By Stacy Poulos / © 2001

" aim in life is to make as many good pictures and drawings as I can, as well was I can. Then at the end of my life, I can hope simply to pass away while looking back with love and wistfulness, thinking 'Oh, the pictures I might have made!' But this, mind you, does not preclude doing what is possible." -Vincent van Gogh 1883 (age 30)

Vincent van Gogh not only made "good pictures", he was a pioneer and broke the mold of traditional art in the second half of the 19th century. The goal of traditional art was to make paintings look "real", capturing the sensitivity of light on subjects, which were usually noble people and settings. Vincent captured the expression of light and colors as he interpreted them. The self- portrait of Vincent (above left) illustrates his technique in doing so. (Note the amazing resemblance between Vincent's facial expression in the childhood photo to the right and his own painting.) Vincent's painting style is called Impressionism, which is characterized mostly by the general impression of a scene or object and the use of unmixed primary colors and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light. One critic noted that Vincent was one of the first to "liberate color from its traditional, realistic function. ...Once liberated, he used it symbolically and for its expressive potential. "

When I was in high school, I didn't understand Vincent's work, or Vincent himself. I learned early on that he was the "crazy artist who cut off his own ear". It's true, he did cut off part of his ear, and he was in an asylum late in his life, but there is so much more to learn about Vincent.

To appreciate Vincent's work, you must also recognize the era in which he painted and how he broke the mold of traditional art. To the right is portrait of Vincent done by John Peter Russell in 1886. You can see the difference in the painting technique. Russell's portrait of Vincent looks more "real", particularly in the way light would reflect off a subject. This type of art was more common and appreciated in his time. Vincent was frowned upon by critics for his technique, but it did not stop him. Vincent painted his own vision.

I have to admit that what I learned about Vincent saddened me. He was an outcast most of his life, from childhood until his untimely death at the age of 37. Before Vincent was born, his parents had another son who was born deceased. Though he never lived, he was named Vincent van Gogh, after his father's brother of the same name. Exactly one year later, on the very same day, Vincent was born. Vincent's father, Theodorus van Gogh, was a strict pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. As the local preacher, he had an image to protect. Vincent began his education in at a village school at the age of four. Vincent struggled in school and his father, embarrassed by his eldest son's academic failure, sent him to boarding schools for much of his elementary education. Separated him from his parents and five siblings, including his favorite brother, Theo, Vincent hated boarding school. He would get in fights, and other students teased him and called him "Carrot Top" because of his fiery red hair. He once ran away from school to go home, only to be sent back again. Vincent's sister Elisabeth wrote that "...Vincent loved to walk and read, as long as he could be left alone." At the age of fifteen, Vincent left school in the middle of the academic year, and never resume his formal education again.

A year later, Vincent's uncle, an art dealer, got him a job at the Paris headquarters of Goupil's, an international art firm. There, Vincent learned about paintings and drawings. During his four years at Goupil's in Paris, Vincent's brother, Theo, had visited him, and they began writing to each other at length. It would be the beginning of the solid relationship between Vincent and Theo, who in his life seemed to be the only one who believed in Vincent, unconditionally loved him, and supported his pursuit of art both emotionally and financially.

Initially, Vincent was an exemplary employee at Goupil's, and by all accounts a model citizen. He got along with people well and was a devout church-goer. At the age of twenty, he was promoted to Goupil's branch in London, England. There, Vincent experienced heartache when the daughter of the family with whom he stayed rejected his romantic advance. The failure in love caused Vincent to withdraw and, noticing his solitude, Vincent's parents arranged for him to return to Paris. Vincent resented his parents' interference and returned to England two months later. Shortly after, Vincent's position at Goupil's summoned him to Paris for a temporary assignment. This time, he grew to like the city, and he decided to stay. Around this time, Vincent's interest in religion became nearly obsessive, and his performance at Goupil's became compromised. In 1876, at the age of twenty-three and after more than six years of employment at Goupil's, Vincent was asked to leave.

Vincent returned to England, where he found a position at a boarding school in Ramsgate. Vincent seemed to find contentment in this situation, but the position was not for pay, so he accepted a teaching position at another school soon after. Here, Vincent became actively involved with the school's congregation. Vincent attended prayer meetings and Sunday school classes and organized the children's service.

Vincent was unconcerned with the differences between churches, and he often attended services of other Christian denominations. It was at a Methodist prayer meeting that he delivered his first Sunday sermon, which heightened his religious fervor. Vincent eventually left his teaching position and worked as a bookseller, but he was distracted. It was clear to those around him that Vincent longed to be a minister. Since this was not possible without a college degree, Vincent's parents returned him to Holland where he could attend the university near his family's home. Vincent was given a tutor to improve his Latin and Greek in preparation for university coursework. But Vincent's desire to become a pastor exceeded his willingness to proceed with further education. Instead, Vincent attended a brief training in Belgium in 1878 that would allow him to become a lay evangelist. As such, Vincent worked with uncommon devotion. He was excited about serving God, and was devoted to understanding the Bible. At this time, Vincent also became notably aware of the effects of poverty on many around him. While he had always been a giving man, Vincent submerged himself into the community of impoverished miners in the Belgian town, even foregoing bathing and giving away all of his possessions. Though his charitable effort was undeniable, his unusual behavior caused him to be dismissed from the chapter of churches for which he had been hired as a lay evangelist.

 "He cared for every living being: he saved the life of insects and even left milk and food for the mice in his room; he brought food to the poor and would do housework for everybody, insisting that he wanted to serve.

A report of the Union of Protestant Churches in Belgium reveals substantial appreciation of his efforts: "the admirable qualities he displays at a sick-bed or with the injured, to the devotion and self sacrificing spirit of which he gave constant proof in spending his nights with the sick and in giving them the best of his clothes and linen, Mr. Van Gogh would certainly be an accomplished evangelist.

...But the same report also speaks of his "lack of eloquence", and it concluded that "the experiment of allowing Van Gogh to work as an evangelist did not produce the expected results." Vincent was dismissed from his service as an evangelist." -about-van-gogh-art

His rejection from the church did not cause Vincent to loose his faith in God. Instead, he continued to provide evangelism in a small village, living in extreme poverty and working without pay. During this time, essentially all communication was cut off by Vincent, even to his brother, Theo. After more than a year of minimal contact, Vincent acknowledged in a letter to Theo that he had sunken into despair, but announced that he had emerged, and had decided to become a painter. At the age of twenty-seven, Vincent devoted himself to studying the art of painting. When he began to paint, his talent, passion, and love of God and life poured into his work. Once he started, he dove in head first and wanted so much to perfect it.

 Letter to Theo, July 21, 1882 (age 29)

"What am I in the eyes of most people ­ a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person ­ somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then ­ even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart." -Vincent Van Gogh

My favorite of Vincent's works is his painting of his humble bedroom. I identify with Vincent's life in many ways. I have always been in humble settings to live and work. I was teased and picked on in school. I have always wanted to help people and have a strong belief in God. I have always felt that I am here for a reason and I eventually found the path to used my talent to get messages out. Like Van Gogh, I am passionate about my work to a point of imbalance.

Vincent's work was not praised during his lifetime, other than by his brother, yet he chose to pursue his passion. He saw things in a way that most people did not, and he followed it without fear of rejection. Ironically,Vincent is now widely regarded as one of the most important artists in history, as in the article below.

Detroit Free Press NEWS & REVIEWS March 5, 2000

By Keri Guten Cohen, Free Press special writer

"...So why is Vincent van Gogh one of the most important artists in history? According to George Keyes, the DIA's curator of European Paintings, there are many reasons:

Originality: "(he) is one of the great pioneers of modernism. He really was one of first to liberate color from its traditional, realistic function. ...Once liberated, he used it symbolically and for its expressive potential. This use of color became a foundation of expressionism, one of the dominant art movements of the 20th Century."

Subjects: "Van Gogh is very empathetic with subjects. He portrays them larger than life, imbued with a spiritual presence. Because he does this, and because people can follow what he's doing, he makes you see the world differently than you ever have before. Once you see it through his eyes, it's never the same. You want this experience."

Fame: "He has enormous name recognition. People know he suffered from a serious handicap and, despite adversity, accomplished enormously. People identify with that. ..."

Vincent spent the next few years painting in Belgium, living only on Theo's support. Still very focused on the effects of poverty, most of his paintings from this time were of peasants and workers. Vincent spent a few months studying at the Academy at Antwerp, but was poorly received there due to his unique painting style. Vincent withdrew from the Academy and returned to Paris, where he began to produce paintings at a frenzied rate. Vincent painted more more than two hundred canvases in just over a year, but he sold nothing. He lived in poverty, and, though he had friends in the art community, he began suffer from depression, hallucinations and anxiety. In 1889, at the age of thirty-six, Vincent admitted himself into an asylum. He produced more than one hundred and fifty paintings during the year he spent there.

When Vincent left the asylum, he moved closer to Theo, who had gotten married and had a son, whom he named Vincent. He painted seventy pictures in what would be the last seventy days of his life. He sold only one painting during his lifetime, and despite some critical praise, Vincent sank deeper into despair. Near the end of July, 1890, Vincent died in Theo's arms after shooting himself.


Saint-Rémy 2 February 1890

My dear Theo, Today "...I received your good news that you are at last a father...

...that the most critical time is over for Jo, and finally that the little boy is well. That has done me more good and given me more pleasure than I can put into words. Bravo--and how pleased Mother is going to be...

...No need to tell you that I have often thought of you these days, and it touch me very much that Jo had the kindness to write to me the very night before. She was so brave and calm in her danger, it moved me very deeply. Well, it contributes a great deal to helping me forget the last days when I was ill; at such times I don't know where I am and my mind wanders..."

...I was extremely surprised at the article on my pictures which you sent me. I needn't tell you that I hope to go on thinking that I do not paint like that, but I do see in it how I ought to paint. For the article is very right as far as indicating the gap to be filled, and I think that the writer really wrote it more to guide, not only me, but the other impressionists as well, and even partly to make the breach at a good place. So he proposed an ideal collective ego to the others quite as much as to me; he simply tells me that there is something good, if you like, here and there in my work, which is at the same time so imperfect; and that is the comforting part of it which I appreciate and for which I hope to be grateful. Only it must be understood that my back is not broad enough to carry such an undertaking, and in concentrating the article on me, there's no need to tell you how immersed in flattery I feel...

...Why not say what he said of my sunflowers, with far more grounds, of those magnificent and perfect hollyhocks of Quost's, and his yellow irises, and those splendid peonies of Jeannin's?....

And you will foresee, as I do, that such praise must have its opposite, the other side of the medal. But I am glad and grateful for the article, or rather "le cur à l'aise," as the song in the Revue has it, since one may need it, one may really need a medal.
...My illness makes me very sensitive now, and for the moment I do not feel capable of continuing these "translations" when it concerns such masterpieces..

...You need a certain dose of inspiration, a ray from on high, that is not in ourselves, in order to do beautiful things. When I had done those sunflowers, I looked for the contrast and yet the equivalent, and I said--It is the cypress....

....Anyway, the good news you have sent me and this article and lots of things have made me feel quite well personally today. ...I thank Wil once more for her kind letter... A handshake. Ever yours, -Vincent

Auvers-sur-Oise 23 July 1890
"...As far as I'm concerned, I apply myself to my canvases with all my mind, I am trying to do as well as certain painters whom I have greatly loved and admired... Ever yours, Vincent

My dear Theo, Thanks for your letter, but I have had a very thin time of it these days, as my money ran out on Thursday, so it was a damnably long time till Monday noon. These four days I have lived mainly on 23 cups of coffee, with bread which I still have to pay for. It's not your fault, it's mine if it's anyone's. Because I was wild to see my pictures in frames, and I had ordered too many for my budget, seeing that the month's rent and the charwoman also had to be paid. And even today is going to drain me dry, because I must also buy some canvas and prepare it myself, as Tasset's has not yet come. Would you ask him as soon as possible if he has sent it off, 10 meters or at least 5 of ordinary canvas at 2.50 fr.
But I should not mind, my dear boy, if I did not feel that you yourself must suffer from the pressure that this work puts on us now. But I venture to think that if you saw the studies, you would say I was right to work at white heat as long as it was fine. It wasn't so the last few days, there is a merciless mistral furiously sweeping along the dead leaves. But between now and the winter there will be another spell of magnificent weather and magnificent effects, and then the thing will be to make another headlong spurt. I am so much taken up with the work that I cannot come to a dead stop. Don't worry, the bad weather will make me stop only too soon, like today, yesterday and the day before yesterday too.

...I have been so hard up since Thursday that from Thursday to Monday I only had two meals; apart from those I had only bread and coffee and even that I had to drink on credit, and had to pay for today. So if you can, do not delay a minute... Vincent

Vincent died poor and unknown. In the end, why was he so important? Because he lived out the beliefs of his heart. He was poor in the eyes of man, because man measures our success by the money and things we posses. But Van Gogh was rich in spirit. Framing his work was like finally completing his relationship with God. Bring comfort to others' lives was like being paid a million dollars. Vincent had done what he loved, regardless of having a dime or frank in his pocket. The irony is that his belief of how powerfully light, color and movement can express life were never confirmed to him by others. Only in spirit will he know. And the spirit of his paintings are a reflection of God's work, the God he believed in. Vincent is a hero for sure. If he were alive today, I know he would be proud of how much he has affected the lives of so many. Even to have touched one life would make him happy.

Arles 30 March 1888
My dear Theo, "O never think the dead are dead, So long as there are men alive, The dead will live, the dead will live."

You can learn more about Vincent's life and his work by the links below.


Click here for a free 2004 calendar featuring Vincent van Gogh

Links And Resources
Vincent & Theo; Brothers in Art by Frank Groothof
© 1999 Waanders Publishers b.v. Zwolle
ISBN 90 400 9354 7
NUGI 213. 921
Van Gogh Museum Guide (Available in all languages)
© 1996 Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam
distributed by Waanders Uitgevers Zwolle
ISBN 90 400 9886 7
NUGI921, 911
Link to more about his life: (Short Biography, excellent time line, and many photos of his paintings)
Paulus Potterstraat 7
info+31 (0) 20-570 52 00
open daily 10-am 6pm
Closed January
P.O. Box 75366, 1070 AJ Amsterdam
info: 020-570 52 52
tel: 020-570 52 00
fax: 020-673 50 53
Opening hours museum: daily 10-18.00
Entrance prices: 0 to 12 years of age: Free, 13 to 17 years of age: Hfl. 5.00 (E 2.27) adults: Hfl.15.50 (E 7.03)
More Photos of his work: (Large links to photos of paintings)
Van Gogh Foundation

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