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Vincent Van Gogh Biography Essay Outlines

"Van Gogh" redirects here. For other uses, see Van Gogh (disambiguation).

This is a Dutch name; the family name is Van Gogh, not Gogh.

Vincent Willem van Gogh (Dutch: [ˈvɪnsɛnt ˈʋɪləm vɑn ˈɣɔx] ( listen);[note 1] 30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life. They include landscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits, and are characterised by bold colours and dramatic, impulsive and expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art. His suicide at 37 followed years of mental illness and poverty.

Born into an upper-middle-class family, Van Gogh drew as a child and was serious, quiet and thoughtful. As a young man he worked as an art dealer, often travelling, but became depressed after he was transferred to London. He turned to religion, and spent time as a Protestant missionary in southern Belgium. He drifted in ill health and solitude before taking up painting in 1881, having moved back home with his parents. His younger brother Theo supported him financially, and the two kept up a long correspondence by letter. His early works, mostly still lifes and depictions of peasant labourers, contain few signs of the vivid colour that distinguished his later work. In 1886, he moved to Paris, where he met members of the avant-garde, including Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, who were reacting against the Impressionist sensibility. As his work developed he created a new approach to still lifes and local landscapes. His paintings grew brighter in colour as he developed a style that became fully realised during his stay in Arles in the south of France in 1888. During this period he broadened his subject matter to include series of olive trees, wheat fields and sunflowers.

Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions and though he worried about his mental stability, he often neglected his physical health, did not eat properly and drank heavily. His friendship with Gauguin ended after a confrontation with a razor, when in a rage, he severed part of his own left ear. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including a period at Saint-Rémy. After he discharged himself and moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, he came under the care of the homoeopathic doctor Paul Gachet. His depression continued and on 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He died from his injuries two days later.

Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime, and was considered a madman and a failure. He became famous after his suicide, and exists in the public imagination as the quintessential misunderstood genius, the artist "where discourses on madness and creativity converge". His reputation began to grow in the early 20th century as elements of his painting style came to be incorporated by the Fauves and German Expressionists. He attained widespread critical, commercial and popular success over the ensuing decades, and is remembered as an important but tragic painter, whose troubled personality typifies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist.

Letters

See also: The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

The most comprehensive primary source on Van Gogh is the correspondence between him and his younger brother, Theo. Their lifelong friendship, and most of what is known of Vincent's thoughts and theories of art, are recorded in the hundreds of letters they exchanged from 1872 until 1890. Theo van Gogh was an art dealer and provided his brother with financial and emotional support, and access to influential people on the contemporary art scene.

Theo kept all of Vincent's letters to him; Vincent kept few of the letters he received. After both had died, Theo's widow Johanna arranged for the publication of some of their letters. A few appeared in 1906 and 1913; the majority were published in 1914. Vincent's letters are eloquent and expressive and have been described as having a "diary-like intimacy", and read in parts like autobiography. The translator Arnold Pomerans wrote that their publication adds a "fresh dimension to the understanding of Van Gogh's artistic achievement, an understanding granted us by virtually no other painter".

There are more than 600 letters from Vincent to Theo and around 40 from Theo to Vincent. There are 22 to his sister Wil, 58 to the painter Anthon van Rappard, 22 to Émile Bernard as well as individual letters to Paul Signac, Paul Gauguin and the critic Albert Aurier. Some are illustrated with sketches. Many are undated, but art historians have been able to place most in chronological order. Problems in transcription and dating remain, mainly with those posted from Arles. While there Vincent wrote around 200 letters in Dutch, French and English. There is a gap in the record when he lived in Paris as the brothers lived together and had no need to correspond.

Life

Main article: Vincent van Gogh chronology

Early years

See also: Van Gogh's family in his art

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 into a Dutch Reformed family in Groot-Zundert, in the predominantly Catholic province of North Brabant in the southern Netherlands. He was the oldest surviving child of Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. Van Gogh was given the name of his grandfather, and of a brother stillborn exactly a year before his birth.[note 2] Vincent was a common name in the Van Gogh family: his grandfather, Vincent (1789–1874), who received a degree in theology at the University of Leiden in 1811, had six sons, three of whom became art dealers. This Vincent may have been named after his own great-uncle, a sculptor (1729–1802).

Van Gogh's mother came from a prosperous family in The Hague, and his father was the youngest son of a minister. The two met when Anna's younger sister, Cornelia, married Theodorus's older brother Vincent (Cent). Van Gogh's parents married in May 1851 and moved to Zundert. His brother Theo was born on 1 May 1857. There was another brother, Cor, and three sisters: Elisabeth, Anna, and Willemina (known as "Wil"). In later life Van Gogh remained in touch only with Willemina and Theo. Van Gogh's mother was a rigid and religious woman who emphasised the importance of family to the point of claustrophobia for those around her. Theodorus's salary was modest, but the Church supplied the family with a house, a maid, two cooks, a gardener, a carriage and horse, and Anna instilled in the children a duty to uphold the family's high social position.

Van Gogh was a serious and thoughtful child. He was taught at home by his mother and a governess, and in 1860 was sent to the village school. In 1864 he was placed in a boarding school at Zevenbergen, where he felt abandoned, and campaigned to come home. Instead, in 1866 his parents sent him to the middle school in Tilburg, where he was deeply unhappy. His interest in art began at a young age. He was encouraged to draw as a child by his mother, and his early drawings are expressive, but do not approach the intensity of his later work.Constant Cornelis Huijsmans, who had been a successful artist in Paris, taught the students at Tilburg. His philosophy was to reject technique in favour of capturing the impressions of things, particularly nature or common objects. Van Gogh's profound unhappiness seems to have overshadowed the lessons, which had little effect; in March 1868 he abruptly returned home. He later wrote that his youth was "austere and cold, and sterile".

In July 1869 Van Gogh's uncle Cent obtained a position for him at the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After completing his training in 1873, he was transferred to Goupil's London branch at Southampton Street, and took lodgings at 87 Hackford Road, Stockwell. This was a happy time for Van Gogh; he was successful at work, and at 20 was earning more than his father. Theo's wife later remarked that this was the best year of Vincent's life. He became infatuated with his landlady's daughter, Eugénie Loyer, but was rejected after confessing his feelings; she was secretly engaged to a former lodger. He grew more isolated, and religiously fervent. His father and uncle arranged a transfer to Paris in 1875, where he became resentful of issues such as the degree to which the firm commodified art, and was dismissed a year later.

In April 1876 he returned to England to take unpaid work as a supply teacher in a small boarding school in Ramsgate. When the proprietor moved to Isleworth in Middlesex, Van Gogh went with him. The arrangement did not work out and he left to become a Methodist minister's assistant. His parents had meanwhile moved to Etten; in 1876 he returned home at Christmas for six months and took work at a bookshop in Dordrecht. He was unhappy in the position and spent his time doodling or translating passages from the Bible into English, French and German. He immersed himself in religion, and became increasingly pious and monastic. According to his flatmate of the time, Paulus van Görlitz, Van Gogh ate frugally, avoiding meat.

To support his religious conviction and his desire to become a pastor, in 1877 the family sent him to live with his uncle Johannes Stricker, a respected theologian, in Amsterdam.[42] Van Gogh prepared for the University of Amsterdam theology entrance examination; he failed the exam, and left his uncle's house in July 1878. He undertook, but also failed, a three-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Laken, near Brussels.

In January 1879 he took up a post as a missionary at Petit-Wasmes. in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. To show support for his impoverished congregation, he gave up his comfortable lodgings at a bakery to a homeless person, and moved to a small hut where he slept on straw. His squalid living conditions did not endear him to church authorities, who dismissed him for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood". He then walked the 75 kilometres (47 mi) to Brussels, returned briefly to Cuesmes in the Borinage, but gave in to pressure from his parents to return home to Etten. He stayed there until around March 1880,[note 3] which caused concern and frustration for his parents. His father was especially frustrated and advised that his son should be committed to the lunatic asylum at Geel.[note 4]

Van Gogh returned to Cuesmes in August 1880, where he lodged with a miner until October. He became interested in the people and scenes around him, and recorded them in drawings after Theo's suggestion that he take up art in earnest. He travelled to Brussels later in the year, to follow Theo's recommendation that he study with the Dutch artist Willem Roelofs, who persuaded him – in spite of his dislike of formal schools of art – to attend the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. He registered at the Académie in November 1880, where he studied anatomy and the standard rules of modelling and perspective.

Etten, Drenthe and The Hague

See also: Early works of Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh returned to Etten in April 1881 for an extended stay with his parents. He continued to draw, often using his neighbours as subjects. In August 1881, his recently widowed cousin, Cornelia "Kee" Vos-Stricker, daughter of his mother's older sister Willemina and Johannes Stricker, arrived for a visit. He was thrilled and took long walks with her. Kee was seven years older than he was, and had an eight-year-old son. Van Gogh surprised everyone by declaring his love to her and proposing marriage. She refused with the words "No, nay, never" ("nooit, neen, nimmer"). After Kee returned to Amsterdam, Van Gogh went to The Hague to try to sell paintings and to meet with his second cousin, Anton Mauve. Mauve was the successful artist Van Gogh longed to be. Mauve invited him to return in a few months, and suggested he spend the intervening time working in charcoal and pastels; Van Gogh went back to Etten and followed this advice.

Late in November 1881, Van Gogh wrote a letter to Johannes Stricker, one which he described to Theo as an attack. Within days he left for Amsterdam. Kee would not meet him, and her parents wrote that his "persistence is disgusting". In despair, 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." He did not recall the event well, but later assumed that his uncle had blown out the flame. Kee's father made it clear that her refusal should be heeded and that the two would not marry, largely because of Van Gogh's inability to support himself.

Mauve took Van Gogh on as a student and introduced him to watercolour, which he worked on for the next month before returning home for Christmas. He quarrelled with his father, refusing to attend church, and left for The Hague.[note 5] Within a month Van Gogh and Mauve fell out, possibly over the viability of drawing from plaster casts. Van Gogh could afford to hire only people from the street as models, a practice of which Mauve seems to have disapproved. In June Van Gogh suffered a bout of gonorrhoea and spent three weeks in hospital. Soon after, he first painted in oils, bought with money borrowed from Theo. He liked the medium, and spread the paint liberally, scraping from the canvas and working back with the brush. He wrote that he was surprised at how good the results were.

By March 1882, Mauve appears to have gone cold towards Van Gogh, and stopped replying to his letters. He had learned of Van Gogh's new domestic arrangement with an alcoholic prostitute, Clasina Maria "Sien" Hoornik (1850–1904), and her young daughter.[73] Van Gogh had met Sien towards the end of January 1882, when she had a five-year-old daughter and was pregnant. She had previously borne two children who died, but Van Gogh was unaware of this;[74] on 2 July, she gave birth to a baby boy, Willem. When Van Gogh's father discovered the details of their relationship, he put pressure on his son to abandon Sien and her two children. Vincent at first defied him,[76] and considered moving the family out of the city, but in late 1883, he left Sien and the children.

Poverty may have pushed Sien back into prostitution; the home became less happy and Van Gogh may have felt family life was irreconcilable with his artistic development. Sien gave her daughter to her mother, and baby Willem to her brother. Willem remembered visiting Rotterdam when he was about 12, when an uncle tried to persuade Sien to marry to legitimise the child. He believed Van Gogh was his father, but the timing of his birth makes this unlikely. Sien drowned herself in the River Scheldt in 1904.

In September 1883, Van Gogh moved to Drenthe in the northern Netherlands. In December, driven by loneliness, he went to live with his parents, then in Nuenen, North Brabant.

Emerging artist

Nuenen and Antwerp (1883–86)

See also: Peasant Character Studies (Van Gogh series); Still life paintings by Vincent van Gogh (Netherlands); and Drawings, water-colours and prints by Vincent van Gogh

In Nuenen, Van Gogh focused on painting and drawing. Working outside and very quickly, he completed sketches and paintings of weavers and their cottages. From August 1884, Margot Begemann, a neighbour's daughter ten years his senior, joined him on his forays; she fell in love and he reciprocated, though less enthusiastically. They wanted to marry, but neither side of their families were in favour. Margot was distraught and took an overdose of strychnine, but survived after Van Gogh rushed her to a nearby hospital. On 26 March 1885, his father died of a heart attack.

Van Gogh painted several groups of still lifes in 1885. During his two-year stay in Nuenen, he completed numerous drawings and watercolours, and nearly 200 oil paintings. His palette consisted mainly of sombre earth tones, particularly dark brown, and showed no sign of the vivid colours that distinguish his later work.

There was interest from a dealer in Paris early in 1885. Theo asked Vincent if he had paintings ready to exhibit. In May, Van Gogh responded with his first major work, The Potato Eaters, and a series of "peasant character studies" which were the culmination of several years of work. When he complained that Theo was not making enough effort to sell his paintings in Paris, his brother responded that they were too dark, and not in keeping with the bright style of Impressionism. In August his work was publicly exhibited for the first time, in the shop windows of the dealer Leurs in The Hague. One of his young peasant sitters became pregnant in September 1885; Van Gogh was accused of forcing himself upon her, and the village priest forbade parishioners to model for him.

  • Worn Out, pencil on watercolour paper, 1882. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

He moved to Antwerp that November, and rented a room above a paint dealer's shop in the rue des Images (Lange Beeldekensstraat). He lived in poverty and ate poorly, preferring to spend the money Theo sent on painting materials and models. Bread, coffee and tobacco became his staple diet. In February 1886 he wrote to Theo that he could only remember eating six hot meals since the previous May. His teeth became loose and painful. In Antwerp he applied himself to the study of colour theory and spent time in museums—particularly studying the work of Peter Paul Rubens – and broadened his palette to include carmine, cobalt blue and emerald green. Van Gogh bought Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts in the docklands, later incorporating elements of their style into the background of some of his paintings. He was drinking heavily again, and was hospitalised between February and March 1886, when he was possibly also treated for syphilis.[note 6]

After his recovery, and despite his antipathy towards 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. He became ill and run down by overwork, poor diet and excessive smoking. He started to attend drawing classes after plaster models at the Antwerp Academy on 18 January 1886. He quickly got into trouble with Charles Verlat, the director of the Academy and teacher of a painting class, because of his unconventional painting style. Van Gogh had also clashed with the instructor of the drawing class Franz Vinck. Van Gogh finally started to attend the drawing classes after antique plaster models given by Eugène Siberdt. Soon Siberdt and van Gogh came into conflict when the latter did not comply with Siberdt's requirement that drawings express the contour and concentrate on the line. When van Gogh was required to draw the Venus of Milo during a drawing class, he produced the limbless, naked torso of a Flemish peasant woman. Siberdt regarded this as defiance against his artistic guidance and made corrections to van Gogh's drawing with his crayon so vigorously that he tore the paper. Van Gogh then flew into a violent rage and shouted at Siberdt: 'You clearly do not know what a young woman is like, God damn it! A woman must have hips, buttocks, a pelvis in which she can carry a baby!' According to some accounts this was the last time van Gogh attended classes at the Academy and he left later for Paris. On 31 March 1886, which was about a month after the confrontation with Siberdt, the teachers of the Academy decided that 17 students, including van Gogh, had to repeat a year. The story that van Gogh was expelled from the Academy by Siberdt is therefore unfounded.[101]

Paris (1886–88)

See also: Japonaiserie (Van Gogh) and Still life paintings by Vincent van Gogh (Paris)

Van Gogh moved to Paris in March 1886 where he shared Theo's rue Laval apartment in Montmartre, and studied at Fernand Cormon's studio. In June the brothers took a larger flat at 54 rue Lepic. In Paris, Vincent painted portraits of friends and acquaintances, still life paintings, views of Le Moulin de la Galette, scenes in Montmartre, Asnières and along the Seine. In 1885 in Antwerp he had become interested in Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and had used them to decorate the walls of his studio; while in Paris he collected hundreds of them. He tried his hand at Japonaiserie, tracing a figure from a reproduction on the cover of the magazine Paris Illustre, The Courtesan or Oiran (1887), after Keisai Eisen, which he then graphically enlarged in a painting.

After seeing the portrait of Adolphe Monticelli at the Galerie Delareybarette, Van Gogh adopted a brighter palette and a bolder attack, particularly in paintings such as his Seascape at Saintes-Maries (1888). Two years later, Vincent and Theo paid for the publication of a book on Monticelli paintings, and Vincent bought some of Monticelli's works to add to his collection.

Van Gogh learned about Fernand Cormon's atelier from Theo. He worked at the studio in April and May 1886, where he frequented the circle of the Australian artist John Peter Russell, and met fellow students Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – who painted a portrait of him in pastel. They met at Julien "Père" Tanguy's paint shop, (which was, at that time, the only place where Paul Cézanne's paintings were displayed). In 1886, two large exhibitions were staged there, showing Pointillism and Neo-impressionism for the first time, and bringing attention to Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Theo kept a stock of Impressionist paintings in his gallery on boulevard Montmartre, but Van Gogh was slow to acknowledge the new developments in art.

Conflicts arose between the brothers. At the end of 1886 Theo found living with Vincent to be "almost unbearable". By early 1887, they were again at peace, and Vincent had moved to Asnières, a northwestern suburb of Paris, where he got to know Signac. He adopted elements of Pointillism, a technique in which a multitude of small coloured dots are applied to the canvas so that when seen from a distance they create an optical blend of hues. The style stresses the ability of complementary colours – including blue and orange – to form vibrant contrasts.

  • Courtesan (after Eisen), 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

  • Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige), 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

  • Still Life with Glass of Absinthe and a Carafe, 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

While in Asnières Van Gogh painted parks, restaurants and the Seine, including Bridges across the Seine at Asnières. In November 1887, Theo and Vincent befriended Paul Gauguin who had just arrived in Paris.[111] Towards the end of the year, Vincent arranged an exhibition alongside Bernard, Anquetin, and probably Toulouse-Lautrec, at the Grand-Bouillon Restaurant du Chalet, 43 avenue de Clichy, Montmartre. In a contemporary account, Bernard wrote that the exhibition was ahead of anything else in Paris. There Bernard and Anquetin sold their first paintings, and Van Gogh exchanged work with Gauguin. Discussions on art, artists, and their social situations started during this exhibition, continued and expanded to include visitors to the show, like Camille Pissarro and his son Lucien, Signac and Seurat. In February 1888, feeling worn out from life in Paris, Van Gogh left, having painted more than 200 paintings during his two years there. Hours before his departure, accompanied by Theo, he paid his first and only visit to Seurat in his studio.

Artistic breakthrough

Arles (1888–89)

See also: Décoration for the Yellow House, Langlois Bridge at Arles, and Saintes-Maries (Van Gogh series)

Ill from drink and suffering from smoker's cough, in February 1888 Van Gogh sought refuge in Arles. He seems to have moved with thoughts of founding an art colony. The Danish artist Christian Mourier-Petersen became his companion for two months, and at first Arles appeared exotic. In a letter, he described it as a foreign country: "The Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlésienne going to her First Communion, the priest in his surplice, who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the people drinking absinthe, all seem to me creatures from another world."

The time in Arles became one of Van Gogh's more prolific periods: he completed 200 paintings, and more than 100 drawings and watercolours. He was enchanted by the local landscape and light; his works from this period are rich in yellow, ultramarine and mauve. His paintings include harvests, wheat fields and general rural landmarks from the area, including The Old Mill (1888), a picturesque structure bordering the wheat fields. This was one of seven canvases sent to Pont-Aven on 4 October 1888 in an exchange of works with Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, Charles Laval and others.

The portrayals of the Arles landscape are informed by Van Gogh's Dutch upbringing; the patchworks of fields and avenues appear flat and lacking perspective, but excel in their use of colour. His new-found appreciation is seen in the range and scope of his work. In March 1888 he painted landscapes using a gridded "perspective frame"; three of the works were shown at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. In April, he was visited by the American artist Dodge MacKnight, who was living nearby at Fontvieille. On 1 May 1888, for 15 francs per month, he signed a lease for the eastern wing of the Yellow House at 2 place Lamartine. The rooms were unfurnished and had been uninhabited for months.

On 7 May Van Gogh moved from the Hôtel Carrel to the Café de la Gare, having befriended the proprietors, Joseph and Marie Ginoux. The Yellow House had to be furnished before he could fully move in, but he was able to use it as a studio. He wanted a gallery to display his work, and started a series of paintings that eventually included Van Gogh's Chair (1888), Bedroom in Arles (1888), The Night Café (1888), Café Terrace at Night (September 1888), Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888), and Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers (1888), all intended for the decoration for the Yellow House.

Van Gogh wrote that with The Night Café he tried "to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime". When he visited Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in June, he gave lessons to a Zouave second lieutenant – Paul-Eugène Milliet – and painted boats on the sea and the village.[126] MacKnight introduced Van Gogh to Eugène Boch, a Belgian painter who sometimes stayed in Fontvieille, and the two exchanged visits in July.

  • The Sower with Setting Sun, 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

  • Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries, June 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Gauguin's visit (1888)

See also: Sunflowers (Van Gogh series)

Sunflowers (F.458), repetition of the 4th version (yellow background), August 1889.[1]Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh in 1873, when he worked at the Goupil & Cie's gallery in The Hague;[7]Theo (pictured right, in 1878) was a life-long supporter and friend to his brother.

Vincent c. 1866, about 13 years old
Kee Vos-Stricker with her son Jan c. 1879–80
Rooftops, View from the Atelier The Hague, 1882, private collection

Study Questions

Discuss the mythic relationship between Vincent van Gogh's artistic/creative drive and his delicate psychological condition. Is one necessary for the other, or are they mutually exclusive? Describe a possible cause and effect scenario, using the artist's own words.

Few artists have created a body of work that is so inseparable from the facts and myths of the artist's life and persona. Van Gogh's unbridled passion and ecstatic contemplation of life, nature, and art, his intense spirituality and religious zeal, his generous, ardent, and sincere disposition, and especially, his violent and enigmatic illnesses and suicide at age thirty-seven have all contributed to powerful and often inaccurate myths that can obscure a clear understanding of the important painter. The months he spent in Arles, St. Remy, and Auvers allowed Vincent to paint at a near frenzied pace, until he felt "broke and crazy" (L 513, July 1888). His last two and a half years of life comprised the most prolific and successful period of his career. However, the stress and sheer physical and mental exertion of this obsessive output was too much for his encroaching illnesses, and his condition gradually worsened as his painting became increasingly facile, formally daring, and accomplished.

It is easy, but ultimately misguided, to view and interpret van Gogh's painting strictly in light of his psychological condition–the strong evidence of his letters indicates that he only worked during lucid periods. He was able to discuss his work on a superior intellectual and rational level with his brother and his friends. More accurate than the notion that his art was produced by his psychological crises is the understanding of his art as the catalyst for his psychological collapse. Vincent himself voiced sentiments of regret at the physical and mental disintegration that he believed were the fault of his obsessive creativity: "The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more I am an artist.... [A] kind of melancholy remains within us when we think that one could have created life at less cost than creating art" (L 514, July 1888). In other words, we should not overestimate the effect van Gogh's breakdowns had on his art, but instead untangle the myths in order to recognize and concentrate on a profound talent tempered by a prodigious, exhausting, and ultimately, debilitating creative effort.

Discuss the influence that Impressionism and Japanese prints had on van Gogh's work, specifically during the Paris period. Did Impressionism permanently alter his sense of color and form, or were the influences that led to his mature style more complex?

Although he was still an outsider (due to his non-French nationality, his unallied work, and his unpredictable bipolarity), Vincent finally felt part of a community of artists during his time in Paris. He was able to trade paintings with many of the Impressionists, and a Parisian dealer even took some of his work. The influence of the Impressionists's color theories and use of light, along with Vincent's rising interest in Japanese prints, brought Vincent closer to his mature style as he tried a pseudo-Pointillist approach to painting in discreet, regular, short brushstrokes in heavy impasto and explored vibrant color, "seeking oppositions... to harmonize brutal extremes... trying to render intense color and not a gray harmony" (L 470).

By August 1886, Vincent had left Cormon's studio because of Cormon's refusal of the new color theories and his insistence on painting plaster casts rather than live nude models. Vincent painted atmospheric cityscapes (like View from Vincent's Window and The Roofs of Paris) and a remarkable series of flowers in vases (like Vase with Poppies, Daisies, Cornflowers, and Peonies and Vase with Gladioli) to discipline his discovery of powerful color and Impressionist/neo-Impressionist theory. His Paris style is a unique amalgam of Impressionism and his own mature style of proto- Expressionism; van Gogh was influenced by Impressionism and the flattened, linear forms of Japanese prints (which he collected), but also by the old Dutch masters. His art was inherently synthetic, combining disparate influences to create a completely unique vision of stylized representation that went far beyond the circumscribed confines of Impressionism. Even in his Parisian self- portraits and portraits (particularly Portrait of Pere Tanguy), he began to distort and exaggerate form to express the overwhelming turmoil of his emotional life. Vincent experimented with Impressionist theory and technique, absorbed what he wanted, and then rejected the rest. His conception of art was fundamentally different from the Impressionists'–his paintings record the immediacy of emotional, spiritual, and psychological impact with the subject filtered through the artist, as opposed to the purely optical/perceptual recording of the Impressionists. His mature style bears little resemblance to Impressionism–the color, form, heavily modeled line, paint handling, and texture is diametrically opposed to Impressionism in its intensity, nonobjective, unnatural choice of colors and the violent, forceful attack of line and form.

What influence did van Gogh's radical stylistic departures from the Parisian avant-garde's languages of Impressionism and post-Impressionism have on the development of modernist painting?

A brilliant colorist who took Gauguin's subjective color choices a step further to his characteristically acidic, imaginative, overwhelmingly intense hues, Van Gogh's tremendous influence on the development of Expressionism is due to his unique skill as a draughtsman and his immediately recognizable heavy, sculptural line. He wrote to his brother, "Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcibly... to exaggerate the essential and to leave the obvious vague" (Arnason 85). For instance, in his nightmarish masterpiece The Night Cafe, 1888, he sought "to express in red and green the terrible passions of human beings" (Schapiro 26). Van Gogh's revolutionary approach to painting had a strong influence on the next generation of artists, beginning with Matisse and the French Expressionists, also known as the Fauves. He offered these early modernists a powerful alternative to the avant-garde centrality of delicate Parisian Impressionism and post-Impressionism. His innovative and radical use of unnatural color, his angular, heavy line, his compression of three-dimensional space into two-dimensional discreet pictorial elements (like brushstroke and pattern), and particularly his stylized distortion and often-groteque exaggeration of reality all appealed to the Expressionist artists. The German Expressionists, especially the Die Brucke group, considered themselves the heirs to van Gogh, whom they esteemed the premier genius of modern art. Van Gogh's penetrating and revealing portraits were of special interest to the young Germans' and Austrians' high regard for the psychoanalytical theories of Freud. Even Picasso was not immune to van Gogh's formidable influence. Picasso's pre- Cubist work demonstrates his knowledge of van Gogh's painting, and the Vincent's spontaneity and forceful immediacy affected even Picasso's transitional Cubist work in the era of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Joan Miro admitted that his early work was indebted to van Gogh. His influence reappeared after WWII with Abstract Expressionism, particularly the work of fellow Dutchman Willem de Kooning, and the respectful van Gogh studies and tribute paintings of the British neo-Expressionist painter Francis Bacon. Even today, van Gogh's stylistic syntax is evident in neo-Expressionist painting in Europe and the United States.

Essay Topics

Discuss van Gogh's complex relationship with his family, particularly his brother Theo. To what extent did Vincent distance himself from his family and/or embrace his heritage?

To what extent did van Gogh's nationality influence his life, his art, and his outsider status? Is his nationality crucial to his artistic development? Does it matter that he wasn't French like the rest of his avant-garde colleagues?

Discuss van Gogh's obsession with portrait painting in light of his life and his personality. Why did the portrait fascinate him so, especially towards the end of his life? What did he mean when he said he wanted his portraits to be like "apparitions"? Cite specific examples of work.

Discuss the development of the landscape in van Gogh's art, from his early work in The Netherlands through his transcendent final double-square landscapes from Auvers? Does van Gogh ever really achieve abstraction with his landscapes?

What role did religion, spirituality, and faith play in van Gogh's life and art? Discuss the evolution of his faith, from childhood to death, citing specific works if possible.

Why do you think van Gogh was so preoccupied with peasant portraiture and documentation for so much of his life, even though he himself came from a decidedly middle-class family? How does this preoccupation relate to his ideas about religion, place, and the value of life?

Do you think van Gogh's psychological troubles, and/or his spiritual and artistic life, was really triggered by his first failed love affair with Eugenie Loyer in London? What part did romance play in van Gogh's life and work? Discuss his view of women, in light of his early interest in Michelet's writings as well as his depiction of women in his art? Cite specific paintings as examples.