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Vincent van Gogh's Biography

Vincent van Gogh's Early Years as a Painter

At Vincent van Gogh’s request, Theo sent his brother art materials and instructional manuals, as well as a set of prints after Millet's Labors of the Field. As an art dealer, van Gogh had admired Millet's portrayal of the dignity of agricultural toil in such works as The Sower (1850), and he intended to copy the pieces as part of his training.

Vincent van Gogh's Still Life with Bible, 1885
Vincent van Gogh’s Still Life with Bible is an oil
on canvas (25-1/2 x 33-3/4 inches) housed in the
Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Over the next few years, van Gogh restlessly pursued his new vocation. In 1880, he went to Brussels to study at the academy, but by 1881, he was living with his parents, who had moved to Etten. Early in 1882, he returned to The Hague, where he rented a studio and studied briefly with the painter Anton Mauve, a relative by marriage.

Mauve encouraged van Gogh to work in color, and he also experimented with plein air (open air) painting, setting up his easel outdoors under natural light. In the autumn of 1883, van Gogh moved again, this time to the picturesque region of Drenthe, where he planned to paint peasants at their labor. But by the end of the year, short of money and lonely for company, he again joined his parents, who had now settled in the rural village of Nuenen.

While in Nuenen, van Gogh sketched the field workers at their labors, intent on painting a large and important picture to send to Paris to launch his career. In his letters to Theo, written in the early months of 1885, he described his desire to paint peasants as if he were one of them, to "rouse serious thoughts in those who think seriously about art and about life."

He completed The Potato Eaters that April, and the rough treatment and dark palette he used were meant to convey the true spirit of those whose toil sustained life. At the same time, van Gogh was mourning the death of his father. In recent years, the pair had become estranged; Theodorus was convinced that his eldest son was chasing a capricious dream.

In Still Life with Bible (1885), painted a few months after his father's death, van Gogh juxtaposes his father's beliefs with his own, perhaps putting their differences to rest.

In the autumn of 1885, van Gogh moved again, this time to Antwerp to enroll in the academy to study life drawing. Van Gogh made regular trips to the museum, where the works of Peter Paul Rubens convinced him that his own palette was too dark and too dull. He began to investigate color theory by reading Éugene Delacroix's reflections on the use of color.

But he found the academy curriculum -- most notably its examinations and competitions -- constricting, and by January 1886, Van Gogh wanted to move to Paris. Theo urged him to wait until June. By that time, he could secure a large apartment and arrange for van Gogh to have some instruction and studio space.

But in March, Theo received a note while at work announcing his brother's unexpected arrival: "Do not be cross with me for having come all at once like this; I have thought about it so much."

During his time in Paris and its neighboring communities, Vincent van Gogh grew as an artist, honing his innate abilities. Read about this time in van Gogh's life in the next section.

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