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The Genius of Vincent van Gogh

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A paint-covered artist's palette with an ear on it.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in Groot-Zundert, Holland on 30 March, 1853, to Anna Cordelia and Theodorus van Gogh, the local minister. He was a relative latecomer to art, beginning his career in earnest at the age of 27 in 1880. Although his death in 1890 meant that his career was a short one of only ten years, in this time he produced a prolific output of work dealing with a wide range of style and subject matter, including those of portraiture and of particular note, self-portraiture.

It was originally intended that Vincent van Gogh should find a career in the business of art dealership, and so in July 1869 he went to train under his uncle 'Cent' (also named Vincent Willem van Gogh) at a branch of the Parisian dealership Goupil & Cie in The Hague. While working there, Vincent gained his first awareness of art and the fashions of the time which would later be of value to him. After completing his training in 1873, he was transferred to the London branch of the company, but this was to prove unsuccessful; he felt increasingly isolated in the city, and when he fell in love with the daughter of his landlady and proposed to her, he was rejected. As a result it was decided by Vincent's father and uncle that he should be transferred to the head office of the firm in Paris. However, this too was to prove an unsuccessful venture. During his time in Paris, Vincent became dissatisfied with his trade, finding the business of art dealership and its attitude towards art as a commodity distasteful; as a result his treatment of customers became unacceptably abrupt, and on 1 April 1876 Vincent was discharged by Goupil & Cie.

Vincent had turned increasingly to religion, and so at the age of 23, convinced that this was his true vocation he embarked on a theology course at the university of Amsterdam. He gave up, however, after only a year, but instead took a position as a preacher and self-appointed evangelist in La Borinage. Van Gogh's passion for religion was almost excessive, and he practised self-denial in his pursuit of the lifestyle of a latter-day Christ. This resulted once again in his dismissal, though this time with the Church authorities on the basis of his 'undermining the dignity of the priesthood'. During his time in La Borinage, however, van Gogh had been recording the hardship of the miners in his parish in drawings, such as Miners in the Snow on the Way to the Pit; these early works demonstrated the direction that his life was to take after 1880, when Vincent began his first art course at the Academy in Brussels, and then after his father's death in 1885, a second course in Antwerp.

Early Works

Van Gogh's early works differ greatly from his later ones in many respects, including media, subject matter and use of colour. Many of his early pieces, notably those from his period at Nuenen, are decidedly sombre in tone and use of colour; perhaps the best known of these is his painting The Potato Eaters of 1885. The subject matter is similar to that of other works of this time, concerning the lives of the peasants with whom Van Gogh had been in contact. The intimate domestic scene is lit only by a single overhead paraffin-lamp, and this fact contributes to the harsh, gaunt shadows that are to be seen in the faces of the figures assembled around the table. The artist has used broad, rough brushstrokes in handling the paint; this is in marked contrast to the technique that he was to develop in Paris upon exposure to the works of Signac, who employed an almost pointillistic style using small dashes of colour.

Paris

It was in 1886 that Vincent moved to Paris, where he stayed with his brother Theo while attending further painting classes at the school of Fernand Cormon. While in the French capital Vincent was exposed to many different artists and many different styles of work, and this was to be crucial in the evolution of his own personal style. However, he suffered great physical and mental hardship here; in a letter van Gogh himself wrote that:

I left Paris seriously sick at heart and in body, and really an alcoholic because of my rising fury at my strength failing me.

Arles

On 21 February, 1888, Vincent moved to Arles in the south of France. He remained here until 3 May, 1889, when he was admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy, Provence. While in Arles, van Gogh produced a prodigious quantity of work; in a letter to Theo, he wrote:

I'm seeing new things here, I'm learning, and as long as I'm kind to it, my body doesn't refuse to do its bit either.

Showing the initial effect that the change of conditions had upon him. The works of this period are often replete with hectic, if impossible, colour, in marked contrast to the paintings of the 1886 Paris period in terms of technique, colour usage and psychological tone. While in Arles Vincent harboured the hope of his fellow artists coming to join him in the Yellow House, into which Vincent himself moved in mid-September of 1888. Undoubtedly, the most famous of these was Paul Gauguin, who came to Arles in on 23 October, 1888. However, the relationship between the two artists was deeply unstable and many violent disagreements ensued, with van Gogh ultimately threatening Gauguin with a knife. The notorious climax of the period came only two months after Gauguin's arrival on 23 December, when van Gogh cut off a piece of his own left ear with a cut-throat razor and presented it to a local prostitute. Following this incident, the artist was admitted to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy.

While in the hospital, van Gogh remained artistically active, painting many pictures including copies of his own works as well as those of the masters such as Rembrandt and Delacroix. In addition he also painted some original works, for example The Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital, as well as continuing with his portraiture by painting his fellow inmates.

Last Days

Following his discharge from the hospital, Vincent moved to Auvers-sur-Oise; he remained here until 29 July, 1890, when he died after shooting himself twice in the chest. The paintings of this period are arguably among his best-known, with the swirling brushstrokes of his Wheat Field with Cypresses and Olive Grove visible in his penultimate Self-portrait of 1889, as well as his Portrait of Dr Gachet. There is perhaps a sad irony in this last picture; having famously sold only one painting during his lifetime, in 1990 van Gogh's Portrait of Dr Gachet was auctioned for $75 million, firmly establishing him as one of the great artists of the 19th Century almost 100 years after his death.


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