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Five Interesting Facts About Vincent Van Gogh That You Probably Didn't Know
He was without a doubt an unusual man who like many an artist spent much of his life dead broke. Yet his paintings have come with some of the highest price tags ever recorded $40 million for Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, $57 million for Irises, $82.5 million for Portrait of Doctor Gachet. Such is the legacy of Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh.
We know about his gaunt appearance, about his bouts with madness, and about how easily he could have played a young Kirk Douglas. Here are some fun and interesting facts about Vincent Van Gogh that you probably didn't know.
1. He Wasn't the First Vincent Van Gogh
As often happens in families, the boy who grew up to become Vincent Van Gogh was not the first Vincent Van Gogh. He had a grandfather by that name, as well as a great-great uncle. Closer to his own generation, he also had an uncle known as Cent Van Gogh -- short for Vincent -- who was an acclaimed, well-established art dealer.
Oddly, though, Vincent Van Gogh the painter was not the first Vincent Van Gogh his parents had produced. On March 30, 1852, his mother Anna gave birth to a stillborn son. While it was not customary to name stillborns at the time, she decided to do so anyway, giving him the name Vincent, after his grandfather. Eerily, precisely one year to the day after the death of the stillborn, the Vincent Van Gogh was born, on March 30, 1853. The Dutchman was not only a namesake but an Irish twin.
2. He Sometimes Painted Like a Machine
Some artists spend months agonizing over their paintings, and Van Gogh was no exception. He spent a lot of time, for example, on one of his early works called The Potato Eaters, tweaking everything until it had come out exactly right.
He had streaks, though, where he would paint almost maniacally. During the winter of 1884-85, for example, he set as a personal goal the painting of ten portraits a month -- or an average of about three a day. As the winter wore on, however, he decided to up this quota to fifty portraits by the end of February, or about one a day -- a goal which he met by painting so furiously that he would at times knock off an entire portrait in a single morning. His Still Life With Bible, which he painted in October or November of 1885, was also started and completed within a day.
3. As a Young Man He Was Quite Religious
Van Gogh's father Dorus was a pastor. His mother also was religious. Needless to say the home Van Gogh grew up in was one filled with piety and prayers. Rather than rebelling against that sort of upbringing, though, as many kids do, Vincent as a young man embraced his religion wholeheartedly to the point of thinking he might become a preacher himself one day.
For a while he was known to carry a large Bible with him which he read from nightly, often translating selected passages into English or French. When he was living in Amsterdam, on Sundays he would circulate through the city's churches trying to hear as many sermons as possible -- sometimes six or seven a day -- and many of his early letters are full of religious references. He heard Charles Spurgeon preach. He read Thomas à Kempis. At one point he even got a job as a preacher in Belgium (a position funded by the Government) but was eventually let go because he failed to click with the congregation.
Most of this religious fervor took place before Van Gogh began his career as a painter. Later on, however, as he matured as an artist, much of that early zeal would cool.
4. He Wasn't All That Chummy with Gauguin
One so often hears the name Van Gogh linked with that of fellow Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin that one might easily conclude that the two men were particularly tight. In fact their relationship was far more tempestuous. Van Gogh certainly respected Gauguin's work, and when he was living in the Yellow House in Arles in August of 1888, he invited Gauguin -- whom he barely knew -- to come visit him as what Van Gogh hoped would be the first step in creating an artists' colony in that town.
Yet while Van Gogh may have had great respect for Gauguin, the reverse wasn't necessarily true. Gauguin hemmed and hawed for several months, finally showing up at the door of the Yellow House that October without having announced a specific date or time for his arrival. Once there Gauguin proved to be a less-than-ideal companion. The two artists frequently bickered -- over art, over money, over women -- and when they weren't bickering they often didn't speak to one other. In fact if anything they grated on each other's nerves.
One of the underlying problems may have been that the life circumstances of the two men were vastly different. Where Van Gogh was a lifelong bachelor, Gauguin was married with six children, and while both men needed money, Gauguin probably needed it more. Fortunately for Gauguin, he was getting it -- through none other than Van Gogh's brother, who was an art dealer. This in turn seems to have led to a bit of professional jealousy on Vincent's part, since Gauguin was actually selling his paintings while Vincent was coming up dry. Gauguin's relationship with Theo only made things worse. While Vincent had before been close to his younger brother, his letters to him now became fewer and further between.
Things came to a head two days before Christmas when Vincent, who had already had some of his fabled mad episodes, discovered that Gauguin was planning to leave Arles after having stayed a mere nine weeks. Thus began the fabled Episode of the Ear. That evening -- whether in a fit of pique, as a giant Screw You, or out of the Dutchman simply being emotionally exhausted or mentally unstable -- Van Gogh took a razor and sliced off part of his left ear with it. Not only did that not endear him to Gauguin. It ended up getting him committed to a sanitarium.
If that was friendship one can only imagine what enmity might have looked like.
5. He Didn't Necessarily Commit Suicide
Conventional wisdom has it that Van Gogh eventually took his own life. Most accounts of his death go something like this. Sometime on July 27, 1890, Van Gogh borrowed a revolver from Gustave Ravoux, the owner of the inn where Van Gogh was staying in the town of Auvers, just north of Paris, and took it with him that afternoon when he went out to paint. Later that evening Van Gogh stumbled back to the Ravoux Inn minus his painting equipment and the gun but with a bullet hole in his abdomen, the result of having shot himself in a wheat field just outside of town. Though he sought medical attention, the doctors who examined him really couldn't do much for him, and Van Gogh died two days later, on the morning of July 29th.
That, at least, is the generally-accepted view. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh, however, both of whom have forensic backgrounds, have challenged this account, arguing that far too many things about this version of Van Gogh's demise simply don't add up. Why, for example, if the painter were in fact suicidal, did he leave no note behind and why did he order new paints? Why did he choose a revolver as a weapon when he had no experience with firearms? And why was none of the painting equipment he had taken with him -- or the revolver -- ever found? Why did the bullet enter his body at an oblique angle rather than straight-on? And why, when asked by the police if he had wanted to kill himself, instead of simply saying "Yes" did Van Gogh reply "Yes, I believe so?"
Smith and Naifeh believe a more likely scenario is that Van Gogh may have been the victim of a tragic accident that involved two boys who were summer residents in Auvers, René and Gaston Sécretan. These boys often played jokes on Van Gogh and sometimes drank with him. René was nicknamed Buffalo Bill because he liked to dress up like a cowboy and was known to play with the very same revolver Ravoux is supposed to have given Van Gogh -- a weapon which was known to work erratically. Smith and Naifeh posit that sometime on the afternoon of July 27th, Van Gogh, either or both Sécretans, the defective firearm, and possibly liquor all got mixed up in a deadly combination, and in order to protect the boys -- and because at that point in his life he probably had a death wish anyway -- Van Gogh took the blame.
While the Smith-Naifeh hypothesis has not yet acquired much traction among Van Gogh scholars, the case for accident rather than suicide is compelling. But compelling or no, the end result is the same. Either way, the world lost a great artist when Vincent Van Gogh died at the age of 37.