Most casual art lovers see Van Gogh as a troubled but successful artist. This is far from the actual truth of his chaotic life which was filled with failure in every occupational pursuit he attempted including painting, and was marked by episodes of depression, violence, and abnormal behavior.
Thanks to the preservation of thousands of letters Van Gogh had written to friends and family, especially to his brother Theo, we have a nearly complete understanding of his feelings, experiments, and views on every aspect of his life. Surprisingly, his incredible artistic talent went unnoticed and unrecognized until he was 27 years old, after he had already failed at two other career choices as an art dealer and a Protestant minister. Following his failure as a preacher, he began to study art. He obsessively began thousands of sketches and oil paintings. Many observers of Van Gogh’s life believe that his oddities, which were apparent from early childhood, built up to create many experiences that directly impacted the development of Expressionistic painting. Therefore, a look into his childhood will give us an understanding of Van Gogh’s creative expression.
Vincent’s sister, Elizabeth Van Gogh, described his behavior as a child (1) “he was intensely serious and uncommunicative, and walked around clumsily and in a daze with his head hung low.” She continued by saying, (1) “Not only were his sister and brothers strangers to him, but he was a stranger to himself.”
A servant who worked for the Van Gogh family when Vincent was a child described his as an (1) “odd, aloof child who had queer manners and seemed more like an old man,” than the child he was. Vincent later described his childhood as (2) “gloomy, cold, and sterile.” Unaware of his own artistic ability, Vincent Van Gogh first tried to learn the art of selling art work. At the age of 16, he became the apprentice of an art dealer at the firm Goupil and Co. located at the Hague in Belgium and was later transferred to the London and Paris galleries. He quickly learned all the painters and their personal styles, along with what makes a piece of art valuable. In fact, he actually learned too well! If a customer became interested in purchasing a poorly done painting, Van Gogh would explain why it was junk. He was even known to be argumentative with clients. Van Gogh was fired from the art firm and with the help of his relatives, he temporarily took a position as an assistant teacher and curate.
Following his failure as an art dealer, Van Gogh wrote to his sister, Wilhelmina Van Gogh, that the galleries and art firms (1) “are in the clutches of fellows who intercept all the money” and that only “one-tenth of all business that is transacted… is really done out of belief in art.” During this period he fell in love for the first time and openly showed his love for Eugenia, a respectable, upperclass woman. Eugenia was insulted by his unwanted advances and harshly refused him. Van Gogh’s inability to read the intent and emotions of others caused him to fail to see that she had no feelings for him. This made the second major failure for Van Gogh.
After his short period as a teacher he returned home to Holland for a visit to his parents and decided to stay. While working as a clerk for a bookseller, he rented a room with a family named Rijken. Mrs. Rijken said that she had to scold numerous kids for taunting Vincent, calling him(3) “a queer freak.” He was only 24 years old at the time.
When Vincent realized that he was inadequate as a teacher and bookseller, he became desperate to find work. His parents didn’t want to continue supporting their oldest son, who was a failure in their eyes. This made Van Gogh decide ro fulfil his father’s wish of him becoming a minister. In Amsterdam he began studying for the University entrance exams in theology, but soon found he couldn’t learn the required math and foreign languages. With a relative’s help he entered an evangelical school in Brussels and became a missionary in the Borinage,a mining district in Belgium.
Van Gogh found his personal calling working with the miners and their families, and was known to give away his clothing and money to help the poor living in shacks. Nonetheless, he couldn’t communicate his religious beliefs to is followers. Seeing the pride that the poor in this community could maintain in spite of their miserable living conditions, influenced Vincent to take on their lower class beliefs. Living in the same filth and poverty that his fellow man was forced to experience, he lost religion but gained a new fascination in his charcoal drawings of the personal class living around him.
Vincent returned home for an extended visit and fell deeply in love with his first cousin Kee Vos, who had also been staying with his family. Kee, like Eugenia his first love, had no interest in Vincent. Unaffected by her obvious disinterest in him, Vincent attempted to visit her at her family’s home, but was refused. Kee’s father repeatedly told him that she wasn’t home. Vincent thought that her family was keeping her away from him against her will. He then impulsively attempted to show his affections for Kee by holding his hand in the flame of a kerosene lamp and said to Kee’s father,(4) “let me see her for as long as I can keep my hand in the flame!” After blowing out the flame, Kee’s father took Vincent to a nearby pub to get him drunk to calm his agitation. Then he convinced Vincent that Kee couldn’t see him and that their relationship had no future.
When Vincent’s father, a devoted Christian minister, found out that Vincent had fallen in love with his first cousin, a bitter fight caused a life-long break in their father / son relationship.
Kicked out of his family’s home, Van Gogh threw himself into his art work and began a relationship with a low class prostitute named Sien. She moved in with him and he became very empathetic to her personal suffering. Van Gogh lovingly sketched her image and because she was in poor health he also took care of all her needs. This caused even more friction between Vincent and his family.
Van Gogh’s eccentric behavior increased as did his hate for the middle class and soon alienated anyone who would attempt to help him. He began wearing ragged, unwashed clothes and loving an isolated existence. His only activity was to draw and paint in ways that showed his sympathy for the peasants. One of his greatest paintings, “The Potato Eaters” was a result of this stage of his life.
In his many letters it’s clear that Van Gogh was aware of his depressive tendencies and that he had experienced them most of his life. After one of his mental crises he wrote, (2) “well, even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive and I said to myself: in spite of everything I shall rise again, I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing, and from that moment everything has seemed transformed in me.” Van Gogh seemed to use the incredible high spirits that followed his severe depression as a source of creative energy.
In 1886, at the age of 33, Van Gogh went to Paris and rubbed elbows with Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Seurat, and other painters who were later considered among the best. His painting techniques were influenced by these Impressionists and their use of bright colors and less sentimental subjects, and changed the direction his style would take. He stopped painting dank canvases and subjects that were impoverished.
After two years of working among the Impressionistic art community, Van Gogh’s nervous system began to collapse. His friendship with Paul Gauguin was in Van Gogh’s words(5) “electric.” On December 24, 1888, in an argument between Gauguin and Van Gogh, he unsuccessfully attacked Gauguin. Later that night he cut a large part of his ear off and gave it to a prostitute. When his brother, Theo, learned of the incident, he had Vincent institutionalized for two weeks in Aries, France. This was followed by several more breakdowns in 1890. Psychologists studying Van Gogh’s history of mental breakdowns have theorized that each psychotic episode was preceded by a supposed threat to his deep attachment to a loved one. Vincent saw the relationship between Theo and his new wife Joanna, as a loosening of the bond he had with his brother. Vincent was mainly worried about the allowance of 100 francs per month for living expenses while he painted.
Vincent painted “The Undergrowth With Two Figures” in June 1890, one month before his death. He then wrote to he brother saying,(1) “I feel… a failure. That’s it as far as I’m concerned… I feel that this is the destiny that I accept, that will never change.” On July 27, 1890 Vincent Van Gogh went out to the countryside at a place where he was staying and shot himself inn the chest. He then walked up to his room and began bleeding to death. Although he only sold one painting during his life time, he is considered the most powerful Expressionist, and his paintings now sell for millions of dollars. Ironically, Van Gogh is deemed by society to be one of our greatest and most successful artists.