendship, and the realization of his utopian idea of an artists collective. That August he painted sunflowers. When Boch visited again, Van Gogh painted a portrait of him, as well as the study The Poet Against a Starry Sky. Boch's sister Anna (1848–1936), also an artist, purchased The Red Vineyard in 1890. In preparation for Gauguin's visit, Van Gogh bought two beds, on advice from his friend the station's postal supervisor Joseph Roulin, whose portrait he painted, and on 17 September spent the first night in the still sparsely furnished Yellow House. When Gauguin consented to work and live side-by-side in Arles with Van Gogh, he started to work on The Décoration for the Yellow House, probably the most ambitious effort he ever undertook. Van Gogh did two chair paintings: Van Gogh's Chair and Gauguin's Chair.
Saint-Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890)
On 8 May 1889, accompanied by his caregiver, the Reverend Salles, Van Gogh entered the hospital at Saint Paul-de-Mausole. A former monastery in Saint-Rémy less than 20 miles (32 km) from Arles, the hospital is located in an area of cornfields, vineyards, and olive trees and was at the time run by a former naval doctor, Dr. Théophile Peyron. He had two small rooms: adjoining cells with barred windows. The second was to be used as a studio. During his stay, the clinic and its garden became the main subjects of his paintings. He made several studies of the hospital interiors, such as Vestibule of the Asylum and Saint-Remy (September 1889). Some of the work from this time is characterized by swirls, including The Starry Night, his best-known painting. He was allowed short supervised walks, which led to paintings of cypresses and olive trees, such as Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background 1889, Cypresses 1889, Cornfield with Cypresses (1889), Country road in Provence by Night (1890). That September, he also produced a further two versions of Bedroom in Arles.
Auvers-sur-Oise (May–July 1890)
In May 1890, Van Gogh left the clinic in Saint-Rémy to move nearer the physician Dr. Paul Gachet in Auvers-sur-Oise, and also to Theo. Gachet was recommended by Camille Pissarro, had treated several other artists, and was himself an amateur artist. Van Gogh's first impression was that Gachet was "...sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much." In June 1890, he painted several portraits of the physician, including Portrait of Dr. Gachet, and his only etching; in each, the emphasis is on Gachet's melancholic disposition. Van Gogh stayed at the Auberge Ravoux, where he paid 3 francs and 50 centimes to rent an attic room measuring 75 square feet (7.0 m2).
On 22 February 1890, Van Gogh suffered a new crisis that was "the starting point for one of the saddest episodes in a life already rife with sad events," according to Hulsker. From February until the end of April he was unable to bring himself to write, though he did continue to draw and paint, which follows a pattern begun the previous May, in 1889. For a year he "had fits of despair and hallucination during which he could not work, and in between them, long clear months in which he could and did, punctuated by extreme visionary ecstasy."
On 27 July 1890, aged 37, Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself in the chest with a revolver (although no gun was ever found). There were no witnesses and the location where he shot himself is unclear. Ingo Walther writes, "Some think Van Gogh shot himself in the wheat field that had engaged his attention as an artist of late; others think he did it at a barn near the inn." Biographer David Sweetman writes that the bullet was deflected by a rib bone and passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal organs—probably stopped by his spine. He was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux, where he was attended by two physicians. However, without a surgeon present the bullet could not be removed. After tending to him as best they could, the two physicians left him alone in his room, smoking his pipe. The following morning (Monday), Theo rushed to be with his brother as soon as he was notified, and found him in surprisingly good shape, but within hours Vincent began to fail due to an untreated infection caused by the wound. Van Gogh died in the evening, 29 hours after he supposedly shot himself. According to Theo, his brother's last words were: "The sadness will last forever."