*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In the tiny town of Groot-Zundert near the southern coast of the Netherlands, one of the most tragic figures in the history of art was born on March 30, 1853. Vincent van Gogh, a post-Impressionist painter famous for striking and brightly-colored compositions, lived a brief but influential life — a fact made all the more impressive considering his relative anonymity at the time of his death at the age of 37.
When he entered the world, van Gogh became part of a family among the minority in the region surrounding his home town. His father, Theodorus, served as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, a comparatively small Christian sect compared to the Catholic Church that dominated the area. Religion and the arts dominated the family tree: his grandfather studied theology at the University of Leiden and some of his uncles were art dealers. The oldest of six children, van Gogh gained a reputation as a quiet, introspective boy.
From a young age — and perhaps picking up on gifts passed down through the generations — van Gogh demonstrated skill with a sketchpad. When he later received instruction from Dutch artist Constantijn Huysmans during his early teens, he gained an appreciation for approaching the process of creating art in a regimented manner, with purpose. His early work, brimming with technical proficiency, hinted at the deeper emotions van Gogh would bring to his later efforts.
At the age of 20, while working as an art dealer in London, van Gogh came to enjoy his career and life in England. Pleased with the substantial income he earned and smitten by his landlady’s daughter, he yearned for the family life he had known growing up. When his advances were turned away, van Gogh retreated within himself and looked for comfort in his faith.
Over the next three years, van Gogh’s attitude turned sharply. While clinging to his religion for solace, he developed a distaste for the art industry. The buying and selling of pieces individuals like himself slaved to produce left him feeling as though the work was cheapened and robbed of its beauty, a belief that frustrated his employers, who ended his contract in April 1876.
Searching for a career with meaning, the angry artist took a teaching position in England, drawing in his free time. When the job fell through, he tried his hand at working for a Methodist minister before crossing the North Sea bound for the Netherlands around Christmas time 1876, where he worked in a bookstore for several months. Frustrated and unfulfilled living in Dordrecht, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and moved to Amsterdam to enter the ministry.
Despite an intense, year-long course of study, van Gogh failed the entrance exam. Believing he was set for a life in the service of Christianity, he enrolled in a program to become a missionary in July 1878. He came up short there, too, but managed to secure a short-term mission in a Belgian mining town early in 1879, where he fixed on living in poverty, sleeping on straw in a small hut.
In a sign of things to come, the owner of the tiny and unkempt building claimed to hear van Gogh bitterly crying himself to sleep in the evenings. Eventually fired from his post for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood,” van Gogh reluctantly joined his family in the Dutch town of Etten for a few months. Following a contentious period filled with arguments about his mental health with his father — who wanted him to be committed to an institution — van Gogh left for Belgium in March 1880.
For the first time in years, the artist inside found a path into the light of day. Encouraged by his brother Theo, van Gogh passed hours drawing the landscapes around him for several months before moving to Brussels to apprentice under fellow Dutchman Willem Roelofs. That November, he entered formal training at the local academy and set his mind on the goal of becoming a painter committed to the work of God.
Upon returning to his parents’ home in Etten, van Gogh found himself intrigued by his cousin Kee Vos-Stricker. He quickly proposed marriage, facing rejection from a woman he admired once again. Increasingly unstable, he abandoned by Christmas 1881, his faith after arguing with both his uncle and father. Disgusted, he moved to The Hague and stayed with Anton Mauve, a painter married to another of his cousins.
Within weeks, van Gogh was living with a prostitute and her daughter, drawing the ire of many in his family. Eventually, he followed his father’s orders to end the arrangement, right about the time he started painting in oils during the latter half of 1883. In addition to his excellence with ink, van Gogh rapidly became proficient with a paintbrush, attracting attention from dealers in Paris with a flurry of work in the Belgian town of Neunen.
In March 1886, after a brief stay in Antwerp, van Gogh moved to the French capital to live with his brother. He created dozens of still lifes and portraits using a distinctive loose stroke with vibrant colors. The openness of the composition — a whole made beautiful as a sum of its parts in the Impressionist style — gave his work a distinctive signature, such as with Seascape at Saintes-Maries (1888).
Early in 1888, the two brothers found living together was no longer possible. In search of some calm, van Gogh settled in Arles, drinking and smoking heavily. Playing with several different media — paint, pencil, charcoal — he found copious inspiration in the lush fields around the town. Refining his style over the next year-plus, his mental health deteriorated at the same time.
Isolated and with little human contact, van Gogh’s mental state declined to the point he famously removed part of his ear and handed it to a prostitute near the end of 1888. Though he went home the next January, his paranoia — including hallucinations — became markedly worse by March. Two months later, he entered a hospital in Saint-Remy-de-Provence in the south of France.
For the last 14 months of his life, van Gogh produced some of his most famous pieces, particularly the swirly landscape of The Starry Night (1889), the abundant Wheat Field with Cypresses (1890) and the harsh Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset (1890). With each successive work, van Gogh’s technique became increasingly emotional and turbulent.
On July 27, 1890, van Gogh was found suffering from a gunshot to the chest. The bullet missed his vital organs but he slowly ebbed away over the next 29 hours. Early on July 29th, with his brother Theo at his side, van Gogh died. Buried the next day, he was still hardly known.
Two decades after his death, however, exhibitions of his work earned a reputation far beyond the small circle of artists aware of his talent, among them Paul Gaugin, who spent several months with van Gogh in 1888. Identified by some experts as the father of Expressionism, only Pablo Picasso’s early paintings fetch a comparable price on the market — Self Portait with Bandaged Ear (1889) is estimated to have been sold for upwards of $80 million dollars at a private auction during the late 1990s.
Also On This Day:
1814 – Armies of the Sixth Coalition enter Paris, hastening the defeat of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte
1842 – Ether anesthesia is used for the first time by American surgeon Dr. Crawford Long
1855 – Pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” from Missouri ride into Kansas as part of an attempt to curb abolitionist sentiment in the legislature
1945 – Soviet forces liberate Gdansk, Poland
1981 – John Hinckley, Jr. attempts to assassinate President of the United States Ronald Reagan