Van Gogh

A Retrospective

Early life Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Groot-Zundert, a village close to Breda in the province of North Brabant in the southern Netherlands. He was the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. Vincent was given the same name as his grandfather—and a first brother stillborn exactly one year before. The practice of reusing a name in this way was not uncommon. Vincent was a common name in the Van Gogh family; his grandfather (1789–1874) had received his degree of theology at the University of Leiden in 1811. Grandfather Vincent had six sons, three of whom became art dealers, including another Vincent who was referred to in Van Gogh's letters as "Uncle Cent." Grandfather Vincent had perhaps been named in turn after his own father's uncle, the successful sculptor Vincent van Gogh (1729–1802). Art and religion were the two occupations to which the Van Gogh family gravitated. His brother Theodorus (Theo) was born on 1 May 1857. He had another brother, Cor, and three sisters: Elisabeth, Anna and Willemina.

As a child, Vincent was serious, silent and thoughtful. He attended the Zundert village school from 1860, where the single Catholic teacher taught around 200 pupils. From 1861, he and his sister Anna were taught at home by a governess, until 1 October 1864, when he went away to the elementary boarding school of Jan Provily in Zevenbergen, the Netherlands, about 20 miles away. He was distressed to leave his family home, and recalled this even in adulthood. On 15 September 1866, he went to the new middle school, Willem II College in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Constantijn C. Huysmans, a successful artist in Paris, taught Van Gogh to draw at the school and advocated a systematic approach to the subject. In March 1868, Van Gogh abruptly left school and returned home. A later comment on his early years was, "My youth was gloomy and cold and sterile..." In July 1869, his uncle helped him to obtain a position with the art dealer Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After his training, in June 1873, Goupil transferred him to London, where he lodged at 87 Hackford Road, Brixton, and worked at Messrs. Goupil & Co., 17 Southampton Street.[17] This was a happy time for him; he was successful at work and was already, at the age of 20, earning more than his father. Theo's wife later remarked that this was the happiest year of Van Gogh's life. He fell in love with his landlady's daughter, Eugénie Loyer, but when he finally confessed his feeling to her, she rejected him, saying that she was already secretly engaged to a former lodger. He was increasingly isolated and fervent about religion. His father and uncle sent him to Paris to work in a dealership. However, he became resentful at how art was treated as a commodity, a fact apparent to customers. On 1 April 1876, his employment was terminated.

Van Gogh returned to England for unpaid work. He took a position as a supply teacher in a small boarding school overlooking the harbor in Ramsgate, where he made sketches of the view. The proprietor of the school relocated to Isleworth, Middlesex and Van Gogh decided to make the daily commute to the new location on foot. However the arrangement did not work out and Van Gogh left to became a Methodist minister's assistant, to follow his wish to "preach the gospel everywhere." At Christmas that year, he returned home and worked in a bookshop in Dordrecht for six months. However, he was not happy in this new position and spent most of his time in the back of the shop either doodling or translating passages from the Bible into English, French and German. His roommate at the time, a young teacher called Görlitz, later recalled that Van Gogh ate frugally, and preferred not to eat meat.

Van Gogh's religious emotion grew until he felt he had found his true vocation. In an effort to support his effort to become a pastor, in May 1877, his family sent him to Amsterdam to study theology. He stayed with his uncle Jan van Gogh, a naval Vice Admiral. Vincent prepared for the entrance exam with his uncle Johannes Stricker; a respected theologian who published the first "Life of Jesus" available in the Netherlands. Van Gogh failed, and left his uncle Jan's house in July 1878. He then undertook, but failed, a three-month course at the Vlaamsche Opleidingsschool Protestant missionary school in Laeken, near Brussels.

In January 1879, he took a temporary post as a missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. Taking Christianity to what he saw as its logical conclusion, Van Gogh opted to live like those he preached to—sharing their hardships to the extent of sleeping on straw in a small hut at the back of the baker's house where he was billeted. The baker's wife reported hearing Van Gogh sobbing all night in the hut. His choice of squalid living conditions did not endear him to the appalled church authorities, who dismissed him for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood." He then walked to Brussels,[25] returned briefly to the village of Cuesmes in the Borinage but gave in to pressure from his parents to return home to Etten. He stayed there until around March the following year, a cause of increasing concern and frustration for his parents. There was particular conflict between Vincent and his father; Theodorus made inquiries about having his son committed to the lunatic asylum at Geel.

He returned to Cuesmes where he lodged with a miner named Charles Decrucq until October. He became increasingly interested in ordinary people and scenes around him. However, he recorded his time there in his drawings, and that year followed the suggestion of Theo and took up art in earnest. He traveled to Brussels that autumn; intending to follow Theo's recommendation to study with the prominent Dutch artist Willem Roelofs, who persuaded Van Gogh, in spite of his aversion to formal schools of art, to attend the Royal Academy of Art. While in attendance, he not only studied anatomy but also the standard rules of modeling and perspective, of which he said, " have to know just to be able to draw the least thing." Van Gogh wished to become an artist while in God's service as he stated, " try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture."

In April 1881, Van Gogh moved to the Etten countryside with his parents where he continued drawing, often using neighbors as subjects. Through the summer he spent much time walking and talking with his recently widowed cousin, Kee Vos-Stricker. She was the daughter of his mother's older sister and Johannes Stricker, who had shown warmth towards the artist. Kee was seven years older than Van Gogh and had an eight-year-old son. He proposed marriage, but she refused with the words, "No, never, never" (niet, nooit, nimmer). Late that November, he wrote a strongly worded letter to his uncle Stricker, and then hurried to Amsterdam where he again spoke with Stricker on several occasions. Kee refused to see him and her parents wrote, "Your persistence is disgusting". In desperation, 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."[35] He did not clearly recall what next happened, but later assumed that his uncle blew out the flame. Kee's father made it clear that there was no question of marriage given Van Gogh's inability to support himself financially. Van Gogh's perceived hypocrisy of his uncle and former tutor affected him deeply. That Christmas he quarreled violently with his father, to the point of refusing a gift of money, and left for The Hague.

In January 1882, he settled in The Hague where he called on his cousin-in-law, the painter Anton Mauve (1838–1888). Mauve encouraged him towards painting, however the two soon fell out, possibly over the issue of drawing from plaster casts. Mauve appears to have suddenly gone cold towards Van Gogh and did not return a number of his letters.[39] Van Gogh supposed that Mauve had learned of his new domestic arrangement with an alcoholic prostitute, Clasina Maria "Sien" Hoornik and her young daughter. He had met Sien towards the end of January, when she had a five-year-old daughter and was pregnant. She had already borne two children who had died, although Van Gogh was unaware of this. On 2 July, Sien gave birth to a baby boy, Willem. When Van Gogh's father discovered the details of their relationship, he put considerable pressure on his son to abandon Sien and her children. Vincent was at first defiant in the face of opposition.

Van Gogh's uncle Cornelis, an art dealer, commissioned twenty ink drawings of the city, the artist completed by the end of May. That June, he spent three weeks in a hospital suffering gonorrhea. That summer he began to paint in oil. In autumn 1883, after a year together, he abandoned Sien and the two children. Van Gogh had thought of moving the family from the city, but in the end made the break. It is possible that lack of money had pushed Sien back to prostitution—the home had become a less happy one, and likely Van Gogh felt family life was irreconcilable with his artistic development. When he left, Sien gave her daughter to her mother and baby Willem to her brother. She then moved to Delft, and later to Antwerp. Willem remembered being taken to visit his mother in Rotterdam at around the age of 12, where his uncle tried to persuade Sien to marry in order to legitimize the child. Willem remembered his mother saying, "But I know who the father is. He was an artist I lived with nearly 20 years ago in The Hague. His name was Van Gogh." She then turned to Willem and said "You are called after him." Willem believed himself to be Van Gogh's son, however the timing of his birth makes this unlikely. In 1904, Sien drowned at her own hand in the river Scheldt. Van Gogh moved to the Dutch province of Drenthe, in the northern Netherlands. That December, driven by loneliness, he went to stay with his parents who were by then living in Nuenen, North Brabant.

n Nuenen, he devoted himself to drawing and would pay boys to bring him birds' nests for subject matter,[55] and made many sketches of weavers in their cottages. In autumn 1884, Margot Begemann, a neighbor's daughter ten years older than him, often accompanied the artist on his painting forays. She fell in love, and he reciprocated—though less enthusiastically. They decided to marry, but the idea was opposed by both families. As a result, Margot took an overdose of strychnine. She was saved when Van Gogh rushed her to a nearby hospital. On 26 March 1885, his father died of a heart attack and artist grieved deeply at the loss.

In November 1885, he moved to Antwerp and rented a small room above a paint dealer's shop in the Rue des Images (Lange Beeldekensstraat). He had little money and ate poorly, preferring to spend what money his brother Theo sent on painting materials and models. Bread, coffee and tobacco were his staple intake. In February 1886, he wrote to Theo saying that he could only remember eating six hot meals since May of the previous year. His teeth became loose and caused him much pain. While in Antwerp he applied himself to the study of color theory and spent time looking at work in museums, particularly the work of Peter Paul Rubens, gaining encouragement to broaden his palette to carmine, cobalt and emerald green. He bought a number of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts in the docklands, and incorporated their style into the background of a number of his paintings. While in Antwerp Van Gogh began to drink absinthe heavily. He was treated by Dr Cavenaile, whose practice was near the docklands, possibly for syphilis; the treatment of alum irrigations and sitz baths was jotted down by Van Gogh in one of his notebooks. Despite his rejection of academic teaching, he took the higher-level admission exams at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and in January 1886, matriculated in painting and drawing. For most of February, he was ill and run down by overwork, a poor diet and excessive smoking.

Van Gogh traveled to Paris in March 1886 to study at Fernand Cormon's studio, where he shared Theo's Rue Laval apartment on Montmartre. In June, they took a larger flat further uphill, at 54 Rue Lepic. Since there was no longer need to communicate by letters, less is known about Van Gogh's time in Paris than of earlier or later periods of his life.

He then moved to Asnières where he became acquainted with Signac. With his friend Emile Bernard, who lived with his parents in Asnières, he adopted elements of pointillism, whereby many small dots are applied to the canvas to give an optical blend of hues when seen from a distance. The theory behind this style stresses the value of complementary colors—including blue and orange—which form vibrant contrasts and enhance each other when juxtaposed.

In November 1887, Theo and Vincent met and befriended Paul Gauguin who had just arrived in Paris. Towards the end of the year, Van Gogh arranged an exhibition of paintings by himself, Bernard, Anquetin, and Toulouse-Lautrec in the Restaurant du Chalet on Montmartre. There Bernard and Anquetin sold their first paintings, and Van Gogh exchanged work with Gauguin who soon departed to Pont-Aven. Discussions on art, artists and their social situations that started during this exhibition continued and expanded to include visitors to the show like Pissarro and his son Lucien, Signac and Seurat. Finally in February 1888, feeling worn out from life in Paris, he left, having painted over 200 paintings during his two years in the city.

Van Gogh moved to Arles hoping for refuge; at the time he was ill from drink and suffering from smoker's cough.[8] He arrived on 21 February 1888 and took a room at the Hôtel-Restaurant Carrel, which, idealistically, he had expected to look like one of Hokusai (1760-1849) or Utamaro's (1753-1806) prints. He had moved to the town with thoughts of founding a utopian art colony, and the Danish artist Christian Mourier-Petersen became his companion for two months. However Arles appeared filthy and utterly depressing to Van Gogh.

He moved from the Hôtel Carrel to the Café de la Gare on 7 May. He became friends with the proprietors, Joseph and Marie Ginoux. Although the Yellow House had to be furnished before he could fully move in, Van Gogh was able to utilise it as a studio. Hoping to have a gallery to display his work, his major project at this time was a series of paintings which included Van Gogh's Chair, Bedroom in Arles, The Night Café, The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, Starry Night Over the Rhone, Vase with Twelve Sunflowers -- all intended to form the décoration for the Yellow House. Van Gogh wrote about The Night Café: "I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime."

On 23 December 1888, frustrated and ill, Van Gogh confronted Gauguin with a razor blade. In panic, Van Gogh left their hotel and fled to a local brothel. While there, he cut off the lower part of his left ear lobe. He wrapped the severed tissue in newspaper and gave it to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to "keep this object carefully." Gauguin left Arles and never saw Van Gogh again. Days later, Van Gogh was hospitalized and left in a critical state for several days. Immediately, Theo—notified by Gauguin —visited, as did both Madame Ginoux and Roulin. In January 1889, he returned to the Yellow House, but spent the following month between hospital and home suffering from hallucinations and delusions that he was being poisoned. In March, the police closed his house after a petition by 30 townspeople, who called him "fou roux" (the redheaded madman). Paul Signac visited him in hospital and Van Gogh was allowed home in his company. In April, he moved into rooms owned by Dr. Rey, after floods damaged paintings in his own home. Around this time, he wrote, "Sometimes moods of anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant." Two months later he had left Arles and entered an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Recently acquitted from hospital, Van Gogh suffered a severe setback in December 1889. Although he had been troubled by mental illness throughout his life, the episodes became more pronounced during the last few years of his life. In some of these periods he chose to not or was unable to paint, a factor which added to the mounting frustrations of an artist at the peak of his ability.

His depression gradually deepened. On 27 July 1890, aged 37, he walked into a field and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He survived the impact, but not realizing that his injuries were to be fatal, he walked back to the Ravoux Inn. He died there two days later. Theo rushed to be at his side. Theo reported his brother's last words as "La tristesse durera toujours" -- the sadness will last forever.

In the 1930s, the preserved ear was displayed in Paris along with his paintings, and attracted far more attention from the crowd than the paintings themselves.