Vincent van Gogh Biography – Dutch Painter, Post-impressionism, Art History, European Art, Legacy

Vincent van Gogh Biography
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Vincent van Gogh Portrait. Image by Prawny from Pixabay

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Vincent van Gogh Biography and Legacy

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who, after his death, became one of the most famous and influential artists in the history of European art.

Van Gogh created over 2,000 artworks in his lifetime, most of which are characterized by bold colors and impulsive and expressive brushwork. These paintings contributed to the foundations of modern art, inspiring artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to further develop the movement.

Early Life and Education

Vincent van Gogh was born on 30th March 1853 in Groot-Zundert, a municipality and town in the south of the Netherlands.

Van Gogh was the oldest surviving child of Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus, who came from a prosperous family.

Van Gogh was said to be a serious and thoughtful child, who was at first home-schooled by his mother and a governess. Later on, in 1860, he was sent to the local village school.

In 1864, Van Gogh, aged 11, was sent to a boarding school at Zevenbergen, a city located in the northwest of the province of North Brabant. There the young Van Gogh felt lonely and abandoned and wished to return home.

Two years later, his parents enrolled him at a middle school in Tilburg. But there too he was unhappy.

At the school in Tilburg, the students were taught art by Constant Cornelis Huijsmans, a Dutch art teacher and painter who was a successful artist in Paris.

Huijsmans taught the students to reject technique in favor of capturing the impressions and true essence of things, especially that of common objects and nature. But these lessons did not seem to have had any influence on Van Gogh then.

In 1868, Van Gogh left school and returned home. He would later describe his youth as austere, cold, and sterile.

Early Adult Life

In 1869, Vincent van Gogh began working at Goupil & Cie, a leading art dealership in 19th-century France, in their The Hague branch. The position was obtained for him by his uncle.

In 1873, after completing his training, Van Gogh, aged 20, was transferred to Goupil & Cie’s London branch. He was immediately successful at his work and was already earning more than his father at the time.

This was a happy phase in Van Gogh’s life. His brother Theo’s wife would later remark that it was probably the best time of his short life.

Around this time, Van Gogh became infatuated with his landlady’s daughter. He even confessed his feelings to her but was rejected. The rejection left him lonely, isolated, and sad, prompting him to turn to religion for solace.

In 1875, Van Gogh was transferred to Goupil and Cie’s Paris branch. Once again, it was his uncle who had arranged for his transfer.

While working in Paris, Van Gogh became disenchanted and resentful of the way the dealership commodified art. He quickly lost all interest in the job and was dismissed a year later.

Back to England

After being dismissed from his job in Paris, Vincent van Gogh went back to England in 1876. He took up unpaid work as a supply teacher in a small boarding school in Ramsgate.

When the proprietor of the school moved to Isleworth in Middlesex, Van Gogh went along with him. But things did not work out as planned and Van Gogh left shortly thereafter to become the assistant of a Methodist minister.

Returning to the Netherlands

The same year, Vincent van Gogh left England and made his way to Etten, a municipality in North Brabant, where his parents had moved to.

He began working at a bookshop in Dordrecht but was unhappy with his job. He spent his time there doodling or translating passages from the Bible into English, French, and German.

During this period, Van Gogh became even more religious and pious. He desired to become a pastor and in 1877 his family sent him to Amsterdam to live with his uncle, who was a respected theologian.

Under his uncle’s guidance, Van Gogh attempted the University of Amsterdam’s theology entrance examination. Sadly, he failed the examination and left his uncle’s house a few months later.

Moving to Belgium

After failing his theology entrance examination, he undertook a 3-month course at a Protestant Missionary School in Laken in northwest Brussels. He failed that course too.

In January 1879, Van Gogh managed to get a post as a missionary at Petit-Wasmes, in the coal mining district of Borinage, in Belgium. There he found comfortable accommodation at a local bakery. But in order to show his support for his poor impoverished congregation, he gave up his lodgings at the bakery to a homeless person and moved into a simple small hut, where he slept on straw.

Unfortunately, the Church authorities did not take kindly to this act of his, and they dismissed him from his post for undermining the dignity of the priesthood.

After his dismissal, Van Gogh returned to Etten on his parents’ insistence and lived with them until early 1880. His father, out of frustration at seeing him doing nothing in life, suggested that he be committed to a lunatic asylum.

Early Inclination Toward Art

In August 1880, Van Gogh went back to Belgium and began lodging with a miner in the village of Cuesmes.

His brother Theo suggested that he take up art in earnest and give it a go. This was when he first began drawing and sketching the people, surroundings, and scenes around him. He realized that he had a knack for and interest in it.

Later that year, on Theo’s suggestion, Van Gogh went to Brussels to study art under the Dutch artist Willem Roelofs. Roelofs eventually convinced Van Gogh, then aged 27, to attend the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Belgium, where he studied the standard rules of perspective and modeling.

Early Beginnings as an Artist

1881 and 1882 were the first two years of serious artistic exploration by Vincent van Gogh.

Over the course of those two years, Van Gogh lived in several places but continued to draw and paint.

After studying for about a year at the art academy, he left Brussels and returned to his parent’s home in Etten, where he used his neighbors and the residents of the town as his subjects for drawing and painting.

In early 1882, Van Gogh made his way to The Hague in order to meet his second cousin Anton Mauve, a Dutch realist painter who was a leading member of The Hague school.

Mauve took Van Gogh on as a student, introducing him to charcoal pastels and then watercolors and oil painting. Mauve even set up a temporary studio for him to work in.

Around this time, Theo began to provide Van Gogh with financial support. Van Gogh used this money to purchase oil paints. He had grown fond of the medium and spread the paint liberally, scraping from the canvas and working back with the brush. The results were good and he himself was surprised.

Van Gogh mostly used the working class or peasants as his subjects and main source of inspiration.

Some of his early works during this period include Crouching Boy with Sickle, Woman Sewing, Fisherman on the Beach, and The Potato Market.

Relationship with Sien

By early 1882, Van Gogh and Mauve fell out.

Van Gogh then moved in with a prostitute named Sien and her 5-year-old daughter. He had met Sien in January of that year and had moved in with her shortly thereafter.

Apart from having a daughter, Sien was also pregnant when they began living together. She became his mistress and a model for his work. During their time together, he drew and painted several works of Sien and her daughter, the most famous one being ‘Sorrow’, widely regarded as a masterwork of draftsmanship.

Upon learning of Van Gogh’s new domestic arrangements, Mauve stopped all correspondence with him. Even his family did not accept his relationship with Sien.

At first, Van Gogh defied them and continued living with her. But finally in 1883, on Theo’s insistence, he left Sien and moved to Drenthe.

Van Gogh’s relationship with Sien would be the first and only domestic relationship he would ever have.

The Budding Artist

In December of 1883, after a brief stay at Drenthe, Vincent van Gogh went to live with his parents in Nuenen, North Brabant.

He continued to draw and paint there, usually working outside, making sketches and paintings of weavers, peasants, and their cottages. He made a series of such paintings, all related to the peasant character studies he was working on at the time.

Van Gogh went on to stay in Nuenen for two years, completing several drawings, watercolors, and almost 200 paintings. He also painted, drew, and sketched many groups of still lifes.

These early works of Van Gogh were mostly in dull, somber colors, particularly brown and dark-brown, and showed no signs of the bright, vibrant, and expressive colors that would distinguish his later works.

First Attempts at Selling His Paintings

In early 1885, a dealer in Paris showed some interest in Van Gogh’s work on Theo’s prodding.

Van Gogh was asked to exhibit a painting and in response, he created his first major work The Potato Eaters, and a series of peasant character study paintings, which were a result of 4 years of work.

Van Gogh’s paintings did not sell that easily. He even complained that Theo was not making enough effort to sell his paintings. Theo responded by saying that his paintings were difficult to sell as they were too dark and dull, which was in complete contrast with the bright and expressive colors used by impressionists.

In August 1885, a painting of his was finally accepted by the dealer Leurs and exhibited for the first time in the dealer’s shop window.

Moving to Antwerp

In November 1885, Vincent van Gogh moved to Antwerp and rented a room above a paint dealer’s shop.

Van Gogh lived there in utter poverty. He ate frugally, preferring to spend the money he received from Theo on purchasing painting materials and models for his paintings. Bread, coffee, and tobacco became his staple diet.

While in Antwerp, Van Gogh frequently visited museums to study the works of other great artists, especially that of Peter Paul Rubens. He also began to study color theory and began including new brighter colors in his palette such as cobalt blue, emerald green, and carmine.

Around this time, Van Gogh also purchased several Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts, a genre of Japanese art that flourished from the 17th century to the 19th century. The influence of this art form can be seen in his later works in which the background of some of his paintings includes elements of this style.

Paintings such as The Courtesan, The Bridge in the Rain, and Flowering Plum Tree, are examples of works by Van Gogh that were influenced by Japanese art.

Attending the Academy of Fine Arts

Even though he despised any kind of formal academic teaching of the arts, Vincent van Gogh undertook a higher-level admission exam at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He passed the examination and matriculated in painting and drawing.

Once Van Gogh began attending classes, he immediately got into trouble with the academy’s director and teacher of a painting class, Charles Verlat, due to his unconventional, non-conformist painting style.

Later on, he also ran into trouble with two other instructors, one of them being Eugene Siberdt, a late-Romantic painter and Academic, known for his Orientalist paintings, history paintings, and portraits.

Siberdt wanted the drawings of his students to express the contours and concentrate on the line, something which Van Gogh did not heed, leading to a clash between the two.

After the conflict with Siberdt, Van Gogh left the Academy and made his way to Paris.

Life in Paris

Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris in March 1886 and moved in with Theo in Montmarte.

In Paris, Van Gogh painted several still lifes and the scenes and life in Montmarte. He made paintings of Asmieres-Sur-Seine and several portraits of friends and acquaintances.

Theo informed Van Gogh about the French painter Fernand Corman’s private workshop. Van Gogh began frequenting the workshop, spending his time there working and studying art.

At the workshop, he met the Australian impressionist artist John Peter Russell, who made a portrait of Van Gogh in 1866.

Van Gogh also met and mingled with fellow students and artists such as Louis Anquetin, Emile Bernard, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who also painted a portrait of him.

After some conflict with Theo, Van Gogh moved to Asnieres, where he got a chance to meet Paul Signac, the French Neo-impressionist painter who, along with Georges Seurat, helped develop the Pointillist style.

Van Gogh was relatively late in catching up to the new developments in art and did not immediately acknowledge the impressionist movement sweeping across Europe.

It was after meeting Signac that he began to include elements of Pointillism in his work, thereby changing his style of painting.

Toward the end of the year, Van Gogh, along with Bernard, Anquetin, and Toulouse-Lautrec, organized an exhibition, where he exchanged paintings with Paul Gaugin.

By early 1888, Van Gogh was fed up with life in Paris. He had painted more than 150 paintings during his 2-year stay in Paris.

Van Gogh now made his way to Arles, a city on the Rhone River in southern France.

Life in Arles

On moving to Arles, Vincent van Gogh befriended the Danish artist Christian Mourier-Petersen and they became close companions for a couple of months.

Van Gogh fell in love with the Arles countryside and light. To him, the place seemed to be a foreign country and its inhabitants as creatures from another world.

The city and people of Arles inspired Van Gogh to draw and paint more than ever before, thereby making his stay there one of his most prolific periods.

Van Gogh’s paintings from this period are rich in mauve, yellow, and ultramarine. He ended up painting more than 200 paintings and more than 100 drawings and watercolors. The subject of most of these works were scenes and life in Arles, the local landmarks from the area, the wheat fields, and harvest scenes.

Van Gogh wanted a gallery to display his work and began a series of paintings which included Bedroom in Arles (1888), Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888), Van Gogh’s Chair (1888), and The Night Cafe (1888). He intended to display these works in the Yellow House (of which he made an oil painting).

During this period, three of his works were even shown at the annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists.


The events leading up to Vincent van Gogh cutting off his ear are still uncertain. It is generally believed that Van Gogh had a serious altercation with Paul Gauguin, who had come to Arles to work and live with him.

After their argument, Van Gogh returned to his room and severed his left ear with a razor. Whether he had severed his ear wholly or in part, is still not known.

Van Gogh began to bleed severely. He bandaged the wound, wrapped the ear in a paper, and then delivered it to a woman at the brothel he frequented. The next morning, a policeman found him unconscious and took him to the hospital.

Van Gogh would later state that he had no memory of the event. He even suggested that he had probably suffered from a mental breakdown. The hospital diagnosed it as acute mania with generalized delirium.

Van Gogh was placed in hospital care for a short while and then released. He returned to his house in Arles but soon began suffering from delusions and hallucinations of poisoning.

In March 1889, the local police sealed his house after a petition was put forward by thirty townspeople who described him as ‘the redheaded madman’.

Two months later, Van Gogh left Arles and of his own accord entered an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh entered the Saint-Paul-de Mausole asylum on 8th May 1889.

He was given two cells with barred windows, one of which he used as his studio. He continued to draw and paint in the asylum, his main subject being the clinic and its garden.

It was here at the asylum that Van Gogh painted The Starry Night, his masterpiece that would become one of the most famous and recognized paintings in western art.

The painting, characterized by swirls, depicts the view from the east-facing window of Van Gogh’s asylum room, just before sunrise, overlooking an imaginary village.

The painting now rests in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and is regarded as one of the most important paintings in the development of modern art. The work made Van Gogh an iconic and almost mythical figure in the history of western art.

Sadly, he did not live long enough to see and experience the painting’s eventual success.

Some other famous paintings by Van Gogh during his time in the asylum include Irises (1889), Sorrowing Old Man (1890), and Prisoners’ Round (1890).

Final Years

In his final years, Vincent van Gogh began to receive some attention and praise for his work.

Although he could not yet be considered as successful or established by any means, art critics such as Gabriel-Albert Aurier praised his work and even called him a genius.

In February of 1889, Van Gogh was invited by Les XX, a group of avant-garde painters, sculptors, and designers in Brussels, to participate in their annual exhibition.

From March to April 1890, Van Gogh was invited to exhibit his work in the 6th exhibition of the Societe des Artistes Independants in the Pavillon de la Ville de Paris on the Champs-Elysees. He exhibited 10 paintings there.

Claude Monet, the founder of impressionist painting, who had visited the exhibition, is said to have remarked that among all the works in the exhibition, Van Gogh’s was the best.


On 27th July 1890, Vincent van Gogh, aged 37, shot himself in the chest with a revolver. There were no witnesses. It was speculated that the shooting probably took place in the wheat field in which he had been painting, or in a local barn.

Van Gogh did not die immediately. In fact, he was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux, where he was lodging at the time. Two doctors attended to him, but it was too late. Approximately 30 hours after shooting himself, he died due to an infection resulting from the wound.

On 30th July, Vincent van Gogh was buried in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-Sur-Oise.


Since his death, Van Gogh’s reputation and stature as an artist continued to grow. Several memorial exhibitions of his work were held in Paris, The Hague, Brussels, and Antwerp.

Six of his works were exhibited at a Les XX exhibition and at many other high-profile exhibitions.

In 1892, Emile Bernard organized a small solo show of Van Gogh’s paintings in Paris. Julien Tanguy also exhibited his Van Gogh paintings.

In 1901, in Paris, a large retrospective exhibition of Van Gogh’s work was held at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. Several other group exhibitions of his work were held in Cologne, Berlin, and New York.

Van Gogh’s fame reached its peak in Germany and Austria before the First World War when his letters were published in three volumes in 1914.

Although Van Gogh died poor, neglected, and unknown, his work has influenced generations of subsequent artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Emil Nolde, and Francis Bacon, who acknowledge a great debt to his work.

Van Gogh’s work contributed to the emergence of fauvism and was an important precursor to modern art.

Irving Stone’s 1934 biographical novel about the life of Vincent Van Gogh titled Lust for Life (based on Van Gogh’s letters to Theo) and the 1956 movie based on the novel, further enhanced Van Gogh’s fame in America and in the rest of the world.

In 1973, the Van Gogh museum was opened in Amsterdam.

Even though Van Gogh barely sold and made money from any of his paintings while he was alive, his works are among the most expensive paintings in the world right now.

Van Gogh’s legacy continues to live on. It continues to inspire and influence artists to this very day, thereby making him one of the greatest and most important artists of all time.