Vincent Willem van Gogh (Dutch: [ˈvɪnsɛnt ˈʋɪləm vɑn ˈɣɔx] 30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade he created about 2100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life. They includelandscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits, and are characterised by bold, symbolic colours, and dramatic, impulsive and highly expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art. He sold only one painting during his lifetime and became famous after his suicide at age 37, which followed years of poverty and mental illness.
Born into an upper-middle-class family, Van Gogh drew as a child and was serious, quiet and thoughtful, but showed signs of mental instability. As a young man he worked as an art dealer, often travelling, but became depressed after he was transferred to London. He turned to religion, and spent time as a missionary in southern Belgium. Later he drifted in ill health and solitude. He was keenly aware of modernist trends in art and, while back with his parents, took up painting in 1881. His younger brother, Theo, supported him financially, and the two kept up a long correspondence by letter.
Van Gogh’s early works, mostly still lifes and depictions of peasant labourers, contain few signs of the vivid colour that distinguished his later work. In 1886 he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. As his work developed he created a new approach to still lifes and local landscapes. His paintings grew brighter in colour as he developed a style that became fully realised during his stay in Arles in the south of France in 1888. He lived there in the Yellow House and, with the French artist Paul Gauguin, developed a concept of colour that symbolised inner emotion. During this period he broadened his subject matter to include olive trees, cypresses, wheat fields and sunflowers.
Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions and, though he worried about his mental stability, he often neglected his physical health, not eating properly and drinking heavily. His friendship with Gauguin came to an end after he threatened the Frenchman with a razor, and in a rage, cut off part of his own left ear. While in a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy his condition stabilised, leading to one of the more productive periods of his life. He moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris under the care of the homeopathic doctor and artist, Paul Gachet. During this time, his brother Theo wrote that he could no longer support him financially. A few weeks later, on 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He died from his injuries two days later.
Considered a madman and a failure in his lifetime, Van Gogh exists in the public imagination as the quintessential misunderstood genius, the artist “where discourses on madness and creativity converge”. His reputation began to grow in the early 20th century as elements of his painting style came to be incorporated by the Fauves and German Expressionists. He attained widespread critical, commercial and popular success over the ensuing decades, and is remembered as an important but tragic painter, whose troubled personality typifies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist.
The most comprehensive primary source on Van Gogh is the correspondence between him and his younger brother,Theo. Their lifelong friendship, and most of what is known of Vincent’s thoughts and theories of art, are recorded in the hundreds of letters they exchanged from 1872 until 1890. Theo van Gogh was an art dealer and provided his brother with financial and emotional support, and access to influential people on the contemporary art scene.
Theo kept all of Vincent’s letters to him; Vincent kept few of the letters he received. After both brothers had died Theo’s widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger arranged for the publication of some of their letters. A few appeared in 1906 and 1913; the remaining majority were published in 1914. Vincent’s letters are eloquent and expressive. They have been described as having a “diary-like intimacy”, and read in parts like an autobiography. The translator Arnold Pomerans wrote that “the publication of these letters added a fresh dimension to the understanding of Van Gogh’s artistic achievement, an understanding granted us by virtually no other painter.”
There are more than 600 letters from Vincent to Theo, and 40 from Theo to Vincent. There are also 22 to his sister Wil, 58 to the painter Anthon van Rappard, 22 to Émile Bernard, and individual letters to Paul Signac, Paul Gauguin and the critic Albert Aurier. Some are illustrated with sketches. Many are undated, but art historians have been able to place most in chronological order. Problems in transcription and dating remain, mainly with those posted from Arles. While there Vincent wrote around 200 letters in Dutch, French and English. There is a gap in the record when he lived in Paris as the brothers lived together and had no need to correspond.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Groot-Zundert, 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. Van Gogh was given the name of his grandfather, and of a brother stillborn exactly a year before his birth. Vincent was a common name in the Van Gogh family: his grandfather, Vincent (1789–1874), who received a degree in theology at the University of Leiden in 1811, had six sons, three of whom became art dealers. This Vincent may have been named after his own great-uncle, a sculptor (1729–1802).
Van Gogh’s mother came from a prosperous family in The Hague, and his father was the youngest son of a minister. The two met when Anna’s younger sister, Cornelia, married Theodorus’s older brother Vincent (Cent). Van Gogh’s parents married in May 1851 and moved to Zundert. His brother Theo was born on 1 May 1857. There was another brother, Cor, and three sisters: Elisabeth, Anna, and Willemina (known as “Wil”). In later life Van Gogh remained in touch only with Willemina and Theo. Van Gogh’s mother was a rigid and religious woman who emphasised the importance of family to the point of claustrophobia for those around her. Theodorus’s salary was modest, but the Church supplied the family with a house, a maid, two cooks, a gardener, a carriage and horse, and Anna instilled in the children a duty to uphold the family’s high social position.
Vincent c. 1866, abaout 13 years old
Van Gogh was a serious and thoughtful child. He was taught at home by his mother and a governess, and in 1860 was sent to the village school. In 1864 he was placed in a boarding school at Zevenbergen, where he felt abandoned, and campaigned to come home. Instead, in 1866 his parents sent him to the middle school in Tilburg, where he was deeply unhappy. His interest in art began at a young age; encouraged to draw as a child by his mother, his early drawings are expressive, but do not approach the intensity developed in his later work.Constantijn C. Huysmans, who had been a successful artist in Paris, taught the students at Tilburg. His philosophy was to reject technique in favour of capturing the impressions of things, particularly nature or common objects. Van Gogh’s profound unhappiness seems to have overshadowed the lessons, which had little effect. In March 1868, he abruptly returned home. Later he wrote that his youth was “austere and cold, and sterile.”
In July 1869 Van Gogh’s uncle Cent obtained a position for him at the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After completing his training in 1873, he was transferred to Goupil’s London branch, at 17 Southampton Street, and took lodgings at 87 Hackford Road, Stockwell. This was a happy time for Van Gogh; he was successful at work, and at 20 was earning more than his father. Theo’s wife later remarked that this was the best year of his life. He became infatuated with his landlady’s daughter, Eugénie Loyer, but was rejected after confessing his feelings; she was secretly engaged to a former lodger. He grew more isolated, and religiously fervent. His father and uncle arranged a transfer to Paris in 1875, where he became resentful of issues such as the degree to which the firm commodified art, and was dismissed a year later.
In April 1876 Van Gogh returned to England, taking unpaid work as a supply teacher in a small boarding school in Ramsgate. When the proprietor moved to Isleworth in Middlesex, Van Gogh went with him. The arrangement did not work out and he left to become a Methodist minister’s assistant. His parents had meanwhile moved to Etten; in 1876 he returned home at Christmas for six months and took work at a bookshop in Dordrecht. He was unhappy in the position and spent his time doodling or translating passages from the Bible into English, French and German. He immersed himself in religion, and became increasingly pious and monastic. According to his flat-mate of the time, Paulus van Görlitz, Van Gogh ate frugally, avoiding meat.
Van Gogh’s House in Cuemes 1880
Van Gogh’s home in Cuesmes in 1880; while there he decided to become an artist
To support Van Gogh’s religious convictions and his desire to become a pastor, in 1877 the family sent him to stay with his uncle Johannes Stricker, a respected theologian, in Amsterdam. Van Gogh prepared for the University of Amsterdam theology entrance examination; he failed the exam, and left his uncle’s house in July 1878. He undertook, but also failed, a three-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Laken, near Brussels.
In January 1879 Van Gogh took a post as a missionary at Petit-Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. To show support for his impoverished congregation, he gave up his comfortable lodgings at a bakery to a homeless person, and moved to a small hut where he slept on straw. His squalid living conditions did not endear him to church authorities, who dismissed him for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood”. He then walked the 75 kilometres (47 mi) to Brussels, returned briefly to Cuesmes in the Borinage, but gave in to pressure from his parents to return home to Etten. He stayed there until around March 1880, which caused concern and frustration for his parents. There was particular conflict between Van Gogh and his father, who considered committing him to the lunatic asylum at Geel.
Returning to Cuesmes in August 1880, Van Gogh lodged with a miner until October. He became interested in the people and scenes around him, and recorded them in drawings after Theo’s suggestion that he take up art in earnest. He travelled to Brussels later in the year, to follow Theo’s recommendation that he study with the Dutch artist Willem Roelofs, who persuaded him – in spite of his dislike of formal schools of art – to attend the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. He registered at the Académie in November 1880, where he studied anatomy and the standard rules of modelling and perspective
Etten, Drenthe and The Hague
Van Gogh returned to Etten in April 1881 for an extended stay with his parents. He continued to draw, often using his neighbours as subjects. In August 1881, his recently widowed cousin, Cornelia “Kee” Vos-Stricker, daughter of his mother’s older sister Willemina and Johannes Stricker, arrived for a visit. He was thrilled and took long walks with her. Kee was seven years older than him, and had an eight-year-old son. Van Gogh surprised everyone by declaring his love to her and proposing marriage. She refused with the words “No, nay, never” (“nooit, neen, nimmer“).
After Kee returned to Amsterdam, Van Gogh went to The Hague to sell paintings and to meet with his cousin by marriage, Anton Mauve. Mauve was a successful artist as Van Gogh aspired to be. Mauve invited him to return in a few months, and suggested he spend the intervening time working in charcoal and pastels; Van Gogh went back to Etten and followed this advice.
Late in November 1881, Van Gogh wrote a letter to Johannes Stricker, which he described to Theo as an attack, and sent it by registered post to ensure it arrived. Within days he left for Amsterdam. Kee would not meet him, and her parents wrote that his “persistence is disgusting.”In despair, 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 had blown out the flame. Kee’s father made it clear that her refusal should be heeded and that the two would not marry, largely because of Van Gogh’s inability to support himself.
Mauve took Van Gogh on as a student and introduced him to watercolours, which Van Gogh worked on for the next month before going home for Christmas. Van Gogh refused to attend church, quarrelling with his father as a result, and left the same day for The Hague. Within a month Van Gogh and Mauve fell out, possibly over the viability of drawing from plaster casts. Van Gogh could only afford to hire people from the street as models, a practice of which Mauve seems to have disapproved. In June Van Gogh suffered a bout of gonorrhoea and spent three weeks in hospital. Soon after, he first painted in oils, bought with money borrowed from Theo. He liked the medium, and spread the paint liberally, scraping from the canvas and working back with the brush. He wrote that he was surprised at how good the results were.
Rooftops, View from the Atelier The Hague, 1882, private collection
By March 1882 Mauve appears to have gone cold towards Van Gogh, and stopped replying to his letters. He had learned of Van Gogh’s new domestic arrangement with an alcoholic prostitute, Clasina Maria “Sien” Hoornik (1850–1904), and her young daughter.Van Gogh had met Sien towards the end of January 1882, when she had a five-year-old daughter and was pregnant. She had previously borne two children who died, but Van Gogh was unaware of this; 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 two children. Vincent at first defied him, and considered moving the family out of the city, but in late 1883 left Sien and the children.
The biographer Marc Tralbault speculates that lack of money may have pushed Sien back into prostitution; the home became less happy and Van Gogh may have felt family life was irreconcilable with his artistic development. Sien gave her daughter to her mother, and baby Willem to her brother. Willem remembered visiting Rotterdam when he was about 12, when an uncle tried to persuade Sien to marry in order to legitimise the child. He believed Van Gogh was his father, but the timing of his birth makes this unlikely. Sien drowned herself in the River Scheldt in 1904.
In September 1883 Van Gogh moved to Drenthe in the northern Netherlands. In December, driven by loneliness, he went to stay with his parents, who had been posted to Nuenen, North Brabant
Death (July 1890)
On 27 July 1890, aged 37, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. There were no witnesses. The shooting may have taken place in the wheat field in which he had been painting, or a local barn. The bullet was deflected by a rib 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 to by two doctors, but without a surgeon present the bullet could not be removed. The doctors tended to him as best they could, then left him alone in his room, smoking his pipe. The following morning Theo rushed to his brother’s side, finding him in good spirits. But within hours Vincent began to fail, suffering from an untreated infection resulting from the wound. He died in the early hours of 29 July. According to Theo, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”.
Van Gogh was buried on 30 July, in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise. The funeral was attended by Theo van Gogh, Andries Bonger, Charles Laval, Lucien Pissarro, Émile Bernard, Julien Tanguy and Paul Gachet, among twenty family, friends and locals. Theo had been ill, and his health began to decline further after his brother’s death. Weak and unable to come to terms with Vincent’s absence, he died on 25 January 1891 at Den Dolder, and was buried in Utrecht. In 1914, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger had Theo’s body exhumed and moved from Utrecht to be re-buried alongside Vincent’s at Auvers-sur-Oise.
Articles on Van Gogh’s death from L ‘Echo Ponthoisien
There have been numerous debates as to the nature of Van Gogh’s illness and its effect on his work, and many retrospective diagnoses have been proposed. There is a consensus that Van Gogh had an episodic condition with periods of normal functioning in between.Perry was the first to suggest bipolar disorder in 1947, and this has been supported by the psychiatrists Hemphill and Blumer. Biochemist Wilfred Arnold has countered that the symptoms are more consistent with acute intermittent porphyria, noting that the popular link between bipolar disorder and creativity might be spurious. Temporal lobe epilepsy with bouts of depression in between has also been suggested. Whatever the diagnosis, his condition was likely worsened by malnutrition, overwork, insomnia and alcohol.
Style and works
Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888. Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Van Gogh drew and painted with watercolours while at school, but only a few examples survive and the authorship of some has been challenged. When he took up art as an adult, he began at an elementary level. In early 1882, his uncle, Cornelis Marinus, owner of a well-known gallery of contemporary art in Amsterdam, asked for drawings of The Hague. Van Gogh’s work did not live up to expectations. Marinus offered a second commission, specifying the subject matter in detail, but was again disappointed with the result. Van Gogh persevered; he experimented with lighting in his studio using variable shutters, and with different drawing materials. For more than a year he worked on single figures – highly elaborate studies in black and white, which at the time gained him only criticism. Later, they were recognised as his first masterpieces.
In August 1882 Theo gave Vincent money to buy materials for working en plein air. Vincent wrote that he could now “go on painting with new vigour”. From early 1883 he worked on multi-figure compositions. He had some of them photographed, but when his brother remarked that they lacked liveliness and freshness, he destroyed them and turned to oil painting. Van Gogh turned to well-known Hague School artists like Weissenbruch and Blommers, and received technical advice from them, as well as from painters like De Bock and Van der Weele, both artists of the Hague School’s second generation. When he moved to Nuenen after the period in Drenthe he began several large paintings but destroyed most of them. The Potato Eaters and its companion pieces are the only ones to have survived. Following a visit to the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh was aware that many of his faults were due to lack of experience and technical expertise, so in November 1885 he travelled to Antwerp and later Paris to learn and develop his skills.
Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background, 1889. Museum of Modern Art
Theo criticised The Potato Eaters for its dark palette, which he thought unsuitable for a modern style. During Van Gogh’s stay in Paris between 1886 and 1887, he tried to master a new, lighter palette. His Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887) shows his success with the brighter palette, and is evidence of an evolving personal style. Charles Blanc’s treatise on colour interested him greatly, and led him to work with complementary colours. Van Gogh came to believe that the effect of colour went beyond the descriptive; he said that “colour expresses something in itself”. According to Hughes, Van Gogh perceived colour as having a “psychological and moral weight”, as exemplified in the garish reds and greens of The Night Cafe, a work he wanted to “express the terrible passions of humanity”. Yellow meant the most to him, because it symbolised emotional truth. He used yellow as a symbol for sunlight, life, and God.
Throughout his career Van Gogh strove to be a painter of rural life and nature, and during his first summer in Arles he used his new palette to paint landscapes and traditional rural life. His belief that a power existed behind the natural led him to try to capture a sense of that power, or the essence of nature in his art, sometimes through the use of symbols. His renditions of the sower, at first copied from Jean-François Millet, reflect Van Gogh’s religious beliefs: the sower as Christ sowing life beneath the hot sun. These were themes and motifs he returned to often to rework and develop. His paintings of flowers are filled with symbolism, but rather than use traditional Christian iconography he made up his own, where life is lived under the sun and work is an allegory of life. In Arles, having gained confidence after painting spring blossoms and learning to capture bright sunlight, he was ready to paint The Sower. The juxtaposition of saturated complementary colours and the single figure in the landscape represent a unique and innovative style.
Memory the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Ales), 1888. Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Van Gogh stayed within what he called the “guise of reality”, and was critical of overly stylised works. He wrote afterwards that the abstraction of Starry Night had gone too far and that reality had “receded too far in the background”. Hughes describes it as a moment of extreme visionary ecstasy: the stars are in a great whirl, reminiscent of Hokusai’s Great Wave, the movement in the heaven above is reflected by the movement of the cypress on the earth below, and the painter’s vision is “translated into a thick, emphatic plasma of paint.”
Between 1885 and his death in 1890, Van Gogh appears to have been building an oeuvre, a collection that reflected his personal vision, and could be commercially successful. He was influenced by Blanc’s definition of style, that a true painting required optimal use of colour, perspective and brushstrokes. Van Gogh applied the word “purposeful” to paintings he thought he had mastered, as opposed to those he thought of as studies. He painted many series of studies; most of which were still lifes, many executed as colour experiments or as gifts to friends. The work in Arles contributed considerably to his oeuvre: those he thought the most important from that time were The Sower, Night Cafe, Memory of the Garden in Etten and Starry Night. With their broad brushstrokes, inventive perspectives, colours, contours and designs, these paintings represent the style he sought. He considered The Bedroom his best work of that period, because of the inventive use of perspective, combined with Impressionist techniques.
The style Van Gogh found was revolutionary “in the very look of his pictures, their coarseness and deliberately unfinished quality, [and] the vigor with which they were painted.” His art, with its emphasis on the common people and a wish for a better world, presages the 20th century and modernism.
L’Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Books, Nov 1888. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Van Gogh’s stylistic developments are usually linked to the periods he spent living in different places across Europe. He was inclined to immerse himself in local cultures and lighting conditions, although he maintained a highly individual visual outlook throughout. His evolution as an artist was slow, and he was aware of his painterly limitations. He moved home often, perhaps to expose himself to new visual stimuli, and through exposure develop his technical skill. Art historian Melissa McQuillan believes the moves also reflect later stylistic changes, and that Van Gogh used the moves to avoid conflict, and as a coping mechanism for when the idealistic artist was faced with the realities of his then current situation.
Van Gogh considered portraits an important element of his oeuvre. He said of portrait studies that they were “the only thing in painting that moves me deeply and that gives me a sense of the infinite.” He wrote to his sister that he wished to paint portraits that would endure, and that he would use colour to capture their emotions and character rather than aiming for photographic realism. Those closest to Van Gogh are mostly absent from his portraits; he rarely painted Theo, Van Rappard or Bernard. The portraits of his mother were from photographs.
Portraiture represented Van Gogh’s best opportunity of earning money. Some of the portraits are studies. Those he considered finished paintings are identifiable by the subject holding an object, such as a book, and tend to exhibit more stylisation than his other work.
In December 1888 Van Gogh painted La Berceuse – a figure that he thought as good as his sunflower still lifes. It has a limited palette, varied brushstrokes and simple contours. It appears to be a culmination of portraits of the Roulin family he executed in Arles between November and December. They show a shift in style from the fluid and restrained brushstrokes and even surface of Portrait of the Postman to the frenetic style, rough surface, broad brushstrokes and use of a palette knife inMadame Roulin with Baby.
Potrait of Artist’s Mother, Oct 1888, Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, California
La Berceuse (Augustine Roulin)1889, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Self-Portrait, September 1889. Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Van Gogh created more than 43 self-portraits between 1885 and 1889. They were usually completed in series, such as those painted in Paris in mid-1887, and continued until shortly before his death. Generally the portraits were studies, created during introspective periods when he was reluctant to mix with others, or when he lacked models, and so painted himself.
The self-portraits reflect a degree of self-scrutiny that, according to Hughes, is “seldom if ever” apparent in an artist. Often they mark important periods in his development, for example in the mid-1887 Paris series, where he became influenced by Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and Signac. In Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, heavy strains of paint spread outwards across the canvas. It is one of his most renowned self-portraits of that period, “with its highly organized rhythmic brushstrokes, and the novel halo derived from the Neo-Impressionist repertoire was what Van Gogh himself called a ‘purposeful’ canvas”.
They contain a wide array of physiognomical representations. Van Gogh’s mental and physical condition is usually apparent; he may appear unkempt, unshaven or with a neglected beard, with deeply sunken eyes, a weak jaw, or having lost teeth. Some show him with full lips, a long face or prominent skull, or sharpened, alert features. His hair may be the usual red, or at times ash coloured.
Van Gogh’s gaze is seldom directed at the viewer. The portraits vary in intensity and colour, and in those painted after December 1888 especially, the vivid colours highlight the haggard pallor of his skin. Some depict the artist with a beard, others without. He can be seen with bandages in portraits executed just after he mutilated his ear. In only a few does he depict himself as a painter. Those painted in Saint-Rémy show the head from the right, the side opposite his damaged ear, as he painted himself reflected in his mirror.
Two Self-Portraits and Several Details, Drawing, Paris, 1886. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, Winter 1887–88. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, Paris, Winter 1887–88. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Self-Portrait, 1889. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. His Saint-Rémy self-portraits show his side with the unmutilated ear, as he saw himself in the mirror
Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, August 1888. National Gallery, London
Van Gogh painted several landscapes with flowers, including roses, lilacs, irises, and sunflowers. Some reflect his interests in the language of colour, and also in Japanese ukiyo-e. There are two series of dying sunflowers. The first was painted in Paris in 1887 and shows flowers lying on the ground. The second set was completed a year later in Arles, and is of bouquets in a vase positioned in early morning light. Both are built from thickly layered paintwork, which, according to the London National Gallery, evokes the “texture of the seed-heads”.
In these series, Van Gogh was not preoccupied by his usual interest in filling his paintings with subjectivity and emotion; rather the two series are intended to display his technical skill and working methods to Gauguin, who was about to visit. The 1888 paintings were created during a rare period of optimism for the artist. Vincent wrote to Theo in August 1888, “I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers … If I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go.”
The sunflowers were painted to decorate the walls in anticipation of Gauguin’s visit, and Van Gogh placed individual works around the Yellow House’s guest room in Arles. Gauguin was deeply impressed and later acquired two of the Paris versions.
After Gauguin’s departure, Van Gogh imagined the two major versions of the sunflowers as wings of the Berceuse Triptych, and included them in his Les XX in Brussels exhibit. Today the major pieces of the series are among his best known, celebrated for the sickly connotations of the colour yellow and its tie-in with the Yellow House, the expressionism of the brush strokes, and their contrast against often dark backgrounds.
Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, August 1888. Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Irises, 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Almond Blossom, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background, May 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Road with Cypress and Star, May 1890, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Fifteen canvases depict cypresses, a tree he became fascinated with in Arles. He brought life to the trees, which were traditionally seen as emblematic of death. The series of cypresses he began in Arles featured the trees in the distance, as windbreaks in fields; when he was at Saint-Rémy he brought them to the foreground. Vincent wrote to Theo in May 1889: “Cypresses still preoccupy me, I should like to do something with them like my canvases of sunflowers”; he went on to say “They are beautiful in line and proportion like an Egyptian obelisk.”
In mid-1889, and at his sister Wil’s request, Van Gogh painted several smaller versions of Wheat Field with Cypresses. The works are characterised by swirls and densely painted impasto, and include The Starry Night, in which cypresses dominate the foreground.
Other works from this period include Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background (1889), about which, in a letter to his brother, Van Gogh wrote, “At last I have a landscape with olives,” Cypresses (1889), Cypresses with Two Figures (1889–90), and Road with Cypress and Star(1890). While in the asylum in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh spent time outside painting pictures of the trees in the olive groves. These are rendered as gnarled and arthritic as if a personification of the natural world, which are, according to Hughes, filled with “a continuous field of energy of which nature is a manifestation”.
Cypresses in Starry Night, a Reed pen drawing executed by Van Gogh after the painting in 1889
Cypresses and Two Women, 1890. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands
Cypresses and Two Women, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Pink Peach Tree in Blossom (Reminiscence of Mauve), watercolour, March 1888. Kröller-Müller Museum
The Flowering Orchards (also the Orchards in Blossom) are among the first groups of work completed after Van Gogh’s arrival in Arles in February 1888. The 14 paintings are optimistic, joyous and visually expressive of the burgeoning spring. They are delicately sensitive and unpopulated. He painted swiftly, and although he brought to this series a version of Impressionism, a strong sense of personal style began to emerge during this period. The transience of the blossoming trees, and the passing of the season, seemed to align with his sense of impermanence and belief in a new beginning in Arles. During the blossoming of the trees that spring, he found “a world of motifs that could not have been more Japanese”.Vincent wrote to Theo on 21 April 1888 that he had 10 orchards and “one big [painting] of a cherry tree, which I’ve spoiled”.
During this period Van Gogh mastered the use of light by subjugating shadows and painting the trees as if they are the source of light – almost in a sacred manner. Early the following year he painted another smaller group of orchards, including View of Arles, Flowering Orchards. Van Gogh was enthralled by the landscape and vegetation of the south of France, and often visited the farm gardens near Arles. In the vivid light of the Mediterranean climate his palette significantly brightened.
The Pink Orchard also Orchard with Blossoming Apricot Trees, March 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Souvenir de Mauve, March 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands
Orchard in Blossom, Bordered by Cypresses, April, 1888. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands
Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Van Gogh made several painting excursions during visits to the landscape around Arles. He made paintings of harvests, wheat fields and other rural landmarks of the area, including The Old Mill (1888); a good example of a picturesque structure bordering the wheat fields beyond. At various points, Van Gogh painted the view from his window – at The Hague, Antwerp, and Paris. These works culminated in The Wheat Field series, which depicted the view from his cells in the asylum at Saint-Rémy.
Many of the late paintings are sombre but essentially optimistic and, right up to the time of Van Gogh’s death, reflect his desire to return to lucid mental health. Yet some of his final works reflect his deepening concerns. Writing in July 1890, from Auvers, Van Gogh said that he had become absorbed “in the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow.”
Van Gogh was captivated by the fields in May when the wheat was young and green. His Wheatfields at Auvers with White House shows a more subdued palette of yellows and blues, which creates a sense of idyllic harmony.
On or about 10 July 1890 Van Gogh wrote to Theo of “vast fields of wheat under troubled skies”. Wheatfield with Crows shows the artist’s state of mind in his final days; Hulsker describes the work as a “doom-filled painting with threatening skies and ill-omened crows.” Its dark palette and heavy brushstrokes convey a sense of menace.
Enclosed Wheat Field with Rising Sun, May 1889, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands
Rain or Enclosed Wheat Field in the Rain, November 1889,Philadelphia Museum of Art,Philadelphia
Wheat Fields (Van Gogh series), early June 1889. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, 1889
After Van Gogh’s first exhibitions in the late 1880s, his reputation grew steadily among artists, art critics, dealers and collectors. In 1887 André Antoine hung Van Gogh’s alongside works of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, at the Théâtre Libre in Paris; some were acquired by Julien Tanguy. In 1889 his work was described in the journal Le Moderniste Illustré by Albert Aurier as characterised by “fire, intensity, sunshine”.Ten paintings were shown at the Société des Artistes Indépendants, in Brussels in January 1890.
In the wake of Van Gogh’s death in 1890, memorial exhibitions were held in Brussels, Paris, The Hague and Antwerp. His work was shown in several high-profile exhibitions, including six works at Les XX; in 1891 there was a retrospective exhibition in Brussels. In 1892 Octave Mirbeau wrote that Van Gogh’s suicide was an “infinitely sadder loss for art … even though the populace has not crowded to a magnificent funeral, and poor Vincent van Gogh, whose demise means the extinction of a beautiful flame of genius, has gone to his death as obscure and neglected as he lived.”
Theo died in January 1891, removing Vincent’s most vocal and well-connected champion. Theo’s widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger was a Dutchwoman in her twenties who had not known either her husband or her brother-in law very long and who suddenly had to take care of several hundreds of paintings, letters and drawings, as well as her infant son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. Gauguin was not inclined to offer assistance in promoting Van Gogh’s reputation, and Johanna’s brother Andries Bonger also seemed to be lukewarm about his work. Aurier, one of Van Gogh’s earliest supporters among the critics, died of typhoid fever in 1892 at the age of twenty-seven.
Painter on the Road to Tarascon, August 1888 (destroyed by fire in the Second World War)
In 1892 Émile Bernard organised a small solo show of Van Gogh’s paintings in Paris, and Julien Tanguy exhibited his Van Gogh paintings with several consigned from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. In April 1894 the Durand-Rue Gallery in Paris agreed to take 10 paintings on consignment from Van Gogh’s estate. In 1896, the Fauvist painter Henri Matisse, then an unknown art student, visited John Peter Russell on Belle Île off Brittany. Russell had been a close friend of Van Gogh; he introduced Matisse to the Dutchman’s work, and gave him a Van Gogh drawing. Influenced by Van Gogh, Matisse abandoned his earth-coloured palette for bright colours.
In Paris in 1901 a large Van Gogh retrospective was held at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, which excited André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, and contributed to the emergence of Fauvism. Important group exhibitions took place with the Sonderbund artists in Cologne in 1912, the Armory Show, New York in 1913, and Berlin in 1914.Henk Bremmer was instrumental in teaching and talking about Van Gogh, and introduced Helene Kröller-Müller to Van Gogh’s art; she became an avid collector of his work. The early figures in German Expressionism such as Emil Nolde acknowledged a debt to Van Gogh’s work. Bremmer assisted Jacob Baart de la Faille, whose catalogue raisonné L’Oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh appeared in 1928.
Van Gogh’s fame reached its first peak in Austria and Germany before World War I, helped by the publication of his letters in three volumes in 1914. His letters are expressive and literate, and have been described as among the foremost 19th-century writings of their kind. These began a compelling mythology of Van Gogh as an intense and dedicated painter who suffered for his art and died young. In 1934 the novelist Irving Stone published an account of Van Gogh’s life entitled Lust for Life, based on Van Gogh’s letters to Theo. This book and the 1956 film of the same name further enhanced his fame.
Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, Paris, Summer 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Van Gogh was considered a lunatic and failure by most of those who knew him. As a young man he was deeply religious and principled, and was fired several times, including as a clergyman, before he became a painter. He almost always alienated members of the communities he hoped to join. In part because of this, he is today romanticised as the quintessential misunderstood outsider artist, for whom “discourses on madness and creativity converge”, and whose work is often seen as outbursts of spontaneous emotion. Van Gogh’s life, mental health and status as a societal outsider, or “stranger on earth” have been idealised in many biographies, newspaper and magazine articles, speculative medical journal articles, novels, films, and songs.
In 1957 Francis Bacon based a series of paintings on reproductions of Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, the original of which was destroyed during the Second World War. Bacon was inspired by an image he described as “haunting”, and regarded Van Gogh as an alienated outsider, a position which resonated with him. Bacon identified with Van Gogh’s theories of art and quoted lines written to Theo: “[R]eal painters do not paint things as they are … [T]hey paint them as they themselves feel them to be.”
Van Gogh’s works are among the world’s most expensive paintings. Those sold for over US$100 million (today’s equivalent) include Portrait of Dr Gachet, Portrait of Joseph Roulin and Irises. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s version of Wheat Field with Cypresses was acquired in 1993 for US$57 million. In 2015 L’Allée des Alyscamps sold for US$66.3 million at Sotheby’s, New York, easily exceeding its reserve of US$40 million.
Van Gogh Museum
The Van Gogh Museum has the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh artworks.
Van Gogh’s nephew and namesake Vincent Willem van Gogh (1890–1978), inherited the estate after his mother’s death in 1925. During the early 1950s he arranged for the publication of a complete edition of the letters presented in four volumes and several languages. He then began negotiations with the Dutch government to subsidise a foundation to purchase and house the entire collection. Theo’s son participated in planning the project in the hope that the works would be exhibited under the best possible conditions. The project began in 1963; architect Gerrit Rietveld was commissioned to design it, and after his death in 1964 Kisho Kurokawa took charge. Work progressed throughout the 1960s, with 1972 as the target for its grand opening.
The Van Gogh Museum opened in the Museumplein in Amsterdam in 1973. It became the second most popular museum in the Netherlands, after the Rijksmuseum, regularly receiving more than 1.5 million visitors a year. In 2015 it had a record 1.9 million; 85 percent of the visitors come from other countries.