Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist painter was born at Groot-Zundert on 30 March 1853. The son of a Lutheran pastor, van Gogh first worked in a firm of art dealers in Brussels and London. Dissatisfied with this line of work, van Gogh became a teacher and then worked as an evangelist among the miners of Borinage. It was whilst he was working as an evangelist that he first began to draw seriously and in 1880 he decided to become a painter. His first works which were displayed at Brussels show the influence of Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875) (the French painter whose works impart a largeness and pathetic dignity to his figures of men and women laboring in the fields) and of Dutch painting of peasants but, even at this early stage, van Gogh’s works display a vitality which reveals the artist’s personality. His early style is clearly summed up in The Potato Eaters, a powerful depiction of Dutch peasant life.
The Potato Eaters
The artist moved to Paris in 1886 where he came into contact with members of the impressionist group, contact which led to changes in his artistic approach. Giving up the somber palette to which he had previously limited himself, van Gogh adopted the use of brilliant pure tones as favored by the impressionists. But he was dissatisfied with Paris on account of its high cost of living as well as his desire for stronger light, so in 1888 he moved to Arles where, inspired by the brilliant sunshine of Provence, van Gogh began to paint in a seeming frenzy producing landscapes, portraits and still life. His style had now matured and he adapted the impressionist doctrine of color to new use for, unlike the impressionists who used color as a means of rendering natural effects, van Gogh used colors primarily as a means of emotional expression. His use of colors is arbitrary and subjective in the extreme as he seeks the most violent contrasts, his paintings expressing to the full the nervous vitality that he brings to his art. This nervous vitality is especially evident in his landscapes where the brush strokes seem to express the underlying energy of trees or cornfields as they lie beneath the hot sun of Provence.
The nervous vitality that is evident in the artist’s works is actually a manifestation of his own mental state which is deteriorating rapidly. In the autumn of the year in which he moved to Arles, van Gogh invited the French painter Paul Gaughin (1848-1903) to join him there; the visit was a disaster. Van Gogh who was already in a highly nervous state broke down completely and, in a fit of insanity, threatened his guest with a razor and then, in fit of remorse, turned the razor on himself and slashed off his own ear. Clearly, the artist required expert attention.
Paul Gaughin's armchair
On 8 May 1889, he committed himself to the insane asylum at St. Remy where he remained for a year; but he was often sane enough to continue his painting and some of his most moving works were produced during the year he spent at the asylum where he occupied two rooms,one of which was used as a studio. During his confinement, he was obliged to make copies of the works of other artists such as Millet’s The Sower and The Round of the Prisoners painted after an engraving by Gustave Dore (1832-1883) interpreting these models in his own intensely personal manner. Van Gogh was allowed short supervised walks whilst he was at the asylum, walks which led to paintings of cypresses and olive trees such as The Olive Trees and Country Road in Provence by Night.
In May 1890, he left the asylum and moved to Auvers, north of Paris, where he lived under the care of Dr Paul Gachet, an amateur artist and a friend of the impressionists who had also treated several other artists; in Van Gogh’s view though, the doctor was “sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much”. He continued to paint at Auvers, producing works of even greater intensity than those he had previously produced such as his Portrait of Dr Gachet and The Church at Auvers. In the 70 days which he lived at Auvers, van Gogh produced 70 oil paintings of which Wheat Field with Crows, painted in the last month of his life, is an example of the double square technique that he developed in the last weeks of his life.
On 27 July 1890, aged just 37, van Gogh committed suicide. It is believed that he shot himself with a revolver, although no gun was ever found and there were no witnesses to the alleged shooting. He died more than a day later as a result of infection from the bullet wound.
The Church at Auvers
The worth of the artist as a painter was largely unrecognized during his lifetime; certainly his art brought him no financial reward and throughout his brief career as an artist he was kept alive mainly through the generosity of his brother, Theodorus van Gogh (1857-1891) who died just six months after his brother. The brothers are buried next to one another at Auvers-sur-Oise.
Following his first exhibitions in the late 1880s, his fame had grown steadily amongst collectors, critics, dealers and fellow artists. Just a few months before his death, in January 1890, Albert Aurier (1865-1892), the poet, painter and art critic, writing in the Mercure de France described van Gogh as a genius and at the 1890 exhibition by the Société des Artistes Indépendants (Society of Independent Artists), Claude Monet (1840-1926) declared that van Gogh’s work was the best in the show. Others came round to the same view; in the early decades of the twentieth century more and more art critics begin to realize the imaginative intensity of van Gogh’s vision and the originality that he brought to bear in making his vision a reality. By the mid-twentieth century, van Gogh had come to be recognized as one of the greatest artists of all time, and in 2007 a group of Dutch historians, compiling a “Canon of Dutch History”, included van Gogh as one of the fifty topics of the canon alongside other Dutch icons like Rembrandt. Van Gogh’s paintings rank amongst the most expensive paintings of all time with a number such as Dr Gachet and Irises having sold for more than $100 million at today’s prices.