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Vincent van Gogh, A Brief Biography

Updated on February 16, 2016
Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel
Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel | Source


Vincent van Gogh was a post-impressionist painter who was inspired by the color and light of impressionistic art. Color and emotion are significant throughout his work. His dramatic use of emotionally evocative form has had a lasting impact on 20th century art.

Van Gogh had an eccentric personality and was fervent about art. During his relatively short lifespan, van Gogh managed to complete about 2,000 pieces of artwork, including drawings, watercolors and oil paintings. At present, some of his paintings are among the most expensive in the world. However, the beauty of his work was not fully appreciated during his lifetime. He was poor and mostly unknown as an artist, selling only a handful of works in his lifetime.

Field with Poppies
Field with Poppies | Source

Early Life

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in the Netherlands on March 30, 1853. His father Theodorus was a protestant minister and his mother Anna was an artist. He had four younger siblings, a brother and three sisters. He drew and painted on a regular basis during his teenage years. When he was about 16, van Gogh took a job working at Groupil and Company, an art dealership in which his uncle was a partner. He first worked at the The Hauge located in the Netherlands, and later worked at Groupil's London and Paris locations.

The Old Mill
The Old Mill | Source

Religious Pursuits

After being fired from the Paris Groupil Gallery in 1876 due to his disinterest and unpleasant attitude, van Gogh returned to England. He briefly worked at boys' schools located in Ramsgate and Isleworth, and at a bookshop in Dordrecht. At this time he also began preaching. Although his father was a minister, it appeared that religious pursuits appealed to van Gogh most after the rejection of his marriage proposal to Eugenie Loyer. At this point, he decided to devote himself to God. Further pursuing this avenue, he joined a seminary in Brussels and became an evangelist in a poor mining area of Belgium called the Borinage. Although he ministered to the sick and performed his evangelist duties, once again this odd character was rejected; he was dismissed from his religious duties in July of 1879 due to the evangelical committees' disapproval of his overzealous lifestyle.

Sunflowers | Source

Artistic Calling

After his dismissal from evangelism, van Gogh accepted his artistic calling as a spiritual one. Until now, he had always had an interest in art but had only dabbled. He decided to devote the rest of his life to art. In October 1880 be began art school in Brussels. In 1882, he left his parent's home and studied at The Hague, at which his cousin Anton Mauve was a teacher, and in 1885 he studied at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. In 1886, he joined his brother Theo in Paris. Here he studied with Cormon, met fellow artists like Monet and Pissaro, and tried to imitate their Impressionistic style. Unsuccessful, he created his own striking unorthodox style that grew increasingly immersed in brushstroke, color, and movement of line and form. He was influenced partly by Japanese art and eastern philosophy. During his art career, van Gogh was supported financially and emotionally by his brother Theo, who was an art dealer.

Wheat Field with Cypresses
Wheat Field with Cypresses | Source

Love Life

Van Gogh seemed to be attracted to trouble, as far as love life goes. While working in London, he fell in love with Eugenie Loyer, his landlady's daughter. She rejected his marriage proposal. He also fell in love with his widowed cousin, which drove her away. While at The Hague he fell in love with a pregnant prostitute who became his mistress and model. When she went back to prostitution, he left her after threats from his family to cut off funding if he remained by her side. While in Paris, van Gogh got involved with a model and store owner, but their romance soon dissolved. At one point, he also had a relationship with a neighbor, but both of their families disapproved of the courtship.

Irises | Source

Madness and Illness

In 1888, van Gogh moved into a little yellow house in the south of France. He hoped that he and his friends could found an art school. His artist friend, Paul Gauguin, joined him, possibly bribed by Theo to watch over van Gogh. Van Gogh had taken to spending his money on paint instead of sustenance. Malnourished and overworked, he became physically ill. About this time in his life he was known for sipping turpentine and consuming paint. He also used camphor to combat insomnia. Over time, van Gogh and Gauguin did not get along well. After persistent arguing between them, Gauguin left. In a fit of madness, van Gogh pursued Gauguin with a razor. A piece of van Gogh's ear was cut off and he offered it to a prostitute. (There are conflicting viewpoints as to who cut his ear, himself or Gauguin.) The police then admitted van Gogh to a hospital. When Theo came to see him, van Gogh had suffered blood loss and was weak and having seizures. Several days later, van Gogh was released but was soon hospitalized again. All hope for the art school was dashed. Throughout this time period, van Gogh suffered several "fits", which involved episodes of acute mental derangement and disability separated by intervals of lucidity and creativity. He also had frequent gastrointestinal problems, partial seizures, and hallucinations.

In 1889, van Gogh voluntarily moved from Arles to an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence after a petition was signed declaring him dangerous. He admitted to extreme loneliness and suffered from fainting spells and memory loss. However, he still continued to paint. During his stay there, in a year's time he painted about 150 pieces, including The Starry Night, his most famous work.

In 1890, Van Gogh moved to Auvers, which was near Theo, and became a patient of Dr. Paul Gachet. At this time he was painting about one art piece per day. Despite his vigor, van Gogh thought of himself as a failure.

The Starry Night
The Starry Night | Source


On the morning of July 27, 1890, van Gogh went out to paint as he usually did. In a wheat field in Auvers, he shot himself in the chest, but his suicide attempt was not immediately successful. He was later found bleeding in his room.

-There is an alternate theory that van Gogh's death was not a suicide but an accident caused by a teenage boy. Van Gogh chose not to accuse the boy so that he would have a way out of his tortured life.-

After van Gogh was injured, Theo visited his brother in the hospital for the next few days until van Gogh requested to be taken home. At 37 years old, in the presence of Theo, van Gogh fell into a coma and died on July 29, 1890. At the time of his death, his work was just beginning to attract critical acclaim.

The Olive Trees
The Olive Trees | Source

After His Death

Six months after van Gogh's death, Theo passed away as well from syphilis complications. Johanna, Theo's wife, and an avid supporter of van Gogh's works, collected many of van Gogh's paintings and letters. She was intent on getting his works recognized, and providing for her family after Theo's passing. After van Gogh's death, 71 of his paintings were displayed in Paris on March 17, 1901, igniting his present day fame. Before her death in 1907, van Gogh's mother was able to witness his ill timed transformation from mad nobody who was bullied and ridiculed throughout his life, to artistic genius.

In 1914 Johanna published a collection of van Gogh's letters in an attempt to tell his life story. Vincent Willem van Gogh, Johanna's only child with Theo, inherited his uncle’s artwork and founded the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which opened in 1973.

Grave of Vincent van Gogh, with his brother Theo beside him
Grave of Vincent van Gogh, with his brother Theo beside him | Source

Potential Illnesses

One or more of the following illnesses may have afflicted van Gogh leading up to his death:

  • Temporal Lobe Epilepsy - Van Gogh was born with a brain lesion. His use of absinthe, a strong alcoholic drink made of wormwood, may have irritated this condition, resulting in seizures, anxiety, and depression.
  • Thujone Poisoning - Absinthe, a popular drink at the time, contains the toxin thujone. Thujone was known to cause convulsions, phycosis, and hallucinations. Several countries, including the U.S., banned absinthe for many years because of its thujone content. Since absinthe was capable of having an effect similar to epilepsy, it is possible that van Gogh was suffering from its psychotic side effects.
  • Lead Poisoning - During his fits, van Gogh ate lead based paints. Lead poisoning symptoms include gastro discomfort, memory loss, irritability and hyperactivity.
  • Bipolar Disorder - Because van Gogh had periods of extreme passion with his religious and artistic pursuits followed by periods of depression and ultimately his apparent suicide, he may have been afflicted with this disorder.
  • Acute Intermittent Porphyria - This is a metabolism disorder capable of causing skin changes, gastrointestinal discomfort, mental confusion and seizures.
  • Hypergraphia - Van Gogh wrote over 800 letters, mainly to Theo, during his relatively short lifespan, possibly indicating this disorder, which is characterized by a need to write. It is also linked to epilepsy and bipolar disorder.
  • Syphilis - Symptoms include loss of appetite, rash, fever, weakness, nervous system damage, and internal organ damage.

Houses at Auvers
Houses at Auvers | Source

Interesting Facts About van Gogh

  • He had an older brother who was stillborn. This brother was also named Vincent.
  • He was fluent in German, English, French and Dutch, and enjoyed the writings of George Eliot and Charles Dickens.
  • He was not able to become a minister because he refused to take the Latin exams. He believed Latin was a dead language of poor people.
  • To save money, van Gogh and his friends posed as models for each other.
  • In January 1890, Theo and his wife named their baby boy after van Gogh.
  • Theo's wife, Johanna, had Theo's body reburied next to van Gogh's in 1914.
  • Van Gogh was known to sometimes paint on jute, a type of fibrous cloth, and even a dishcloth, if he was low on funds. He also reused canvases by painting over older artwork and, on occasion, painted on both sides of his canvases.
  • His mental instability was conveyed to the canvas, giving a deeper resonance and psychological quality to his work.
  • He was mostly self taught and did not think his work was of high importance.
  • He produced some of his most famous paintings while living in a mental asylum.
  • He never married or had children.
  • Van Gogh's youngest sister, Willemien, was diagnosed with dementia praecox, a term used for schizophrenia, and spent half her life in an insane asylum.
  • Van Gogh's fascination with the color yellow may have been a side effect brought on by his illness(es).


In conclusion, Vincent van Gogh was an immensely talented, yet tormented individual. Had he had access to today's medical expertise and its ability to properly diagnose and treat his various psychological symptoms, it is quite possible that he would have lived long enough to witness his own rise to glory.

Wheat Field with Crows
Wheat Field with Crows | Source

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    • MyHumbleOpinions profile imageAUTHOR

      Angela Flanders 

      16 months ago

      I agree, Susan. Whether it be stress, mental/physical illness, or addiction, so much talent has been lost at an early age. I can only imagine how many other great things some of them might have accomplished if they had lived longer lives.

    • susieq52 profile image

      Susan Sullenberger 

      16 months ago from Lakeland

      Interesting hub. I wonder why so many talented people die at such early ages? I'm thinking of musicians like Elvis or Janis Joplin. I suppose the stress of success is just too much.


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