"...my aim in life is to make as many good pictures and drawings as I can, as well was I can. Then at the end of my life, I can hope simply to pass away while looking back with love and wistfulness, thinking 'Oh, the pictures I might have made!' But this, mind you, does not preclude doing what is possible." -Vincent van Gogh 1883 (age 30)
Vincent van Gogh not only made "good pictures", he was a pioneer and broke the mold of traditional art in the second half of the 19th century. The goal of traditional art was to make paintings look "real", capturing the sensitivity of light on subjects, which were usually noble people and settings. Vincent captured the expression of light and colors as he interpreted them. The self- portrait of Vincent (above left) illustrates his technique in doing so. (Note the amazing resemblance between Vincent's facial expression in the childhood photo to the right and his own painting.) Vincent's painting style is called Impressionism, which is characterized mostly by the general impression of a scene or object and the use of unmixed primary colors and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light. One critic noted that Vincent was one of the first to "liberate color from its traditional, realistic function. ...Once liberated, he used it symbolically and for its expressive potential. "
When I was in high school, I didn't understand Vincent's work, or Vincent himself. I learned early on that he was the "crazy artist who cut off his own ear". It's true, he did cut off part of his ear, and he was in an asylum late in his life, but there is so much more to learn about Vincent.
To appreciate Vincent's work, you must also recognize the era in which he painted and how he broke the mold of traditional art. To the right is portrait of Vincent done by John Peter Russell in 1886. You can see the difference in the painting technique. Russell's portrait of Vincent looks more "real", particularly in the way light would reflect off a subject. This type of art was more common and appreciated in his time. Vincent was frowned upon by critics for his technique, but it did not stop him. Vincent painted his own vision.
I have to admit that what I learned about Vincent saddened me. He was an outcast most of his life, from childhood until his untimely death at the age of 37. Before Vincent was born, his parents had another son who was born deceased. Though he never lived, he was named Vincent van Gogh, after his father's brother of the same name. Exactly one year later, on the very same day, Vincent was born. Vincent's father, Theodorus van Gogh, was a strict pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. As the local preacher, he had an image to protect. Vincent began his education in at a village school at the age of four. Vincent struggled in school and his father, embarrassed by his eldest son's academic failure, sent him to boarding schools for much of his elementary education. Separated him from his parents and five siblings, including his favorite brother, Theo, Vincent hated boarding school. He would get in fights, and other students teased him and called him "Carrot Top" because of his fiery red hair. He once ran away from school to go home, only to be sent back again. Vincent's sister Elisabeth wrote that "...Vincent loved to walk and read, as long as he could be left alone." At the age of fifteen, Vincent left school in the middle of the academic year, and never resume his formal education again.
A year later, Vincent's uncle, an art dealer, got him a job at the Paris headquarters of Goupil's, an international art firm. There, Vincent learned about paintings and drawings. During his four years at Goupil's in Paris, Vincent's brother, Theo, had visited him, and they began writing to each other at length. It would be the beginning of the solid relationship between Vincent and Theo, who in his life seemed to be the only one who believed in Vincent, unconditionally loved him, and supported his pursuit of art both emotionally and financially.
Initially, Vincent was an exemplary employee at Goupil's, and by all accounts a model citizen. He got along with people well and was a devout church-goer. At the age of twenty, he was promoted to Goupil's branch in London, England. There, Vincent experienced heartache when the daughter of the family with whom he stayed rejected his romantic advance. The failure in love caused Vincent to withdraw and, noticing his solitude, Vincent's parents arranged for him to return to Paris. Vincent resented his parents' interference and returned to England two months later. Shortly after, Vincent's position at Goupil's summoned him to Paris for a temporary assignment. This time, he grew to like the city, and he decided to stay. Around this time, Vincent's interest in religion became nearly obsessive, and his performance at Goupil's became compromised. In 1876, at the age of twenty-three and after more than six years of employment at Goupil's, Vincent was asked to leave.
Vincent returned to England, where he found a position at a boarding school in Ramsgate. Vincent seemed to find contentment in this situation, but the position was not for pay, so he accepted a teaching position at another school soon after. Here, Vincent became actively involved with the school's congregation. Vincent attended prayer meetings and Sunday school classes and organized the children's service.
Vincent was unconcerned with the differences between churches, and he often attended services of other Christian denominations. It was at a Methodist prayer meeting that he delivered his first Sunday sermon, which heightened his religious fervor. Vincent eventually left his teaching position and worked as a bookseller, but he was distracted. It was clear to those around him that Vincent longed to be a minister. Since this was not possible without a college degree, Vincent's parents returned him to Holland where he could attend the university near his family's home. Vincent was given a tutor to improve his Latin and Greek in preparation for university coursework. But Vincent's desire to become a pastor exceeded his willingness to proceed with further education. Instead, Vincent attended a brief training in Belgium in 1878 that would allow him to become a lay evangelist. As such, Vincent worked with uncommon devotion. He was excited about serving God, and was devoted to understanding the Bible. At this time, Vincent also became notably aware of the effects of poverty on many around him. While he had always been a giving man, Vincent submerged himself into the community of impoverished miners in the Belgian town, even foregoing bathing and giving away all of his possessions. Though his charitable effort was undeniable, his unusual behavior caused him to be dismissed from the chapter of churches for which he had been hired as a lay evangelist.
His rejection from the church did not cause Vincent to loose his faith in God. Instead, he continued to provide evangelism in a small village, living in extreme poverty and working without pay. During this time, essentially all communication was cut off by Vincent, even to his brother, Theo. After more than a year of minimal contact, Vincent acknowledged in a letter to Theo that he had sunken into despair, but announced that he had emerged, and had decided to become a painter. At the age of twenty-seven, Vincent devoted himself to studying the art of painting. When he began to paint, his talent, passion, and love of God and life poured into his work. Once he started, he dove in head first and wanted so much to perfect it.
My favorite of Vincent's works is his painting of his humble bedroom. I identify with Vincent's life in many ways. I have always been in humble settings to live and work. I was teased and picked on in school. I have always wanted to help people and have a strong belief in God. I have always felt that I am here for a reason and I eventually found the path to used my talent to get messages out. Like Van Gogh, I am passionate about my work to a point of imbalance.
Vincent's work was not praised during his lifetime, other than by his brother, yet he chose to pursue his passion. He saw things in a way that most people did not, and he followed it without fear of rejection. Ironically,Vincent is now widely regarded as one of the most important artists in history, as in the article below.
Vincent spent the next few years painting in Belgium, living only on Theo's support. Still very focused on the effects of poverty, most of his paintings from this time were of peasants and workers. Vincent spent a few months studying at the Academy at Antwerp, but was poorly received there due to his unique painting style. Vincent withdrew from the Academy and returned to Paris, where he began to produce paintings at a frenzied rate. Vincent painted more more than two hundred canvases in just over a year, but he sold nothing. He lived in poverty, and, though he had friends in the art community, he began suffer from depression, hallucinations and anxiety. In 1889, at the age of thirty-six, Vincent admitted himself into an asylum. He produced more than one hundred and fifty paintings during the year he spent there.
When Vincent left the asylum, he moved closer to Theo, who had gotten married and had a son, whom he named Vincent. He painted seventy pictures in what would be the last seventy days of his life. He sold only one painting during his lifetime, and despite some critical praise, Vincent sank deeper into despair. Near the end of July, 1890, Vincent died in Theo's arms after shooting himself.
Vincent died poor and unknown. In the end, why was he so important? Because he lived out the beliefs of his heart. He was poor in the eyes of man, because man measures our success by the money and things we posses. But Van Gogh was rich in spirit. Framing his work was like finally completing his relationship with God. Bring comfort to others' lives was like being paid a million dollars. Vincent had done what he loved, regardless of having a dime or frank in his pocket. The irony is that his belief of how powerfully light, color and movement can express life were never confirmed to him by others. Only in spirit will he know. And the spirit of his paintings are a reflection of God's work, the God he believed in. Vincent is a hero for sure. If he were alive today, I know he would be proud of how much he has affected the lives of so many. Even to have touched one life would make him happy.
You can learn more about Vincent's life and his work by the links below.
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VAN GOGH EXHIBIT ; ABC Good Morning America JOEL SIEGEL, KEVIN NEWMAN; 10-02-1998