Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853 – July 29, 1890)
was born on 30 March 1853 in Zundert, a village in the southern province of North Brabant. He was the eldest son of the Reverend Theodorus van Gogh (1822 – 1885) and Anna Cornelia Carbentus (1819 – 1907). Brother to Elisabeth, Anna, Wil, Theo and Cor. Little is known about Vincent’s early years other than that he was a quiet child with no apparent artistic talent. He would later look back on his happy childhood with great pleasure.
His school years
Van Gogh received an incomplete education. One year at the village school in Zundert, two years at a boarding school in Zevenbergen. Followed by eighteen months at a high school in Tilburg. At sixteen he began working at the Hague gallery of the French art dealers Goupil et Cie his uncle Vincent was a partner. His brother Theo, later worked for the same firm.
In 1873 Goupil’s transferred Vincent to London. Two years later they moved him to Paris, where he lost all ambition to become an art dealer. He took little interest in his work and let go from his job at the beginning of 1876.
Van Gogh as a teacher
Van Gogh then took a post as an assistant teacher in England. However disappointed by the lack of prospects, returned to Holland at the end of the year. He now decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a clergyman. Although disturbed by his fanaticism and odd behaviour, his parents agreed to pay for the private lessons to gain admission to the university.
This proved to be another false start. Van Gogh abandoned the teachings, and after brief training as an evangelist went to the Borinage coal-mining region in the south of Belgium. His ministry among the miners led him to identify deeply with the workers and their family. In 1897, however, his appointment was not renewed, and his parents despaired, regarding him as a social misfit. In an unguarded moment, his father even spoke of committing him to a mental asylum.
When Van Gogh decided to become an artist, no one, not even himself, suspected that he had extraordinary gifts. His evolution from an inept but impassioned novice into a genuinely original master was remarkably rapid. He eventually proved to have an exceptional feel for bold, harmonious colour effects, and an infallible instinct for choosing interesting but straightforward compositions.
Life as an artist
To prepare for his new career, Van Gogh went to Brussels to study at the academy but left after only nine months. There he got to know Anthon van Rappard, who was to be his most crucial artist friend during his Dutch period.
In April 1881, Van Gogh went to live with his parents in Etten in North Brabant, where he set himself the task of learning how to draw. He experimented endlessly with all sorts of drawing materials and concentrated on mastering technical aspects of his craft like perspective, anatomy, and physiognomy. Most of his subjects were taken from peasant life.
At the end of 1881 he moved to The Hague, and there, too, he concentrated mainly on drawing. At first, he took lessons from Anton Mauve, his cousin by marriage, but the two soon fell out. Partly because Mauve was scandalized by Vincent’s relationship with Sien Hoornik. A pregnant prostitute who already had an illegitimate child. Van Gogh made a few paintings while in The Hague, but drawing was his main passion.
In September 1883 he decided to break off the relationship with Sien and follow in the footsteps of artists like Van Rappard and Mauve by trying his luck in the picturesque eastern province of Drenthe, which was reasonably inaccessible in those days. After three months, however, a lack of both drawing materials and models forced him to leave. He decided once again to move in with his parents, who were now living in the North Brabant village of Nuenen, near Eindhoven.
The inspiration of Van Gogh
In Nuenen, Van Gogh first began painting regularly, modelling himself chiefly on the French painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814 – 1875). Who was famous throughout Europe for his scenes of the harsh life of peasants. Van Gogh set to work with an iron will, depicting the life of the villagers and humble workers. He made numerous scenes of weavers. In May 1884, he moved into rooms he had rented from the sacristan of the local Catholic church, one of which he used as his studio.
At the end of 1884, he began painting and drawing a series of heads and work-roughened peasant hands in preparation for a larger figure piece that he was planning. In April 1885 this period of study came to fruition in the masterpiece of his Dutch period, The Potato Eaters.
Taking formal training
In 1885, feeling the need for proper artistic training, Van Gogh enrolled at the academy in Antwerp. He found the lessons rather tedious but was impressed by the city and its museums. He fell under the spell of Peter Paul Rubens’ palette and brushwork, and also discovered Japanese prints.
In early 1886 Van Gogh went to live with his brother in Paris. He discovered that the dark palette he had developed back in Holland was hopelessly out-of-date. To feel better, he began painting still lifes of flowers. The search for his idiom led him to experiment with impressionist and postimpressionist techniques. And to study the prints of the Japanese master. During his time in Paris, he made friends with such artists as Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Paul Signac, and Georges Seurat. Within two years Van Gogh had come to terms with the latest development and had forged his own, highly personal style.
Life in Provence
At the beginning of 1888, Van Gogh, now a mature artist, went south to Arles, in Provence, where he, at last, began to feel confident about his choice of career. He set out to make a personal contribution to modern art with his daring colour combinations. He was swept away by the landscape around Arles. In the spring he painted numerous scenes of fruit trees in blossom, and in the summer the yellow wheat fields. Although he had some difficulty finding models, he did make portraits, among which were those of the Roulin family. It was typical of Van Gogh’s faith in his abilities that he decided not to try to sell any work yet but to wait until he had thirty top-class pictures with which he could announce himself to the world. He cherished the hope that some other artists would come and join him in Arles, where they could all live and work together. The idea seemed to get off to a promising start when Gauguin arrived in October 1888.