Vincent van Gogh


In the last post I was looking for an artist who’s life story wasn’t morbid or even mildly upsetting. I found it in ‘Cash’ Coolidge, or Kash Koolidge as he sometimes spelt it (apparently that’s a 19th century literary joke. I was showing off by quoting it…but I don’t really get it. It’s probably the 19th century equivalent of him calling himself Cash COOLidge. I once toyed with the idea of changing my name Jack Gyll to Jack Thryll. I decided it wasn’t a good idea).

Anyway, this post, I thought I’d swing the other way and look at a horribly depressing story.

Right, who’s heard of Vincent van Gogh? Yeah, I thought you might have.

Thoroughly depressed, mentally damaged and utterly brilliant, Van Gogh has had a long lasting influence over artists and indeed the entire art world. Still today, people are taking inspiration, mimicking and trying to emulate his work. For some artists, just to recapture whatever it was that made his art great, is a worthy life goal.

Born in 1853 in Groot-Zundert in Holland, Van Gogh was the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and the protestant Reverend Theodorus van Gogh. (Great names these Dutch).

I think Van Gogh lived a reasonably quiet life during his early years. It was when he was 16,  that his interest in art started proper and he began to work for the Hague gallery. After about 3 years working for them, he was transferred to London, and then to Paris 2 years later. All this moving caused stress to Van Gogh, who had become disillusioned with art dealing. He quit deciding instead, to spend his time preaching the gospel to the poor. After a very short spell of education, Van Gogh left to work as a minister with the miners of Borinage.

He felt a draw to the miners and their families and was able to identify with them. During this time Van Gogh developed the feeling that he had to also make his mark on the world, as the miner were. That he had to contribute something meaningful to the world. It was his brother, Theo, who saw his potential and convinced him to become an artist. He also supported him financially so that he could do so. Van Gogh of course, didn’t believe he could become a good artist due to his lack of natural talent or training. His parents didn’t really help either, doubting his ability as they did. Regardless, he moved back in with them and started practising. He had a deep interest in figure drawing and a fascination with peasant life (possibly because of his stay with the miners). Soon, he decided to work to become a figure artist of critical acclaim.

Skull with Burning Cigarette – One of my personal favourites.

At the end of 1881 he moved out again, and began taking lessons from the realist painter, Anton Mauve. Mauve was a member of the Hague School, and was Van Gogh’s cousin through marriage. Unfortunately, this partnership didn’t last long.

Van Gogh continued to study figures and often used a prostitute called Sien Hoomik as a model. Soon, Van Gogh and Hoomik started a relationship. Hoomik was pregnant (not with Van Gogh’s baby) and already had one child. Mauve disapproved of the relationship and broke off all friendship with Van Gogh.

At the time (about 1883), a lot of reputable artist like Mauve were moving to Drenthe, a province in the North-East of the Netherlands. Van Gogh decided to follow them, as he was becoming discontent with his work. So he broke up with Hoomik and moved away. This was about as close to love as he ever got unfortunately, and he spent many hours longing for it. In fact, this caused him to suffer from bad depression.

He didn’t stay in Drenthe for long – about 2 months only. He suffered from a lack of inspiration and missed his model. So he moved back home again.

He continued to practice. Now modelling his style on Jean-Franqois Millet, a French artist. Millet also depicted peasant life in his paintings, and was becoming quite famous at the time.

When he was 29, Van Gogh moved into a little studio room that he rented from the church. He really started to study anatomy and details such as hands. His plan was to make a big painting with multiple figures that would make his name. This is what he came up with.

The Potato Easters

Van Gogh had planned out this painting meticulously. As he did, his confidence that it would be a success grew and he began advertising it before it was even finished. Unfortunately, the painting that is now considered to be his first major masterpiece, flopped.

Well, thought Van Gogh, I’d better actually go to art school…

He enrolled in an academy in Antwerp. Here, he discovered a number of influential artists and was greatly affected by a number of Japanese artists. After this, in 1886, he went to Paris and moved in with his brother. Here, he came into contact with the Impressionists. He was greatly taken with this movement, and quickly adopted the new, brightly colourful pallet and started to practice the techniques the Impressionists were using. He combined these with some of the ideas he’d seen in Japanese art and developed a new style of his own.
In Paris he made a new group of like-minded friends and became very inspired. In 1888 he moved to Arles where he planned to open an art school/community. One of his friends, Paul Gauguin, went with him. Van Gogh decorated Gauguin’s room with his own paintings. Paintings like this:

This series of sunflower paintings, is now sort of a signature of Van Gogh. For many people, you mention Van Gogh, and they think of these paintings. The sunflower paintings have become incredibly important in the art world, with their mix of vibrant colour and simple design. The subtle nuances of life and death. Interestingly, Van Gogh drank a lot of Absinthe. Absinthe contains a toxin called Thujone, which apparently, if taken in large doses can cause you to see objects in yellow. This might have had something to do with why Van Gogh had such a passion for the colour. It’s also possible that the Thujone aggravated his already present epilepsy and manic depression. Either way, late 1888 is where it all goes to shit.

His epileptic attacks started to become more frequent and he became delusional. This got worse and worse, eventually causing Gauguin to leave. Van Gogh had chased Gauguin around with a knife, before slicing off part of his own ear and giving it to a prostitute. As a present.

At the end of the year, Van Gogh committed himself to an asylum. Here he drew The Starry Night, one of his most famous paintings. Apparently, one of the effects of lead poisoning is the dilation of the retinas, which causes you to see lights with with their own halos. It’s possible, seeing that Van Gogh used lead based tools, and tried to kill himself at least once by drinking paint, that this picture is a portrayal of the effects of lead poisoning.

He came out of the asylum in 1890, clearly not healed. He drew manically for a while, churning out a painting a day. He then shot himself in the chest. Unfortunately, he didn’t die for a whole 2 days.

Starry Night over the Rhone – My other favourite.

It might be hard to believe now, considering he was one of the most important artists of the 19th century (and still now even), but Van Gogh died thinking that his life had been wasted. He only ever sold one painting. He had cut away his dream of an art school along with his ear lobe. He had failed as an artist.

Now, he is widely considered to be THE definition of a tortured artist. His paintings sell for hundreds of pounds. No, thousands. No wait, millions. Hundreds of millions even. Apparently, just 5 years ago one of his sunflower paintings sold for $39.7 million. Between 1987 and 1998, 7 of his paintings racked up over seven hundred million dollars, collectivity.

More important than money though, Van Gogh has genuinely effected art and the way we think about it. He has inspired countless generations of artists and has fascinated audiences over the entire globe. Despite the mental hardships, the depression and his gruesome suicide, Van Gogh’s life was certainly not wasted and he was certainly no failure. It’s just very, very sad that he didn’t realise that.


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