Vincent was born on March 30, 1853, in the village of Groot Zunbert in the Dutch province of North Brabant. His father, Theodorus, was pastor of a small Dutch Reformed Church. Vincent’s mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus, was a similarly mild and uninspired soul. It is common for biographers to dismiss Van Gogh’s parents with a wave of the hand. Vincent had two brothers and three sisters.
At the age of twelve Vincent was sent to boarding school in the village of Zevenbergen, fifteen miles away. At sixteen he left school. Through the influence of Uncle Cent a place was found for him in the office of Goupil and Cie at The Hague. Goupil’s was a conservative house, specializing in well-made reproductions of famous paintings. When he was twenty Vincent was transferred, with a fine recommendation, to the London branch of Goupil’s. He found a room in the home of Mrs. Loyer, who with her daughter Ursula, and therefore began the first of his several disastrous encounters with women. He fell in love with the girl, but evidently did not bother to tell her. When Vincent shared his feelings with Ursula, he discovered that the thought of loving him had never entered her head.
In 1875 Uncle Cent arranged for him to be transferred to the Paris office in the hope that his spirits might be revived by a change in scene. Here he became increasingly careless in his work. He was given three months notice, and then six years of training as an art dealer came to an end. He was almost twenty-three, unemployed, and had not the slightest idea what he would do next. Vincent decided to return to England, where he found a job as a teacher in a boarding school. After he gave up that job, he took another teaching job at a school in Isleworth.
As a young man Vincent Van Gogh’s strongest compulsion was to love and help mankind. The son of a minister, he chose quite naturally to take up religion. If he had been successful as an evangelist, as he tried to be for several years, he might have drawn and painted as a hobby but he almost surely would not have become an artist. His evangelical mission was a disaster. If anything he tried too hard. At the age of twenty-five, when he went out to serve the peasants and coal miners of the Borinage, in southern Belgium, his manner was so intense, and his devotion to Christ’s teachings so literal, that he antagonized his clerical superiors and probably frightened the people he wanted to help. Although he loved humanity, he could not communicate with individuals and, at twenty-seven, he turned to art to communicate for him. The major reason Van Gogh committed him to being an artist was that through art he could pour out his feelings. If he could not alleviate the hard life of the poor Dutch peasant, at least he could show his compassion in drawing and paintings. Perhaps this was his way to a communion with God. In any case, it was in this crucible that his art was formed.
In his short life Van Gogh wrote nearly a thousand letters, often several a day. Most were written to his brother Theo, possibly the one person in the world who understood him. Only to Theo could Van Gogh describe the impressions and feelings that boiled within him. The letters are extraordinary; literary critics have compared them to the works of the great 19th Century Russian masters of “confessional” writing. But even as he was writing so expressively Van Gogh apparently felt that words were not as distinct as pictures.
Having decided at twenty-seven that his mission in life was to become an artist, he established his first “studio” in the cottage of a Borinage coal miner. He paid the rent with small sums sent by his father and commenced his education in a rage of work. From Paris, Theo forwarded sheaves of prints for him to study and copy, and from The Hague the manager of Goupil’s branch office sent textbooks on anatomy and perspective. Theo suggested that Vincent join him in Paris, but Vincent seems to have been reluctant to venture into what was then the center of the art world. Instead, in the fall of 1880, he went to Brussels and moved into the cheapest hotel he could find. Vincent remained in Brussels during the winter 1880-1881, struggling with his draftsmanship and reporting his progress to Theo.
Late in 1883 he decided to make another attempt to live with his parents. At this time Vincent’s colors were still dark. The Potato Eaters is ordinarily called Van Gogh’s first “masterpiece”. There are no references to religion in Vincent’s remarks about The Potato Eaters.
Eight months after his father’s death Vincent left Holland, never to return. The benefit of his three-month visit in Antwerp was an increased exposure to color, or, more accurately, increased thought about it. Van Gogh was soon to be the most intense colorist of his time. He sensed that color has meaning that transcends mere visual impressions.
When Van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886, he was eager to learn and ready to be stimulated by new experiences. In two years he went through a complete change as a
painter. Brightness and lightness flooded his work. He painted serene cafe interiors and breeze swept landscapes. The dark figures of laborers at work were replaced by close-ups of friends and of him at rest. Vincent worked hard to perfect his technical skill.
In 1888 his production was torrential. Between his arrival in February and his hospitalization after his mental collapse in December he made at least 90 drawings and 100 paintings. The volume of his output became almost an embarrassment. Vincent defended himself by referring to the speed of Claude Monet. From February 1888 to May 1889, he produced some 200 paintings, as well as a lot of drawings. His work under the sun at Arles established him as a giant in art, but when it was over he had only one year left to live.
One of Vincent’s best-known works, Sunflowers conveys the warmth of color Vincent found at Arles. He made many of these sunflowers studies as decorations for his rooms, and each radiates his passion for light, color and simplicity.
In the south, Vincent was a lonely man. Many of his paintings, like the picture of his bedroom, reflect his wanting for companionship. The painting is relaxing, yet signs of his loneliness appear in the way he longingly paired every object: two pillows, two chairs. Even the pictures hang in pairs.
When Vincent regained consciousness in the hospital in Arles it was not the fact that he had suffered a severe mental breakdown that first concerned him. After he recovered from that. He was back to drawing in the fields with his canvas and easel.
Vincent was admitted to the hospital again on May 8, 1889. Vincent was assigned not one room but two, one for sleeping and another for painting. There were many vacancies in the men’s dormitory. Within a few weeks after his admission to the hospital Vincent, accompanied by a guard, was allowed to go out into the countryside to paint. Vincent’s first attack in Saint-Remy after the visit to Arles was a severe one. Had it not been for the presence of the guards he might have killed himself, he tried to swallow his poisonous paints. Once again he was able to go home. Where very often his doctor asked him over for dinner.
Vincent believed that life is endless. Vincent did not kill himself during an attack of insanity. Then he made a journey. At a few hundred yards’ distance from the inn he entered a farmyard, and shot himself. He did not put the gun to his head or heart but against his abdomen. Then walked back to the inn and back into his room. The landlord discovered him there, lying on his bed with his face. Vincent died thirty-six hours after he shot himself. He was only thirty-seven years old.
The occasional fits of illness and despair that finally drove him to suicide altered neither the quality nor the quantity of his art. Even after the incident at Arles, when he sliced off part of an ear, he worked himself willfully, his painting interrupted only temporarily. As the anger of each attack passed, he became as bright as ever, painting landscapes, portraits, self-portraits and writing scores of clear, logical letters. Although he was troubled about his lapses, he knew they had not ruined his art. His work was not the work of a madman. His mature style, which flourished at Arles, became even freer; his last paintings are brilliant in color.