“The emotions are sometimes so strong that I work without knowing it. The strokes come like speech.” – Vincent van Gogh
This spring, I finally read Irving Stone’s biographical novel about the life of Vincent van Gogh, Lust for Life (I loved it). I had previously read Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s excellent biography, Van Gogh – The Life (twice!) and have long been fascinated by the Dutch artist’s story and his work.
The outline of the artist’s life is well-known but I came across the quote above recently wanted to share it. It’s from a letter to his brother, Theo, and it’s a great reminder of the importance of following creative impulses. I stand in awe of artists and your ability to paint, draw, sculpt, perform, write, etc. I’m also fascinated by the process and the way that artists develop and refine both their skills and their vision.
Creating is a very intimate, personal thing, but it’s amazing how you are able to express yourself in a way that has the power to resonate with all of us. To do so, you often have to ignore the “sensible” to follow your vision and passion, as van Gogh did.
Brief Biographical Outline
Vincent Willem van Gogh was a Dutch post-Impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade, he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life in Southern France, where he died. They include landscapes, still lives, portraits and self-portraits, and are characterized by bold colors and dramatic, impulsive and expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art. His suicide at 37 followed years of mental illness and poverty. (Though, without offering any spoilers, I’ll mention that Naifeh and White Smith propose an alternate cause of the artist’s death)
Born into an upper-middle-class family, Van Gogh drew as a child and was serious, quiet, and thoughtful. As a young man, he worked as an art dealer, often traveling, but became depressed after he was transferred to London. He turned to religion and worked as a missionary in southern Belgium.
Van Gogh drifted into ill health and solitude before taking up painting in 1881, having moved back home with his parents.
His younger brother Theo supported him financially, and the two kept up a long correspondence by letter. His early works, mostly still lifes and depictions of peasant laborers, contain few signs of the vivid color that distinguished his later work.
In 1886, he moved to Paris, where he met members of the avant-garde, including Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, who were reacting against the Impressionist sensibility. As his work developed, he created a new approach to still lifes and local landscapes. His paintings grew brighter in color as he developed a style that became fully realized during his stay in Arles in the south of France in 1888. During this period, he broadened his subject matter to include a series of olive trees, wheat fields, and sunflowers.
Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions, and though he worried about his mental stability, he often neglected his physical health, did not eat properly, and drank heavily. His friendship with Gauguin ended after an explosive confrontation. In a rage, van Gogh severed part of his own left ear.
He spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including a period at Saint-Rémy. After he discharged himself and moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, he came under the care of the homeopathic doctor Paul Gachet. His depression continued, and on 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver (or did he? see parenthetical above). He died from his injuries two days later.
Love Van Gogh?
What are your thoughts on Van Gogh and his work? What are some of your favorite Van Gogh works? Do you ever feel like you are in a place beyond consciousness as Van Gogh did according to his letter to Theo? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
What a coincidence! In the last week I’ve been listening to lectures about Van Gogh by John Walsh, formerly of the Met in NYC and the MFA in Boston. His lectures are found on YouTube – the Yale Art Gallery. Then another lecture or two. But just today I listened to an hour’s program on Vincent’s letters to Theo., and THEN I saw your own post. I’m going to continue learning about this artist.
I’ll have to check the lecture out – thanks for the heads up!
From my book: An Artist Empowered:
However, it appears that far from being the isolated lunatic on the fringe, van Gogh was a practical and methodical artist with a healthy sense of his times, coupled with an interest in science, astronomy, poetry, and literature.
As Becky Hendrick, in her fine book, Getting it, puts it: “He was a great painter in spite of his mental illness, not as a result of it.” Van Gogh wasn’t mad when he painted or wrote letters, especially to his brother, Theo, which were clear, pragmatic, and mindful of his mission as an artist.
One could argue, as art history professor Albert Boime does, that Vincent was less mad and more a victim; he suffered seizures that were most likely brought on by a form of epilepsy; he didn’t recall cutting off his earlobe, and this frightened him.
On July 27, 1890, van Gogh left for a nearby field (earlier that month in the fields he had painted vast stretches of wheat, crows, and turbulent skies) where he shot himself—which might be explained away by a seizure, but not why he had a pistol with him.
You can read Vincent van Gogh’s letters here:
It soon becomes evident that Vincent was aware of his surroundings and place in the universe. Also, although brother Theo helped support his artist brother, he had no appreciation of his unique art.
Thank you for sharing Eden!
Vincent Van Gogh suffered from chronic, cellular, systemic, carbon monoxide poisoning from unvented gas lights in the late 19th century. Side effects of CO poisoning include extreme sensitivity to sight, sound, touch, and delusions(or is it extra sight?). This is why his color palette changed from the dark, heavy colors to the light bright colors after he moved into the yellow house in Arles with gas lighting. Edgar Allen Poe also suffered with CO poisoning. As Albert Donnay, from the MCS resource center at Johns Hopkins told me, it makes one a great artist but it is extremely painful and difficult to live with. Luckily, it is easily curable with oxygen. Unfortunately, they didn’t know any of this during Van Gogh’s life.
Interesting insight Charlene – thanks!
I am very impassioned with Van Gogh and his work. I have a massive book by Marc Edo Tralbaut , which I’ve poured over cover to cover. Plus Dear Theo, which is excellent. When the film “Loving Vincent ” came out, I read about it’s making, saw it (excellent) and bought a reproduction from one of the frames of the film. Sat and stared at his work in the Musee d’Orsay. Twice.
And keep watching that clip from Dr. Who.
The church at Auvers, The Starry night and the final painting with the crows above the field are probably my favorites.
I’ll have to check out the Tralbaut book and Dear Theo. I saw Loving Vincent and loved the idea and the execution.
I once read a suggestion that some neighborhood gang of kids that would bully him, because he was weird, might have been the ones that actually killed him….any news of that?
Yes Robert R. I also have heard a similar claim put forth by a scholarly bio. It seems VG may have been horsing around with a gun and the “gang of kids” & may have been accidentally shot. He initially survived the gunshot wound & managed to get home but what’s usually not mentioned is that the police investigated the incident & visited him for a statement. Apparently he made no complaint or implicated anyone. He died sometime soon afterward.
If this is generally the circumstance to VG’s death (and the fact that he did not kill himself) I find pertinent to the realty of his frame of mind around the time of his death.
I have always been very moved by Van Gogh’s work. I am sometimes very emotional when I paint. And will look back at a piece with no memory of the decision process that brought the strokes about. I can only imagine the intensity with which Van Gogh felt and painted.
Here is my humble commentary and experience about this unique artist, Vincent Van Gogh. As many of you did, I also read about his story and, as an artist myself, I wanted to explore his technique.
One day, I decided to paint a study of one of my favorite Van Gogh’s ” Le semeur au coucher du soleil “, choosing the same size of his. (What a surprise for me, because it was a small painting!…)
Trying to be in his mood, looking from my left eye for the left side of the painting, and my right eye for the right part of the painting. What a challenge at the beginning, confusing to!
But as I went further, I really felt plenty of joy during painting, even more, when I repeated the whole painting with the knife (spatule) all over.
I chose my mixed lightening colors, closest to his.
What an experience really satisfying!
It encouraged myself to respect my feelings and express what I want to share and communicate from my heart.
Love the results and it guides myself to still persue the research of the best parts of the artist in me !
Thank you MASTER Van Gogh for your talent!
You should try it too!
Oh, Van Gogh?! One of my ultimate to me. What I really like about him is that he had great vision and conviction and I wouldn’t like to say madness, because he had a uniqueness so much misunderstood.
A lot of us may have gone through that faze in some way, because of having other innovative ideas different from the norm. He showed us a lot of the way and had courage to do that in his days, but was not rewarded during lifetime. He must have been good then!
He certainly is inspirational, so much so as I learnt about year ago, that Van Gogh is a favourite of another ultimate of mine, David Hockney, another grand painter. No wonder I love his work, I thought to myself? Can you see the connection between the two?
Both expressive especially colour, lines and perspective, both bold.