was educated at the municipal school from 7-8 years old and at home by
three separate governesses between 8 and 11 years of age. At 11 he
was sent to a private boarding school run by Jan Provily in
Zevenbergen. He seems to have had the usual homesickness of a
eight year old at boarding school, later, as an adult, he told his
“I thought of the day you took me there and I stood on Mr Provily’s
steps and watched your carriage driving away down the wet street. And
then the evening when my Father came to visit me for the first time. And
that first homecoming at Christmas.” (Ramsgate, 17 April 1876.)
From 13 to 15 (1866-1868) he attended the Koning Willem II school in
Tilburg. He stayed at a boarding house in town run by the Hanniks
His first art teacher was Constantijn Huysmans, a professional artist,
who taught the young Vincent basic drawing and composition.
His early educational background was a bit like that of wealthy English
children in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century:
governesses and boarding school. This leaves the child with
a feeling of being unloved and unwanted and turns the child towards
their peers for a superficial level of support, fostering sociability
but lacking intimacy ( see for instance: Boarding
). The school supplies the key to how to be
loved again: strive, get academic results, succeed.
Early working life 1869 - 1876
Vincent started work at the age of 16. One of his uncles, Vincent
“Cent” van Gogh, was a partner in the prominent, international art
dealers, Goupil & Cie, and he found Vincent a job in The Hague
branch. The English analogy is getting a job at Sothebys because
your uncle runs the company. At first Vincent did well at work and at
the tender age of 20 was transferred to London to help grow the small
He seems to have been too young to be stable in a foreign land. He
became increasingly interested in religion and the standard of his work
declined. It is rumoured that he fell in love with his landlady's
daughter, Eugenie Loyer, proposed marriage and was turned down by
her because she was already engaged. Shortly afterwards, at the
age of 22, he was transferred to the Paris branch where he was asked to
resign for arguing with the customers and left in March 1876. This
would scarcely have endeared him to the Van Gogh family.
Vincent cannot be understood as an artist without understanding his
religious sentiment. When he first realised his religious calling he
tried to become part of the religious establishment.
Shortly after getting the sack from Goupils Vincent went back to England
to an unpaid teaching post in Ramsgate from April-June 1876 . Between
July and December he worked for a school run by the Congregationalist
Reverend Thomas Slade-Jones and preached his first sermon in Richmond.
At the age of 24 (1877) Vincent went to study at the theology school in
Amsterdam. He stayed with his uncle, Johannes Stricker, who was a
leading Dutch theologian. Vincent failed his entrance exams.
He then took, but failed, a three-month course at the Vlaamsche
Opleidingsschool, a Protestant missionary school in Laeken, near
Brussels. Having failed in the conventional path to becoming a
preacher, In January 1879, aged 26, he took a six month post as a
missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes in the coal-mining district of
Borinage in Belgium. Van Gogh lived in abject poverty, sleeping on straw
in a small hut at the back of the baker's house where he was staying.
The baker's wife reported hearing van Gogh sobbing at night in the
hut. He was sacked from his post for "undermining the dignity of
He returned home to his family and in mid-March 1880, aged 27, his
father tried to have him committed to a mental asylum but Vincent fled
from home to escape.
Vincent's religious sentiment was personal and seems to have been based
on some type of “religious experience” in which God is directly evident
in the world, he wrote in a letter to Theo:
“But, you will say, what a dreadful person you are, with your impossible
religious notions and idiotic scruples. If my ideas are impossible or
idiotic then I would like nothing better than to be rid of them. But
this is roughly the way I see things. …. I think that everything that is
really good and beautiful, the inner, moral, spiritual and sublime
beauty in men and their works, comes from God, and everything that is
bad and evil in the works of men and in men is not from God, and God
does not approve of it.”... “Try to grasp the essence of what the great
artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will
again find God in them.” Letter to Theo. Cuesmes, July 1880
A Change of Heart: Dedication to Art
“I should be very happy if you could see in me something more than a
kind of idler. For there is a great difference between one idler and
another idler. There is someone who is an idler out of laziness and lack
of character, owing to the baseness of his nature. If you like, you may
take me for one of those. Then there is the other kind of idler, the
idler despite himself, who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for
action who does nothing because his hands are tied, because he is, so to
speak, imprisoned somewhere, because he lacks what he needs to be
productive, because disastrous circumstances have brought him forcibly
to this end. Such a one does not always know what he can do, but he
nevertheless instinctively feels, I am good for something! My existence
is not without reason! I know that I could be a quite a different
person! How can I be of use, how can I be of service? There is something
inside me, but what can it be? He is quite another idler. If you like
you may take me for one of those.” Letter to Theo. Cuesmes, July 1880
A month later Vincent has embarked on his life as an artist:
“I must tell you that I am busy sketching large drawings after Millet,
and that I have already finished “The Four Hours of the Day“ as well as
“The Sower.” Letter to Theo. Cuesmes, 20 August 1880
Gogh Museum in Amsterdam
divides Vincent's work into five artistic
Early work from 1880-1886
Saint Remy 1889-1890
Dutch Art in 1880
Vincent began his artistic career in earnest in 1880 and he was
influenced by the ambient artistic environment in Holland at that
“Although I like Baudry and others, such as Lefebvre and Henner, too - I
greatly prefer Jules Breton, Feyen-Perrin, Millet, Ulysse Butin, Mauve,
Artz, Israëls, etc., etc.” Letter to Van Rappard 15th October 1881
His favourite artists when he started his artistic career, whether Dutch
or French, were fond of rustic, realist compositions.
Early Work 1880-86 Learning to paint.
Vincent had worked for Goupils who were sellers of engravings and
lithographs as well as fine art. He illustrated many of his
letters with drawings and was no stranger to sketching.
In 1877 he was able to borrow Charles Bargue's “Cours de Dessin”, one of
the most influential classical drawing courses, from Goupil's. This got
him started in the techniques of drawing.
He was particularly influenced by the French artist, Jean Francois
Millet (1814-1875). Millet shared Vincent's love of the
peasant life. Vincent wrote to Theo 20th August 1880 that:
“I must tell you that I am busy sketching large drawings after Millet,
and that I have already finished “The Four Hours of the Day “as well as
“The Sower.”". “The Sower” was to be an important theme in
Vincent's future paintings.
Brussels and Etten
In October 1880, at 27 years old, he enrolled in the Royal Academy of
Art in Brussels for six months and met the artist Anthon Van
Rappard. Van Rappard had considerable influence over Van Gogh's
early work. A recent study shows that the two artists worked
closely together between 1880 and 1885 and shared techniques, and
possibly even painting materials.
They certainly shared subject matter:
After a row with his long suffering parents on Xmas Day 1881 he moved to
The Hague and stayed at various addresses until moving back with his
parents who had now moved to Nuenen.
Vincent's early work produced at least two masterpieces.
“Of course I don't always draw this way, but I'm very fond of the
English drawings done in this style, so no wonder I tried it for once;
and as it was for you, and you understand these things, I didn't
hesitate to be rather melancholy.” Vincent van Gogh to Theo van
The Hague, c. 10 April 1882
Clasina Maria Hoornik (1850 – 1904), “Sien”, lived with van Gogh
in The Hague. Van Gogh used Sien, a pregnant prostitute, as a
model for his work and later took Sien and her daughter into his
home. It contributed to a split with Anton Mauve, a cousin-in-law
and noted painter of the Hague School. At his brother Theo's
urging, van Gogh left Sien in 1883 to paint in Drenthe.
Sien resumed her life as a seamstress, cleaning woman and likely
prostitute before marrying in 1901. On 12 November 1904, aged 54, she
threw herself into the Schelde river and drowned, fulfilling a prophecy
she had made to van Gogh in 1883: "Yes, I'm a whore ... it’s bound to
end up with me jumping into the water."
The Potato Eaters
The most famous painting of Van Gogh's Early Work is “The Potato
Eaters”. Van Gogh explains his technique of producing
numerous studies and then putting these to one side and painting
freshly, straight on the canvas:
“I will not send the potato eaters unless I know for sure there is
something in it.
But I am getting on with it, and I think there are completely different
things in it than you can ever have seen in my work. At least, so
I mean from life especially. I paint this from memory on the picture
itself. But you know yourself how many times I have painted these heads!
And then I drop in every night to correct some details on the spot.
But in the picture I give free scope to my own head in the sense of
thought or imagination, which is not so much the case in studies, where
no creative process is allowed, but where one finds food for one's
imagination in reality, in order to make it exact.” Vincent van Gogh to
Theo van Gogh
Nuenen, late April 1885
According to Vincent this technique was used by Delacroix (1798-1863),
one of the most famous and accomplished artists of the previous half
century. Examples of some of the studies for the Potato Eaters are
The completed work was quite extraordinary:
although it carries a hint of caricature.
In January 1886 Vincent started a term at the Antwerp School of
Art. Unfortunately he was not suited to the classical approach to
art, as is recorded by one of his fellow students:
“One day in the drawing class of the Academy of Antwerp, the students
were given, as if by chance, a cast of the Venus de Milo to copy. Van
Gogh, struck by one of the essential characteristics of the model,
strongly accentuated the width of her hips and subjected the Venus to
the same deformations that he brought to The Sower by Millet and The
Good Samaritan by Delacroix--other works which he was also to copy in
the course of his career. The beautiful Greek goddess had become a
robust Flemish matron. When the honest M. Sieber saw this he tore Van
Gogh’s sheet of paper with the furious strokes of his crayon, correcting
his drawing while reminding him of the immutable canons of art.
Then the young Dutchman . . . whose gruffness had frightened off the
refined female clientele at Goupil’s in Paris, flew into a violent rage
and shouted at the horrified professor: “You clearly don’t know what a
young woman is like, God damn it! A woman must have hips, buttocks, a
pelvis in which she can carry a baby!” This was the last lesson that Van
Gogh took--or gave--at the Academy of Antwerp. There he had made some
staunch friends among the students, especially among the English, such
as Levens . . . With those who understood him, who sensed his nascent
genius, he showed himself to be communicative, enthusiastic, and
fraternal. Very often he spoke to them of the rough and good-hearted
miners of the Borinage whom he had catechized, cared for, and helped
with so much love. During the tragic strikes of 1886, he even wanted to
return to that black country.” Victor Hageman
Interviewed by Louis Piérard
(Published January, 1914)
Vincent left for Paris in mid March 1886. He had managed to
develop from being a novice in 1880 to becoming an “artist's
artist”, producing paintings that were at the cutting edge of the
rapidly developing ideology of painting in the 1880s.
Unfortunately his art was now too sophisticated to sell to the general
Vincent worked in the studio of Fernand Cormon for 3 months, Cormon was
a successful realist painter.
Vincent's great discovery in Paris was colour:
“And now for what regards what I myself have been doing, I have lacked
money for paying models, else I had entirely given myself to figure
painting but I have made a series of colour studies in painting simply
flowers, red poppies, blue corn flowers and myosotis [Forget-me-not].
White and rose roses, yellow chrysantemums – seeking oppositions of blue
with orange, red and green, yellow and violet, seeking THE BROKEN AND
NEUTRAL TONES to harmonise brutal extremes.
Trying to render intense COLOUR and not a grey harmony.
Now after these gymnastics I lately did two heads which I dare say are
better in light and colour than those I did before.
So as we said at the time in COLOUR seeking life, the true drawing is
modelling with colour.” Letter to Horace Mann Livens, Paris, September
or October 1886.
The discovery of complementary colours was to be pivotal to Vincent's
future paintings. He first mentions the power of complementary
colours in 1884, whilst still in his Early period:
“But I mean it isn’t easy to find the effect of a summer sun that’s as
lush and as simple and as pleasant to look at as the characteristic
effects of the other seasons.
The spring is tender green (young wheat) and pink (apple blossom)
The autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones.
The winter is the snow with the little black silhouettes.
But if the summer is the opposition of blues against an element of
orange in the golden bronze of the wheat, this way one could paint a
painting in each of the contrasts of the complementary colours (red and
green, blue and orange, yellow and violet, white and black) that really
expressed the mood of the seasons.” Letter to Theo van Gogh.
Nuenen, on or about Wednesday, 2 July 1884.
By 1885 Vincent had become well versed in Colour Theory and was primed
to start work in the sunshine of Paris and was especially interested in
complementary colours as he shows in this letter to Theo:
“Each of the three primary colours is rightly called Complementary in
relation to the binary colour that corresponds with it. Thus blue is the
complementary of orange, yellow is the complementary of violet, and red
the complementary of green. Vice versa, each of the composite colours is
the complementary of the primary colour not used in the mixture. This
reciprocal heightening is what’s called the law of simultaneous
contrast.” Letter to Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 18
This letter contains a good exposition of Vincent's understanding of
Colour Theory. (See
At this stage Vincent was still studying the work of other artists and
his still life's can be seen to be influenced particularly by Adolphe
Joseph Thomas Monticelli (1824–1886), Vincent having attended an
exhibition of his work in 1886 ( Van Gogh and Monticelli
Exhibition ). Compare for instance Monticelli's Still Life
with Wild and Garden Flowers (c. 1877) .
However, notice that Monticelli has failed to gain the forcefulness of
Vincent's complementary reds and greens.
Vincent was also interested in Japanese art. He coined the term
“Japonaiserie” to describe the influence of Japanese art on the painters
of the day. One of his famous pieces of Japonaiserie was “The
Courtesan (after Eisen)”, based on the print by the Japanese artist
Kesai Eisen on the front cover of an edition of “Paris Illustre” that
was devoted to Japanese art. The two works of art are shown
side by side below:
He also worked alongside Seurat and toyed with pointillism.
Although Vincent did not consider himself to be an “Impressionist”,
Impressionism greatly influenced his work in Paris. Most obviously
it caused him to lighten his palette:
Perhaps his greatest
masterpiece from the Paris period is “In the Cafe Tambourin”
In February 1888 Van Gogh moved to Arles. In a letter to
Emile Bernard on the 18th March 1888 he says:
“I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me
as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay
colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful
emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese
prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious
It was in Arles that Van Gogh truly discovered colour. He produced
a series of paintings of blossom, trees, wheatfields, sunflowers and the
The Arles Sunflowers
Vincent painted four main versions of “Sunflowers” and repeated some of
these to perfect the technique. The painting below is a repetition
of the fourth version (the fourth version is the one in the National
Compare this with the original fourth version:
While he was in Arles Vincent leased the “Yellow House” and invited his
friend and fellow artist Paul Gaugin to come and stay with him.
Gaugin arrived at the end of October. The relationship between Van
Gogh and Gaugin was tempestuous and ended in December 23rd with Vincent
having a mental breakdown. Gaugin claimed that Van Gogh had walked
up behind him in a threatening manner with a razor in his hand.
Van Gogh left the house and went to his local brothel where he cut off
his ear and presented it to a prostitute. On Christmas Eve Vincent
was found on his bed unable to move and was committed to the Old
Hospital at Arles.
He was in and out of hospital twice and then the citizens of Arles
signed a petition against him and he was confined to hospital. In
May he admitted himself to the asylum at Saint Remy de Provence and
began his Saint Remy period.
Van Gogh's Saint Remy period, starting May 1889, was characterised by a
growing integration of brush strikes and colour to produce a feeling of
space and movement. His exquisite Almond Blossom shows that he is
now fully in command of his art.
On January 31, 1890, Theo wrote to Vincent of the birth of his son, whom
he had named Vincent Willem. Van Gogh, who was extremely close to his
younger brother, immediately set about making him a painting of his
favorite subject: blossoming branches against a blue sky. The gift was
meant to hang over the couple’s bed. As a symbol of this new life,
Vincent chose an almond tree, which blooms early in southern regions,
announcing the coming spring as early as February.
At Saint Remy Vincent developed a new, swirling style:
Notice the swirling brush strokes that imply both movement and
depth. The clear delineation of the various forms in the picture
as blocks of colour is, to my mind, reminiscent of Cezanne who took this
further a decade later to lay the foundations of cubism.
I prefer the Wheat Field with Cypresses to one of Vincent's most famous
works, The Starry Night, painted in June 1889.
The Starry Night just somehow overdoes the wispy clouds and the haloed
stars, verging on caricature.
In the Irises Vincent seems to abstract the beauty of the flower.
Self Portrait 1889