Vincent van Gogh, the eldest son of a Dutch Reformed minister and a bookseller’s daughter, pursued various vocations, including that of an art dealer and clergyman, before deciding to become an artist at twenty-seven. Over the course of his decade-long career (1880–90), Vincent produced nearly 900 paintings and more than 1,100 works on paper. Ironically, in 1890, he modestly assessed his artistic legacy as of “very secondary” importance.

The striking color, emphatic brushwork, and contoured forms of Vincent's work powerfully influenced the current of Expressionism in modern art. Van Gogh’s art became astoundingly popular after his death, especially in the late 20th century. Van Gogh has also been mythologized as the quintessential tortured artist in the popular imagination.

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Vincent Van Gogh: Biography

Largely self-taught, Van Gogh gained his footing as an artist by zealously copying prints and studying 19th-century drawing manuals and lesson books, such as Charles Bargue’s Exercises au Fusain and Cours de Dessin. He felt that it was necessary to master black and white before working with color and first concentrated on learning the rudiments of figure drawing and rendering landscapes in the correct perspective.

In 1882, he moved from his parent's home in Etten to the Hague, where he received some formal instruction from his cousin, Anton Mauve, a leading Hague School artist. That same year, he executed his first independent works in watercolor and ventured into oil painting. Vincent also enjoyed his first earnings as an artist: his uncle, the art dealer Cornelis Marinus van Gogh, commissioned two sets of drawings of Hague townscapes for which Van Gogh chose to depict such everyday sites as views of the railway station, gasworks, and nursery gardens.

Vincent van Gogh was a fundamentally unhappy person, even in childhood
Can you see in these eyes the pain of rejection? | Image courtesy: curiousgeorge77 on Pixabay

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Early Life

Van Gogh, the eldest of six children of a Protestant pastor, was born and reared in a small village in the Brabant region of the southern Netherlands. He was a quiet, self-contained youth, spending his free time wandering the countryside to observe nature. At 16, he was apprenticed to the Hague branch of the art dealers Goupil and Co., of which his uncle was a partner.

Penniless and feeling that his faith was destroyed, he sank into despair and withdrew from everyone.

Van Gogh worked for Goupil in London from 1873 to May 1875 and in Paris from that date until April 1876. Daily contact with works of art aroused his artistic sensibility, and he soon formed a taste for Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and other Dutch masters. However, his preference was for two contemporary French painters, Jean-François Millet and Camille Corot, whose influence was to last throughout his life.

Van Gogh disliked art dealing. Moreover, his approach to life darkened when his love was rejected by a London girl in 1874. His burning desire for human affection thwarted, Vincent became increasingly solitary. He worked as a language teacher and lay preacher in England. In 1877, he also worked for a bookseller in Dordrecht, Netherlands. Impelled by a longing to serve humanity, he envisaged entering the ministry and taking up theology. However, he abandoned this project in 1878 for short-term training as an evangelist in Brussels.

A conflict with authority ensued when he disputed the orthodox doctrinal approach. Failing to get an appointment after three months, he left to do missionary work among the impoverished population of the Borinage, a coal-mining region in southwestern Belgium. In the winter of 1879–80, he experienced his first great spiritual crisis. Living among the poor, he gave away all his worldly goods in an impassioned moment; he was dismissed by church authorities for a too-literal interpretation of Christian teaching.

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The Art of Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh's artistic career was extremely short, lasting only 10 years from 1880 to 1890. During the first four years of this period, while acquiring technical proficiency, he confined himself almost entirely to drawings and watercolors. First, he went to study drawing at the Brussels Academy. In 1881, he moved to his father’s parsonage at Etten, Netherlands, and began to work from nature.

Interested in honing his skills as a figure painter, Van Gogh left the Netherlands in late 1885 to study at the Antwerp Academy in Belgium. Three months later, he departed for Paris, where he lived with his brother Theo, an art dealer with the firm of Boussod, Valadon et Cie, and attended classes at Fernand Cormon’s studio for a time.

Van Gogh’s style underwent a major transformation during his two-year stay in Paris (February 1886–February 1888). There he saw the Impressionists' work first-hand and the latest innovations by the Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. In response, Van Gogh lightened his palette.

Vincent experimented with the broken brushstrokes of the Impressionists as well as the pointillist touch of the Neo-Impressionists, as evidenced in the handling of his Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat which was painted in the summer of 1887 on the reverse of an earlier peasant study. In Paris, he executed more than twenty self-portraits that reflect his ongoing exploration of complementary color contrasts and a bolder style.

What Makes Vincent Van Gogh Famous?

Vincent Van Gogh is famous because he never achieved commercial success during his lifetime. He was the classic “starving artist.” He produced over 1,000 drawings and 900 paintings in his ten-year career, feverishly producing up to four works per week. Although his work was exhibited to some limited critical acclaim, he only sold one painting during his lifetime, contributing to his extreme depression.

Vincent lacked popularity during his life because his work was ahead of its time – his artwork spanned different artistic approaches, from Impressionism to Pointillism, to Expressionism. He was highly experimental in his approach and so came to be appreciated only after his death.

Vincent’s fame came after his death and is mostly due to his sister-in-law’s efforts to exhibit his work. During Van Gogh’s life, his brother Theo (an art dealer) worked tirelessly to promote his work and supported Vincent financially and emotionally. Unfortunately, Theo died only six months after Vincent, leaving his wife, Jo Bonger, with a baby son and an apartment full of paintings.

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Know about Van Gogh
Contrary to popular belief, cutting off his ear lobe was not van Gogh's first act of self-harm. | Image courtesy: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

She soon made the strategic move to the town of Bussum in the Netherlands (home to many artists and writers), where she began exhibiting Van Gogh’s work. In addition, she hosted large exhibitions of Van Gogh’s paintings in Amsterdam and Paris and published a collection of letters between the two brothers.

By her death in 1925, Jo had sold many of Van Gogh’s paintings to museums and collectors worldwide, making Vincent van Gogh world-famous. The remaining paintings owned by the Van Gogh family became the basis of the collection at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands.

Unique Use of Color

An excellent artist in the realistic genre, Vincent was later influenced by Impressionism. This artistic movement aimed to capture real-life scenes, often outside, using color and quick brushstrokes. This new style contrasted completely with the staid, historical realism, depicting mythological themes in dark, dull colors.

Vincent’s work was often regarded as outrageous and wild during his lifetime, but his use of color was extremely influential, as with the Impressionists. However, Vincent went beyond the Impressionists' work and is referred to as a Post-Impressionist or Expressionist, whose focus was on expressing the gritty, emotional chaos of life – and color was one of the tools that he used.

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Expressive Brushwork

Influenced by the Impressionist brushwork, Van Gogh is famous for his visible, impasto brushstrokes, with thick layers of paint swiftly plastered onto the canvas. Before the Impressionists, paintings were critically regarded if the brushstrokes were invisible. Between 1887 and 1888, Vincent Van Gogh and the artist Paul Gaugin developed a technique of applying paint thickly using heavy brushstrokes.

Later, Van Gogh would even apply paint directly from the tube or with a palette knife, such as in “Starry Night”. The effect of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes is to show the raw emotion he felt as he painted, the physical effort, and the way he wielded the painting materials. This innovation was a completely different painting style from the norm of the period and transformed subsequent approaches to art, where brushstrokes are used to show movement and energy in paintings.

Unusual, Yet Relatable Subjects of Paintings

One of the main reasons Van Gogh is so famous is because of his paintings' simple, everyday subjects, which he shows in a different light. Before becoming an artist, Van Gogh worked as a missionary and identified with working-class people. Many of his paintings show farmers and laborers, such as “The Potato Eaters.” This artwork was painted in the colors of the earth and potatoes, almost merging the growers and eaters of potatoes and the vegetables themselves. The people in the picture are depicted as rough and raw, with gnarled fingers and knobbly faces, like potatoes.

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Learn about Van Gogh
Has a bed chamber ever seemed lonelier than the one van Gogh occupied? |Image courtesy: Anne & Saturnino Miranda on Pixabay

Van Gogh went one step further than the Impressionists, painting outdoor scenes but from memory. This technique led to his most passionate, symbolic works, such as “Starry Night,” where he painted what was in front of him but used his inner world as a reference.

Legacy of Vincent Van Gogh

The name of Vincent Van Gogh was virtually unknown when he killed himself. Only one article about him appeared during his lifetime. He had exhibited a few canvases at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris between 1888 and 1890 and in Brussels in 1890. Both salons showed small commemorative groups of his work in 1891. One-man shows of his work did not occur until 1892.

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Largely based on the works of the last three years of his life, Vincent Van Gogh is considered one of the greatest Dutch painters of all time. Yet of the more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings that constitute his life’s work, he sold only one in his lifetime.

Always desperately poor, he was sustained by his faith in the urgency of what he had to communicate and by Theo's generosity. Vincent's letters to Theo from 1872 onward and to other friends constitute a great human document of his aims and beliefs, his hopes and disappointments, and his fluctuating physical and mental state.

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Shreyanjana

Shreyanjana is an archaeologist who ironically finds the written word to be the most powerful means of storytelling. A travel buff and a photography enthusiast, she has been writing and sharing stories of all sorts ever since she can remember.