The 19th century European society of Van Gogh's day was not ready to accept the truthful, emotional and insightful
way he depicted art subjects, and the expression of his own turbulent feelings in the paintings. Nonetheless, it set
the stage for the later development of a new style of painting called Expressionism, although Van Gogh is considered
a post-impressionist. Expresionism is characterized by the use of symbols, bright colors and a style that expresses
the artist's inner feelings about his subject. As Vincent Van Gogh said, "What lives in art and is eternally living, is
first of all the painter, and then the painting." We will explore Van Gogh's paintings and compare them with events
in his turbulent life and the reasons for his downward spiral and death.
Many of us can identify with the roadblocks that Vincent Van Gogh experienced in his many career and romantic
pursuits, all ending in failure. His reaction to these experiences however, demonstrates a biological and
psychological instability, causing behaviors that alienated those around him. As he became more isolated from
society and began to pour all of his energies into painting, his eccentricities and outbursts developed pathological
traits, which caused him first, to be institutionalized, and second, it led to his suicidal death at the young age
of 37 and the birth of Expressionism.
VINCENT VAN GOGH
During his short and turbulent life, he sold only 1 painting for 400 francs, just 4 months before his death. It is
titled "The Red Vineyard" (See painting below). Nonetheless, he produced an incredible number of masterpieces
created over a 9 year period which will continue "living" for the rest of human history.
The Red Vineyard
Most casual art lovers see Van Gogh as a troubled, but successful artist in the eyes of society. This is true
today, but he was not able to experience success during his life. Instead, he was taunted by children and run
out of villages by people who feared his erratic and non-conforming behavior. He experienced failure in every
occupational pursuit he attempted including painting, and was marked by intermittent episodes of depression,
violence and acting out behaviors.
Thanks to the preservation of 1000's of letters Van Gogh had written to friends and family, especially to his
brother Theo, we have a nearly complete understanding of his feelings, experiences, and views on every aspect of
his life. Surprisingly, his incredible artistic talent went undeveloped and unrecognized until he was 27 years old,
after he had already failed at two other career choices, as an art dealer and a Protestant minister. Under the
shroud of family shame when he was found incompetent to follow in his father's ministerial foot steps, he began to
study art. He obsessively poured himself into this newly found talent and completed thousands of sketches and oil
paintings before he shot himself to death at the age of 37 years old.
Many observers of Van Gogh's life justifiably believe that his eccentricities, which were visible from early
childhood, compounded to create many distressing experiences that directly impacted his style of painting. The
rudiments of Expressionism was born of these experiences. Therefore, a look into his childhood and life
is imperative to understanding the development of his artistic style and the origins of Expressionism.
Vincent Van Gogh At The Age Of 13 Years Old
Vincent's sister, Elizabeth Van Gogh, described his demeanor as a child. He was "intensely serious and
uncommunicative, and walked around clumsily and in a daze, with his head hung low." She continued by saying, "Not
only were his little sisters and brothers (he was the oldest of 8) like strangers to him, but he was a stranger to
A servant who worked for the Van Gogh family when Vincent was a child described him as an, "odd, aloof child who
had queer manners and seemed more like an old man," than the child he was. Vincent was a disappointment to his
mother, and eventually to his entire family, even his beloved brother Theo Van Gogh who supported him financially
for the 10 years that he worked as a painter.
Vincent Van Gogh's Brother Theo Van Gogh
In Vincent's own words, he says of Theo, that he was the one "who comforts his mother and is worthy to be
comforted by his mother." On the other hand, Vincent was rejecting and obstinate, making himself inaccessible to
all family members, except for Theo. Vincent later described his childhood as "gloomy and cold and sterile."
Vincent Van Gogh's Mother
Unaware of his own artistic genius, Vincent Van Gogh first tried to learn the art of selling the works of other
artists. As a young man of 16, he became apprenticed to an art dealer at the firm of Goupil & Co. located at The
Hague, in Belgium, and later transferred to the London and Paris galleries.
Vincent Van Gogh At The Age Of 18 Years Old
While Working As An Art Dealer
He quickly learned all the painters and their respective styles and what constitutes a valuable piece of artwork. In
fact, he actually learned too well! If a customer became interested in purchasing a poorly done painting, Van Gogh
would provide a long discourse on why it was a piece of junk. He was even known to become argumentative with many
of the art patrons.
Following his failure as an art dealer, Vincent Van Gogh later wrote to his sister Wilhelmina Van Gogh that the
galleries and art firms "are in the clutches of fellows who intercept all the money," and that only "one-tenth of all
the business that is transacted…is really done out of belief in art."
Vincent Van Gogh did not understand the mechanics of interpersonal diplomacy, or the principles of salesmanship.
During this period he fell in love for the first time, and openly professed his love for Eugenia, a respectable upper
class woman. Eugenia was insulted by his unwanted advances, and she harshly rebuffed him.
Van Gogh's inability to read the intent and emotions of others, caused him to fail to see that she had never
expressed any interest in him. Failing in his first romantic experience, he also blundered miserably in his first job
as an art dealer. He was dismissed by the art firm, and with a relatives help, he temporarily took a position as an
assistant teacher and curate.
Following a short stint as a teacher, he returned home to Holland for a visit with his parents and decided to stay.
He took a job in a bookshop. While working as a clerk for the bookseller, he rented a room with a family named
Rijken. Mrs. Rijken said that she had to scold numerous youngsters for taunting Vincent Van Gogh and calling him "a
queer freak." He was only 24 years old.
Vincent soon realized that he was also inadequate as a teacher and a bookseller, and he was becoming desperate to
find work. His parents were reluctant to continue supporting their oldest son, who was a failure in their eyes. This
drew him to finally attempt to satisfy his father's greatest wish that he become a minister. In Amsterdam, he
began studying for the University entrance exams in theology, but soon found that he did not have the ability to
learn the required math and foreign languages. With a relative's help he entered an evangelical school in Brussels
and subsequently became a missionary preacher in the Borinage, a mining district in Belgium.
Becomes A Missionary
Van Gogh found his personal calling working among the downtrodden miners and their families, and was known to give
away his clothing and money to help the poor living in shacks on the blackened earth of the coal fields. Nonetheless,
he could not convincingly communicate his religious feelings to his flock, and while viewing the pride that they could
maintain in spite of their miserable living conditions, they influenced Vincent to take on their lower class beliefs.
His own religious convictions began slipping away, no longer seeming adequate or relevant. Living in the same filth
and poverty that his brethren were forced to experience, he lost religion but gained a new fascination in his
charcoal drawings of the peasant class living around him.
Unrequited Love For Kee
Vincent returned home for an extended visit and fell deeply in love with his first cousin Kee Vos, who had also been
staying with his family. However, for someone to merely contemplate marriage with one's own cousin was a serious
breach of an important taboo strongly held in 19th century Holland. Interestingly, Kee, like Eugenia his first love,
had no interest in Vincent (See Kee's photo below).
Undaunted by her obvious disinterest in him, Vincent attempted to visit her at her family's home, but was refused
entry. Kee's father repeatedly told him that she was not at home. Vincent thought that her family was keeping her
away from him against her will, and that she was actually at home. Forcing a dramatic encounter with Kee's father,
Vincent impulsively attempted to demonstrate the intensity of his affections for Kee. He held his hand in the
flame of a kerosene lamp and said to Kee's father, "Let me see her for as long as I can keep my hand in the flame!"
After blowing the flame out, Kee's father took Vincent to a nearby saloon to get him intoxicated and to reduce his
extreme agitation. Then he convinced Vincent that Kee could not see him, and that their relationship had no future.
Vincent Van Gogh's Cousin "Kee," Who Rejected His Romantic Affections
When Van Gogh's father, a devoted Christian minister (See photo below), discovered that Vincent had fallen in love
with Kee, his first cousin, and that he had also strayed from his religious beliefs, a bitter quarrel caused a life-long
break in the father/son relationship.
Vincent Van Gogh's Father
Cast from the family home, Vincent Van Gogh threw himself into his artwork and began a relationship with a low
class prostitute named "Sien." She moved in with him and he became deeply empathetic with her own personal
suffering. Van Gogh not only lovingly sketched her image (See the drawing titled "Sorrow" below), but because she
was in poor health, he also took care of all her needs. However, because she was a prostitute, the Van Gogh family
was scandalized by her presence in Vincent's living quarters, which further caused friction in Vincent's relationship
"Sorrow" -A Van Gogh Drawing Of His Live-in
Prostitute Named Sien
Van Gogh's eccentric behavior increased as his contempt for middle-class proprieties soon alienated all who tried
to help him. He began wearing ragged, unwashed clothing, did not respond to acquaintances on the street, and lived
an isolated existence. His only activity was to draw and paint in ways that conveyed his sympathies for the hard
lives of peasants. His greatest painting, "The Potato Eaters" was the result of his deep empathy with the peasant
class (See painting below).
The Potato Eaters
An old man reported that when he was ten years old he knew Vincent Van Gogh, who he frequently saw painting
landscapes in Nuenen, Belgium. From the viewpoint of children in the neighborhood, Vincent Van Gogh was a curious
sight indeed. He would sit on a stool alongside a roadway painting scenery for hours at a time. The witness
describes Van Gogh as a "funny, red-bearded man with a straw hat, smoking a pipe and painting intently, and not
responding to anyone's attempts to communicate with him."
Van Gogh's- Self Portrait With Straw Hat
In his many letters, it is clear that Van Gogh was aware of his depressive tendencies, and that he had experienced
them most of his life. After one of his mental crises he wrote "Well, even in that deep misery I felt my energy
revive, and I said to myself: in spite of everything I shall rise again, I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken
in great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing, and from that moment everything has seemed
transformed in me." Van Gogh seemed to utilize the incredible high spirits, which always followed his severe
depressions, as a source of his creative energy.
In 1886, at the age of 33, Van Gogh went to Paris and mingled with Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Seurat, and other
painters who were later considered among the best. His painting techniques were influenced by these
impressionists, and their use of bright colors and their choice of less sentimental subject matter altered the
direction his style of painting would take. Unless depression overcame him, he carefully avoided his tendency to
paint dark canvases and subjects who were weighted down with the drudgeries of life.
However, after two years of working among the Parisian artistic community, Van Gogh's delicate nervous system
began to collapse. His friendship with Paul Gauguin was in Van Gogh's own words, "electric," but like all of his other
relationships it was doomed by Van Gogh's inability to comprehend normal social relationships. On December 24,
1888, an argument ensued between them. Van Gogh unsuccessfully attacked Gauguin, then mutilated himself by
cutting a large piece off of his ear (See his famous painting below in which he depicts the injury), he wrapped the
severed ear in paper, and gave it to a startled prostitute whom he had befriended. When his brother learned of
this incident, he had Vincent institutionalized for two weeks in Arles, France in 1888. This was followed by several
more breakdowns in 1890.
Self Portrait Of Vincent Van Gogh Which He
Painted Shortly After He cut Off His Ear In A State Of Fury!
Psychologists studying Van Gogh's history of mental breakdowns have theorized that each mental crisis was
preceded by a perceived threat to the deep attachment he felt for a loved one. His first collapse occurred shortly
after his beloved brother Theo Van Gogh, had announced his engagement to his future wife Johanna. Vincent's
second mental breakdown came a few days after a violent argument and the hasty departure of his close friend,
fellow painter Paul Gauguin. His third mental crisis occurred shortly before the wedding of his brother Theo.
Apparently, Vincent perceived the romantic relationship between Theo and Johanna, and their subsequent marriage,
as a loosening of the bonds he held with his brother. In May 1890, he stayed for three days with Theo, his wife and
new baby. Theo's lung condition had grown worse, and Vincent was clearly concerned with his brother's health.
Selfishly, he was also worried about Theo's deteriorating financial prospects, which had already reduced the living
allowance that was sent to Vincent each month.
Undergrowth With Two Figures
Reflecting his plunging mood Vincent painted "The Undergrowth With Two Figures" in June 1890, 1 month before
his suicide death. It has a lonely and depressive style and coloration (See painting above). In one of his last letters
dated July 1890, he sadly wrote to his brother Theo, "I feel...a failure. That's it as far as I'm concerned...I feel
that this is the destiny that I accept, that will never change."
In contrast, one of his last paintings which he completed in late July 1890 titled "Wheat Field With Crows,"
reflects an ambivalence of optimism and hopelessness with the dark clouds of depression slowly lifting up from the
skyline (See painting below). It is common knowledge among clinical psychologists that a person with bi-polar
disorder (known as manic depression during Van Gogh's time), invariably attempt suicide while rising up from the
depression towards the manic phase. A few days after he finished this painting, Vincent Van Gogh, on July 27, 1890,
killed himself with a gunshot to the chest. His brother Theo died of lung disease 6 months after the death of
Interestingly, Van Gogh wrote in one of his notebooks in 1885, 5 years before his serious mental deterioration,
about a treatment he was given while in Antwerp by a Dr. Cavenaile. He received alum irrigations and sitz
baths which at the time was the treatment for sypphilis. Within 3 to 15 years, sphillis always progressed to the
Tertiary stage when the brain is invaded, and the patient suffers mental symptoms from the pockets
of tissue damaged by widespread brain lesions. This could explain why Vincent Van Gogh's mental state
deteriorated in the last year before he died.
While other observers believe Vincent Van Gogh's use of an addictive, psychoactive drug called absinthe while in
Antwerp, caused his later mental deterioration.
Wheat Field With Crows
(One Of Van Gogh's Last Paintings-July 1890)
Although he only sold one painting during his life-time, he is considered the most powerful post-Impressionist, and his
paintings each sell for millions of dollars. Ironically, Vincent Van Gogh is deemed by society to
be one of our greatest and most successful artists.
It appears that the intense interest that today's society has for Van Gogh lies not in the quality of his
paintings, but in his ability to project his turbulent emotional experience onto the canvas. Because he
was developing the new Expressionist style of painting, we know more about his mental state than we do ANY other
great painter before the 20th century.
For example, his painting "Starry Night Over The Rhine" (see below), gives us the sense that he was just beginning
to plunge into a state of depression.
This painting was created in Arles, France in September, 1888, and it remains housed in the Musée d'Orsay in
Paris. Van Gogh's state of mind at the time he painted it can only be speculated about. It is suspected that he was
probably on the verge of going into a deep depressive state. The very dark colors, with glimpses of light are typical
of his style during the early phase of his depressive episodes. So to, is the appearance of the shadowy figures of a
man and woman in the far right-hand corner of the painting, widely believed to be suggestive of his dependent, yet
ambivalent relationship with his brother and sister-in-law.
In general, Van Gogh's mood had began to sour while he was in France, surrounded by many great painters of the
day. His awkwardness in social relationships began to take a toll. He was plagued by frequent extreme shifts in his
emotional state. Mania and feelings of grandiosity were always followed by self-loathing, and the despair of deep
It appears likely that just after he completed the painting above, he sunk further into the depths of depression.
We know that two months later, on December 24, 1888, his mood began to revert back to the manic state, when
his violent argument with Gauguin occurred. It resulted in self-mutilation, which is a common behavior in mental
patients during manic excitement. Without access to modern medicine, the frequency of these self-destructive
episodes increased until Van Gogh's suicide in 1890.
From a behavioral standpoint, Van Gogh's ability to express his internal state of mind in his artwork, provides us
with a vivid record of the see-saw activity of his brain's chemistry. When he began to slip into depression, his
paintings would take on a deep, dark feeling of doom, with only hints of light optimism remaining. However, as the
depression deepened, his canvases become dark vessels of hopelessness.
Amazingly, a complete reversal would always occur, catapulting him into a frenzy of grandiose feelings and creative
activity as the mania took hold. His paintings would become electric with brilliant colors, and the canvas textures
jumped to life with jittery strokes of paint, brilliantly mirroring his manic state of mind.
Because Van Gogh was an Expressionistic painter, we know more about his internal life than we do about any of
civilization's other Master painters. He alone has allowed us to peer into his mind, while he was in the act of
creating his art. This is truly the unique and lasting contribution that Vincent Van Gogh has given to us in the study
of our great Masterpieces.
UPDATE: A HEARTBREAKING SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY
Museum's around the world began to notice the yellow colors on some of Van Gogh's paintings have been
darkening. Belgium scientist Koen Janssens of Antwerp University and Italian researcher Letizia Monico
discovered that exposure to ultraviolet rays causes chromium (VI) to gain electrons and become chromium (III).
Research Study Conclusion:
Yellow pigment used by Van Gogh and his contemporary painters is turning brown because of continued
exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun. Scientific analysis using microscopic x-ray technology
shows that light is causing the chromium (VI) to change to chromium (III) through a chemical reaction
making it gain electrons. This is turning the outer layers of yellow paint containing chromium (VI) to
The good news is that the discovery can help restorers of masterpiece art to prevent and/or reduce
this damage. ©Copyright 2011.
|The Troubled Life Of Vincent Van Gogh
by Bonnie Butterfield