Vincent van Gogh: The Tortured Artist

Vincent van Gogh is an embodiment of the myth of the tortured artist: neurotic, emotional, troubled, and mysterious, but above an uncontested genius. In less than a decade, the painter produced a body of work that's unique in the history of art and has earned him worldwide fame - a supreme achievement for one who during his lifetime was largely ignored.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Starry Night', 1889. Photo: Murals Wallpaper
Vincent van Gogh, 'Starry Night', 1889. Photo: Murals Wallpaper

Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 in Zundert, the son of a minister. Exactly a year before his birth, his mother had given birth to a stillborn child also named Vincent, whose grave and tombstone laid at the family home, a sight that would have been haunting for the young artist.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887, image © The Art Institute Chicago
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887, image © The Art Institute Chicago

At the age of 16 he began working for his uncle's art dealership, but was later fired due to his poor attitude. In his adulthood he turned to a career as a preacher.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Boy Cutting Grass with a Sickle', 1881. Photo: Wikipedia
Vincent van Gogh, 'Boy Cutting Grass with a Sickle', 1881. Photo: Wikipedia

In 1878, he obtained an evangelical mission preaching to the miners of the Borinage in Belgium. However his odd behavior was off-putting for many of his peers, and in 1879 he was let go from the position. His desire to create art was born amongst misery in a coal mining region of Belgium, far from the golden wheat fields he would later frequent. Finally, in 1880, he decided to dedicate his life to his artwork. His drawings of peasants were created in the mode of social realism, depicting the labor and hardships of the people around him. The atmosphere in these works often appears black and miserable, likely reflective of the environment he was living in. The works testify to not only a concern with humanity, but an original treatment of forms and perspectives for which the artist would become known.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Japonaiserie: Oiran, after Kesaï Eisen', 1887. Photo: artvan-Gogh
Vincent van Gogh, 'Japonaiserie: Oiran, after Kesaï Eisen', 1887. Photo: artvan-Gogh

Van Gogh’s pictorial language was gradually developing, and with little prospects in the North, the painter settled in Paris in 1886 where he joined his brother Théo, an art dealer. In the city he was able to mingle with artists Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Pissarro, and Gauguin. With Théo, he collected Japanese prints and was enriched by Charles Blanc's readings about color and its placement. Faithful to his artistic pursuits, he worked tirelessly and his works were prolific. He spent hours copying famous works in the Louvre, and painted about twenty self-portraits. In total, the painter created over 200 works during his stay in Paris alone.

Vincent van Gogh, 'The Night Cafe', 1888. Photo: OverstockArt
Vincent van Gogh, 'The Night Cafe', 1888. Photo: OverstockArt

In February of 1888, seeking light and warmth, Van Gogh moved to Arles. His palette opened up to the light and color of the South, and his hatched drawings came alive with an unprecedented vivacity. He painted the Arles countryside as well as the nightlife of the city. It was here that he painted some his most famous works, including Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries, the Artist's Bedroom at Arles, and The Night Café, which illustrate this science of wild colors and deviated perspectives that are so unique to his work.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear', 1889. Photo: The Courtauld Institute of Art
Vincent van Gogh, 'Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear', 1889. Photo: The Courtauld Institute of Art

However, Van Gogh was showing increasing signs of mental illness, often suffering from fainting spells and seizures. One night, he tried to attack his visiting friend, Paul Gauguin, with a razor, and then cut off his own ear in an act of self punishment. Gauguin promptly returned to Paris and warned Théo. The artist was subsequently admitted to a hospital.

In the hospital, he painted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889), as well as over 150 other paintings, and hundreds of drawings. His artwork developed further, his bright golden hues becoming more subdued, favoring bluer tones. His layers of paint became thicker and his lines restless; in Starry Night the entire atmosphere seems to be swirling under distress, a work he painted at the sanitarium. In May 1889, he left Arles after having produced over 300 works of art.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Portrait of Dr. Gachet', 1889. Photo: Wikipedia
Vincent van Gogh, 'Portrait of Dr. Gachet', 1889. Photo: Wikipedia

Van Gogh then moved to Auvers where he stayed under the care of Dr. Paul Gachet, an amateur artist known for curing nervous diseases, and friend of Pissarro and Cézanne. From morning to night, he would walk along the countryside with pounds of painting equipment on his back.

However, the artist increasingly experienced fits of temper and often quarreled with Dr. Gachet. After a long battle with mental illness, 37-year-old van Gogh died on July 29, 1890 in his brother’s arms just a few days after shooting himself in the chest in the middle of a wheat field.

Vincent van Gogh, L'Allée des Alyscamps, 1888. Image: Wiki Commons
Vincent van Gogh, L'Allée des Alyscamps, 1888. Image: Wiki Commons

On the market, his works reach exorbitant prices. His most expensive work, the portrait of Dr. Gachet, sold for $82.5 million at Christie's in 1990. In 2015, L’Allée des Alyscamps (1888) sold for $66 million at Sotheby’s New York, more than triple its high estimate. Van Gogh’s influence will continue to not only endure, but thrive, in the art world of today. His expressive brush work, vivid colors and distorted perspective set the tone for future modern art movements.

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