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Vincent Van Gogh's Life and Work in Art

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Vincent van Gogh was quoted as saying “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process” (2017). He is often remembered as the artist who cut off his own ear, giving credence to his own assertions. Mental illness aside, Van Gogh is also one of the most accomplished artists in history. Despite not gaining any significant fame until after his death, the creations he provided the world with have allowed him to garner a slice of proverbial immortality.


Vincent can Gogh was born March 30, 1853 to Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus, the eldest of six children ( Editors 2017). The family lived in Groot-Zundert Netherlands. At the age of 15, he left school to help his family financially; and he began working for his uncle, an art dealer. He was subsequently fired from his position due to instability following a romantic rejection.

Van Gogh found religion as a calling following his termination. He taught at a Methodist school for boys, and later as a minister for the Church of Belgium ( Editors 2017). Van Gogh was relieved of his duties from both positions due to not complying with the general ideologies of the churches; at the school because he refused to take an exam required to become a minister, and from his appointment with the Church of Belgium for his personal views and attitudes.

Facing several romantic and professional rejections, Vincent van Gogh saw many periods of depression. His only noted reciprocated relationship was with a prostitute named Clasina Maria Hoornik (Biography Editors 2017). She served not only as his companion for a time, but was also a model and muse. Ultimately, she elected to revert to her previous profession; leaving van Gogh in a deep state of depression. This prompted him to delve more deeply into art in nature, adopting a nomadic lifestyle through the wilderness for six weeks.

In 1886, van Gogh decided to move to Paris. Upon arrival he was so inspired by impressionist art that he decided to immerse himself in study of the genre. He engaged in self-study of the movement and techniques, developing working relationships with other notable artists such as Camille Pissarro and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec ( Editors 2017). Van Gogh soon developed issues with his consorts though, criticizing their work. He soon after moved to Arles, France based upon the recommendation of Toulouse-Lautrec, because of van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art. It was during this time that his mental health truly deteriorated. He was noted to eat paint and drink turpentine, as he chose to spend his money on art supplies instead of food ( Editors 2017). After arguing with a chaperone appointed by his brother Theo, Vincent did cut his ear off; this act caused his to be hospitalized in an asylum. 1n 1889, he elected to be confined in the asylum in response to a public petition because of his mental health ( Editors 2017). During his time in the asylum, inspired by the gardens and nearby landscapes, van Gogh created many of his most well-known works.

Van Gogh remained at the asylum until 1890, when he moved in with a doctor who agreed to take Vincent on as a patient. Van Gogh lived with Dr. Gachet, who was also an amateur painter, for only a few months before taking his own life. On July 27, 1890, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest; and, died two days later from complications of the injury ( 2017). There was no definitive reason for his suicide aside from unfounded financial concerns.


In his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh created over 2100 works of art, including 860 oil paintings and over 1300 watercolors and sketches ( Editors 2017). While this represents the magnitude of how deeply his artwork consumed his life, it is important to note that his mother discarded many pieces of work. Additionally, his work did not achieve notoriety for more than a decade following his death.

“The Potato Eaters”

His earliest major work, van Gogh painted “The Potato Eaters” in 1885. The painting in done in a dark and dull color pallet, and falls more in the ‘realism’ genre of art than his later works; however, notes of impressionist technique can be seen throughout the piece. Often cited as symbolic of the status of poverty, the painting depicts five people, in a dimly lit room, gathered around a table for a meal (ArtStory 2017). The expression on their faces gives them character and more complex personality.

“Starry Night”

Referring to the painting in a letter he wrote his brother Theo, van Gogh said, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very bright” (ArtStory 2017). Arguably van Gogh’s most famous work, “Starry Night” is considered the epitome of impressionism. Van Gogh painted “Starry Night” from memory of this scene. Entrancing swirls of blues and white, it depicts a night scene, illuminated by the moon and stars, with a cypress tree in the foreground. While many believe that the cypress trees, depicted to be flame-like in appearance, is representative of the bridge between life and death (ArtStory 2017). However, this is just one interpretation, as van Gogh produced many images of cypress trees; most likely due to their prevalence in the surrounding landscape of the asylum where van Gogh resided.


In similar style as “Starry Night”, van Gogh created two series of paintings known as “Sunflowers” during his stay at the asylum (ArtStory 2017). These works were significant because van Gogh painted them using only three shades of yellow, done so to show that using slight variance could still produce elegant art (Van Gogh Museum 2017). The first series consisted of four paintings, completed in 1888; and the second only held one painting, done in 1898. Today these paintings are housed in museums and galleries around the world.

“Paul Ferdinand Gachet”

During his time living with Dr. Gachet, van Gogh painted two portraits of the doctor; each with the same name and similar posing, only slightly different props. They are also done in impressionistic style. The paintings are significant because, much like “The Potato Eaters”, the painting conveys so much more than just what the subject is. One can see the depth of emotion on Gachet’s face, the sadness and defeat projected.


In a letter to one of his sisters, van Gogh wrote about creating self-portraits saying, “I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer” ( Editors 2017). Van Gogh created 43 self-portraits in a 10-year period, with mediums ranging from paint to pencil sketching. He believed that achieving a true representation of himself may aid in ‘finding himself’, due to the nature of looking beyond imply what is on the surface.


It is clear from the sheer number of works of art he created that van Gogh was consumed by the need to create. Producing works famous and celebrated more than 100 years after his death is no light feat, yet all his life he never received the credit we give him today. His work embodies the style of his time, and worked to expand upon it. There is no doubt that Vincent van Gogh was a ‘madman who cut off his ear’, just as he is credited. But, he was a madman who created some of the most prolific works of art the world had ever seen.

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