The art is long. Life is short.
Swirling stars within an azure night sky; thick, textured yellow petals on a drooping sunflower; towering cypresses like dark green obelisks - the works of Vincent van Gogh are among the most recognizable and iconic in the whole of art history. Although largely unappreciated during his own lifetime, today his work is highly sought after and stands at the center of world-renowned collections around the globe.
Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 in the Brabant village of Zundert to a Protestant minister. He spent his early childhood there, frequently taking walks through the countryside with his family. At the age of eleven, he was sent to a boarding school where he earned high marks, but felt stifled by the strict environment. A few short years later, he left school and, with an incomplete education, the sixteen-year-old van Gogh found work with his uncle, an international art dealer. It is during his time that van Gogh began his life-long correspondence with his younger brother Theo - these letters, numbering over 800, provide a glimpse not only into the captivating story of van Gogh’s tumultuous life, but also the inner landscape of his creative universe.
Having been dismissed by his uncle in 1876, Vincent searched for fulfillment, temporarily working as a schoolmaster, bookseller, and lay preacher before abandoning each position in turn. At the suggestion of Theo, van Gogh turned to drawing, which, at the time, was simply an amateur hobby he enjoyed. Largely self-taught, he poured over 19th-century drawing manuals and fervently copied prints in order to hone his early techniques. He moved to the Hague in 1882 to study with the leading Hague School artist Anton Mauve; it was this same year that he completed his first pieces in watercolor and oil. By the time he returned to Neunen in 1883, van Gogh was firmly set on his trajectory as a painter.
During his years in Nuenen, Vincent sketched and painted continuously, inspired by the local farmers, rural laborers and weavers. Highly influenced by the Barbizon School of artists, and Jean-François Millet in particular, his works captured the grittiness of rural peasant life. The most famous of his works from this period, The Potato Eaters, now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh once wrote he “wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish” (in a letter to Theo van Gogh, 30 April 1885).
In hopes of repaying his brother for providing financial support, van Gogh proposed that Theo sell his work on the Parisian art market. Though he had little success, van Gogh continued to pursue his artistic career. He enrolled briefly in the Academy of Art in Antwerp, but the pivotal moment of the artist’s career occurred in February 1886—he arrived, sketchbooks in tow, in Paris.
In Paris, Vincent began to experiment freely. He was inspired by the airy, colorful work of the Impressionists, and encountered the daring innovations of the Neo-Impressionists for the first time. The deliberate, pointillist brushstrokes of Paul Signac and Georges Seurat were a particular revelation, and he began to experiment with the broken brushstrokes that would come to dominate his canvases. During his time in the city, he developed a new bold, distinctive style, using vibrant hues and short brushstrokes to capture the bustling cafes and boulevards of Paris.
It was also at this time that he encountered Japanese woodcuts for the first time, which could be found in abundance throughout the city. The Japonisme craze had hit Paris more than two decades earlier, and van Gogh began his own collection for inspiration. The influence of the cropped perspectives and bold lines of these works is clearly seen in van Gogh’s output from this period.
After two years in Paris, van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888, taking his new techniques along with him. He was captivated by the vibrant colors of the south of France in the spring, and his compositions, such as Small Pear Tree in Blossom (Van Gogh Museum), display how he had made the Japanese style his own. He continued to work in his lightened palette, with bright whites, yellows, blue and reds permeating his canvases.
Delighted with Arles and his own creative output, Vincent worked enthusiastically, while allowing his style to become looser and more expressive. Paul Gauguin arrived in October 1888 at van Gogh’s insistence, and the two young artists worked in creative collaboration for some months. Yet, tension rose steadily between the two men, who held very different views on art. Gauguin departed abruptly in December 1888 after van Gogh experienced a breakdown, slicing off a portion of his ear. Following the episode and Gaugin’s departure, he was admitted to the hospital in Arles the following morning.
Institutionalization and Decline
When he was discharged from the hospital in January 1889, Vincent remembered little of the alarming incident and resumed painting. His mental health, however, fluctuated greatly, and he voluntarily admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy later that year. Van Gogh was extremely productive during his tenure at Saint-Rémy, and his work from the period reflects his confinement. He captured the corridors and rooms of the institution, as well as its walled gardens and surrounding countryside. Works such as Cypresses (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), with its thick layers of paint, heavy impasto and dreamy atmosphere, dominated his oeuvre.
It was also during this time that van Gogh would created the canvas for which he is most famous, The Starry Night (Museum of Modern Art, New York). The expressive sky is based, in part, on his observations of the world outside his bedroom window, though his imagination and memories undoubtedly also played a role. The town’s church steeple resembles the architecture of his native Holland far more than the French cathedrals he would have more recently encountered, though the cypresses and whirling skyscape are formed from more direct observations. Expressive, symbolic, and turbulent, the work seems to embody the fervor of its creator.
Despite Vincent’s artistic productivity and seemingly improved health, his mental illness eventually overcame him. On July 27, 1890, van Gogh shot himself in a wheat field, and he died two days later. Vincent van Gogh was buried on July 30, 1890, leaving behind one of the most significant and influential bodies of artistic output from his era.