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Vincent Van Gogh: A Biography of a Great (and Insane) Painter

Van Gogh. Simply hearing the name elicits a diversity of reactions in the minds of those that hear it. To some he is a genius; a modern-day Da Vinci, able to revolutionize the art of painting with his short life’s work. To others, he is the madman, unable to control his own mind amidst the turmoil and struggle of his life. The truth, however, is probably a combination of the two most obvious qualities of the iconic painter, Vincent Van Gogh.


Vincent, born 30 March, 1853, was the child of a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Although he is known to have received some art instruction as a child, Van Gogh did not initially seek to become an artist. Several members of Vincent’s family made their living as art dealers, and to follow suit, he obtained a job as an art dealer when he was 16 years old. Later in life, Vincent described his childhood as “gloomy and cold and sterile,” hardly the contented musings of a satisfied man reminiscing about easier days. At first he seemed to be happy with his new job. Before long, he was transferred to the offices in London, and was relatively successful as an art dealer. He was then moved to Paris, but the job was short lived. He was fired at the age of 23, and for a while, Vincent pursued the life of a minister. Why he chose this new path, whether as a result of his father’s ministry, or simply because he personally desired to, can only be surmised. He chose nonetheless, and in 1877 Van Gogh set off for Amsterdam to study theology, but failed the entrance exam for school. Vincent subsequently attempted a religious class at a school in Brussels, but he failed at that class also. Vincent’s “misfortune” seems to have haunted him from the very beginning.

Van Gogh Self-Portrait as an Artist

Van Gogh Self-Portrait as an Artist

Vincent, The Minister

Having failed at his attempts to enter theological school, Van Gogh decided to abandon schooling and simply begin to minister to those in need. In the Belgian district of Borinage, a coal-mining center, Vincent plunged himself into the lives of the poor mine-workers. He shared in their misery and hardship, but by doing so he alienated the church authorities in the area. They felt that he was degrading the post of a minister by living in poverty, and they decided to dismiss him from his post as a minister of the church. Still, Van Gogh could not gain any success in his ventures, and it was at this point that he returned to art. The only difference was that he turned to it as a refuge from the stormy gale crashing about his dreams, and it was in painting that he found peace, albeit a temporary peace.

Theo: Vincent's Anchor

While Vincent was busy exploring the world of religion, his younger brother Theo chose to follow the family tradition as an art dealer. Theodore Van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother, had also taken a job with the Paris art dealership, Goupil & Cie, at a young age. Theo, however, remained steady in his job and eventually became quite the businessman. Theo’s steady footing allowed him to come to Vincent’s rescue after his failed missionary endeavors. Theo, ever the encourager, prodded Vincent to paint, and when Vincent showed some desire to pursue painting, Theo was there to support him financially. In November of 1880 Vincent began to take lessons from the Dutch artist Willem Roelofs, after which he enrolled to attend art classes at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Maybe this time Vincent had finally found his calling.

Simon Schama's "The Power of Art" - Van Gogh

The Developing Artist: 1880-1886

Around the same time that Van Gogh began seeking a career in painting, he began to show signs of mental instability. Van Gogh’s father sought to send Vincent to a mental asylum in Belgium, but Vincent refused to cooperate. After finishing art school in Brussels and spending a few aimless months at home, Vincent left to take up residence at The Hague. There, Van Gogh spent a short time with the famed Dutch Impressionist Anton Mauve. Most people credit Mauve was being the first person to introduce Van Gogh to painting, both with watercolors and oils. Vincent began painting late in 1881. For Vincent, the year of 1882 could be seen as a bump in the road, so to speak. After he arrived at the Hague, he met a prostitute named Clasina Maria Hoornik, more commonly known as “Sien.” During the year or so that Sien lived with Van Gogh, he dealt with great opposition from his family (understandably so) and from his colleagues. Sien had a son during the time that she was living with Vincent, and some people feel that the boy was Van Gogh’s illegitimate child though no one can prove this assertion. In the fall of 1883, Vincent left Sein and her children and moved to Drenthe. He spent a few months wandering in search of lodgings and work, but Vincent eventually ended up returning to his family in Nuenen, Holland. Vincent had once again endured through a difficult time in his life, although this one was essentially of his own making.

The Emerging Painter: 1884-1887

Van Gogh had returned to his family, and had actually remained with them for a lengthy period. He lived with them for the duration of 1884, during which time he helped care for his mother’s broken leg. Vincent’s father died in March of 1885 and this event added to Vincent’s struggles. Though he endured personal difficulties, 1885 saw the emergence of Van Gogh’s genius. The Potato Eaters (1885) is considered by most to be the first of Van Gogh’s great paintings. Although it is dark and earthy, it is Vincent’s attempt to portray the difficult reality of a peasant’s life. His paintings during 1885-1886 show an abundance of somber, earthy colors. Theo sought to sell some of Vincent’s paintings in Paris, but complained that the dreary tones did not fit with the bright colors of the popular Impressionist style. At the end of 1885, Vincent left for Antwerp and enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts there, where he took classes on painting and drawing.

In early 1886, Van Gogh made the journey to Paris where he joined his brother Theo at an apartment in town. While in Paris, Vincent also studied at Fernand Cormon’s studio. During Vincent’s initial stay with Theo, he experimented with new styles and techniques in his painting. He painted many self-portraits during his Paris foray also, and several of these are famous in their own right today.In late 1887 while in Paris, Vincent first met Paul Gaugin, who would one day become a leader of the Post-Impressionist movement in France. They talked about art and painting but did not spend an extensive amount of time together in Paris. Van Gogh’s paintings of Paris as well as his painting “Two Cut Sunflowers” are a testament to the fact that Paris was a big step in his evolution as a painter. It did, however, come with it’s price.

Arles: Breakthrough and Downfall

In February 1888, Van Gogh left Paris for the French town of Arles, in order to escape exhaustion from his Paris work. When he arrived, he took above a restaurant but soon moved from there to the famed Yellow House. It was the place where his painting would make its biggest leap yet. His most famous works from this period are his bright landscapes of the area around Arles, as well as his paintings made to decorate the Yellow House. The most famous of his decoration paintings is possibly his painting The Night Café , a painting of which Van Gogh said “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.”

After a flurry of correspondence and much prodding, Van Gogh’s acquaintance from Paris, Gaugin, agreed to come and room with Vincent at Arles. Van Gogh had high hopes that the two would be friends and would encourage each other in their work. It was a pleasant time at first, but things began to fall apart, and before long the two artists were quarreling incessantly. This tension seems to have been Van Gogh’s breaking point. One day, Vincent confronted Gaugin with a razor blade, but realizing his foolishness, he fled from the residence and hid in a brothel. While there, he took the blade and cut off a portion of his left ear, wrapped it in paper, and handed it to a woman there. This news of this action, coupled with the earlier confrontation was enough cause for Gaugin to leave the city. This story has become the quintessential tale told to demonstrate Vincent’s insanity, but this episode was only the first of many.

The Asylum at Saint-Remys: 1889-1890

After being hospitalized following his outburst in Arles, and having prolonged hallucinations, Van Gogh committed himself to a mental asylum. His brother Theo helped with the arrangements and Vincent was able to maintain a studio while in asylum. While there, he painted some of his most famous work, including Starry Night, The Sower , and The Round of the Prisoners , which included a self-portrait of Van Gogh as one of the prisoners. Vincent, because of his confinement, was also forced to interpret other artists works as opposed to being able to paint his own interpretations of the surroundings. The Sower and The Round of the Prisoners are Vincent's interpretations of works by Millet and Doré, respectively.

Auvers-sur-Oise: The Pinnacle of Death

In May 1890, Van Gogh removed himself from the mental asylum and moved to the small town of Auvers-sur-Oise, in order to be closer to his physician, as well as to his brother Theo. Vincent continued painting even as his episodes grew more daunting. His most famous work from this final period is Wheat Field With Crows . This painting is a prime example of Van Gogh's immense talent, as well as his plunging mental stability. The foreboding sky of the painting casts a gloominess over the mind, and the three paths diverging in different directions can show the indecision and confusion in Vincent's mind. Another dreary work that is pointed to as a demonstration of Vincent's mental condition is his work, At Eternity's Gate.

On 27 July, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in the abdomen while walking through a field. He was able to return to the inn where he was staying, and Theo rushed to the bedside, but Van Gogh died less than two days later. Numerous theories have been given as to the cause of Van Gogh's mental illness, and undoubtedly one or several of them are accurate. Removed from the events, however, we may not ever know the cause.

Vincent Van Gogh lived a troubled, difficult life filled with discouraging circumstances and challenges to overcome. His art is a testament to his ability to overcome those challenges for a short time, time enough to share with the world his ability and his perception of the beauty that lies all around us. Van Gogh wrote to Theo that he wished the world "would only take me as I am." Through his art, that is all the world now has left, for Vincent Van Gogh painted how he was. It is an enigma even now. A beautiful enigma.

- An inspiration and source for this info was Simon Schama's documentary series "The Power of Art."


Laura Ross on January 27, 2013:

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Thank you for such a well written hub about Van Gogh. I've always been drawn to his work because he painted what was right in front of him. He didn't have to go far to create an amazing work of art. Of course the textures and colors in his work have always been and inspiration to me as well. Voted Up and Interesting!

bewhuebner (author) on May 18, 2012:

I haven't read it as yet, but it's being added to my list! Thanks for the suggestion :)

Karen A Szklany from New England on May 18, 2012:

Awesome bio of my favorite artists! I linked this to my hub reviewing Carol Wallace's "Leaving van Gogh." Have you read that book, from the perspective of Dr. Gachet? It's a good summer read!

Anabel Li93 from Serbia on January 26, 2012:

This is awesome! Well done! I've read a lot about Van Gogh but this ''article'' is so interesting!

Keep up the good work! :)

bewhuebner (author) on July 08, 2011:

@TruthAwake - It's always encouraging to get positive remarks! Glad you liked the hub and thanks a ton for reading.

TruthAwake from The Dirty South on July 08, 2011:

I LOVE it... I've been examining the correlation between genius (particularly creative genius) and mental illness, this adds to my database of knowledge. Besides that, love art history and appreciate how put-together and well-written this was! Thanks. :)

babblebreeder28 from The Midwest on June 23, 2011:

Well done. I love his work, and his rather tragic past.

bewhuebner (author) on June 05, 2011:

Glad to hear that my few thoughts about van gogh have inspired you! I look forward to seeing your thoughts on his life and work. Thanks for reading and commenting! Good luck!

lilyfly on June 04, 2011:

Your hub has goaded me to try and understand the differences between madness and genius, and after writing my Van Gogh poem, I'll be doing the first of many essays, I thank you for that spark that begins a conflagration! Up, all the way! lily

bewhuebner (author) on March 15, 2011:

Glad you enjoyed the bio elayne! He's a fascinating figure of history for sure.

Elayne from Rocky Mountains on March 14, 2011:

Thanks for an informative read about Van Gogh. I also love painting, and enjoy reading about famous painters. Congrats on the nomination.

bewhuebner (author) on March 12, 2011:

I'm sure you'll have plenty to catch up on if you're gonna be helping someone with a business law course! But I commend you on your desire to mentor someone. I can't imagine where I would be without the people who took it upon themselves to mentor me in my studies. Keep up the good work!

Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on March 12, 2011:

I won't be into heavy research till next month when I start mentoring a college student again. I hope I don't write hubs on her subject. LOL It's business law. When I mentor I make sure I am up on the subject being studied by my student.

bewhuebner (author) on March 12, 2011:

Thanks for reading, Beth, and glad that you enjoyed it! :)

Beth Godwin on March 12, 2011:

Good Read!!! :)

bewhuebner (author) on March 12, 2011:

Thanks for reading wheelinallover! I had been in the midst of watching a documentary series by British historian Simon Schama entitled "The Power of Art." His episode about Van Gogh was very interesting to me and that's why I decided to do a bit more research myself and that research evolved into this hub!

Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on March 12, 2011:

Interesting reading, I don't know why you chose to write about Van Gogh but the information is good. Good luck with your nomination. voted up

bewhuebner (author) on March 12, 2011:

Thanks for the link ripplemaker! It's an encouragement to a beginner like myself to have others take the time and read my work.

Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on March 12, 2011:

Awesome painter! Wonderful and informative hub!

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! Learn more about the Hubnuggets and see your nomination right here: Enjoy!

bewhuebner (author) on February 27, 2011:

Thank you for the insight Sembj! You are very right about the compassion demonstrated by Theo and how it makes the story of their lives a story worth remembering often. Theo's love for his brother made Vincent's art possible and we all can be thankful for that!

Look forward to reading some of your work and nice to "meet" you!

Sembj on February 27, 2011:

Great Hub with lovely images - how could they be anything else? In addition to everything else, Van Gogh's brother, Theo, lends a dimension to the whole story that I find almost as inspiring as Vincent's art work. I find Theo's love for his brother touching beyond words - he is a shining example of how a man really did his best to be his brother's keeper - he showed and still shows us how to love and Vincent showed us a world that would always be more beautiful because of his painting. How terribly sad and beautiful the story is at the same time.

Good memories, good Hub - thanks, Sembj

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