Vincent van Gogh's Biography

Early in November 1883, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) wrote a consoling letter to his younger brother Theo (1857-1891), an up-and-coming art dealer worried about his future.

Sharing the insight of his own experiences, van Gogh reflected on the unpredictability of an existence in which a calm morning could suddenly be transformed by a violent gale. He warned Theo that unexpected twists and turns could leave him shaken and questioning the direction his life had taken.

Irises, by Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Vincent van Gogh's Irises is an
 oil on canvas (36-1/4 x 29 inches)
 that is housed in the van Gogh
Museum in Amsterdam. See
more pictures of van Gogh's

However, van Gogh also reassured him that as brothers they would always support one another and that misfortune might have the unexpected result of bringing them even closer together. Van Gogh himself had passed through years of similar frustrations and indecision during which he embarked on several paths -- as an art dealer, as a teacher, as a lay minister -- hoping to find a vocation that would engage his heart and his mind.

But he found neither contentment nor success, and now, with single-minded determination, he was teaching himself to paint. He suggested that Theo leave the gallery and take up the brush as well and closed his letter with the telling declaration: "So it seems to me that we must concentrate our whole energy on painting with the utmost singleness of purpose -- it being the raft that will take us safely to shore after the shipwreck."

Theo rejected his brother's advice and stayed in his profession. But van Gogh’s words proved true for his own destiny, a brief life in which art served as his sole consolation.

Vincent van Gogh's career as a painter spanned a scant decade. Although short in duration, his life as an artist proved productive and powerful, leaving a legacy of works that bear the unmistakable stamp of his deep passion and his highly charged imagination.

In his life, he yearned to attain the status of a serious, successful painter whose work could provide an anodyne to the sorrow and stresses of the modern condition. He signed his works "Vincent," striking an element of intimacy and openness with his viewers.

As an artist, he had a singular goal that he defined at the start of his career. He wrote to his brother, "I want to do drawings which touch some people." The force of his empathy and his emotions can be sensed in his signature works: panoramic landscapes, unflinching self-portraits, radiant sunflowers.

But less than his choice of subject, Vincent's message was conveyed in a palette of strong, startling color applied with a brush stroke that transformed the act of applying pigment to canvas into an intense relationship between the artist and his art. In his time -- and even in ours -- the turbulence of his life overshadowed the intentions that he had for his art.

But in his last letter to Theo, who did indeed support him through every misfortune, van Gogh stated his enduring conviction, "the truth is, we can only make our pictures speak."

The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet
Vincent van Gogh admired the
work of
Jean-Francois Millet,
who painted
The Sower.

Born on March 30, 1853, in the village of Groot-Zundert in the Brabant province in the Netherlands, Vincent Willem van Gogh was the oldest surviving child of Theodorus and Anna van Gogh. His father, descended from a comfortable bourgeois family, was a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, and his mother, an amateur botanist, painted in watercolor. He had two brothers and three sisters, and there was little in van Gogh’s youth to indicate any talent in the arts.

A competent student, van Gogh excelled at languages and read in English and French, as well as in Dutch. At 16, van Gogh moved to The Hague, where his uncle Vincent (called "Cent"), an art dealer for the Paris-based firm Goupil and Company, gave him a post as an assistant in a gallery. The firm specialized in contemporary art, and van Gogh readily developed an interest in the work of the French rural naturalists such as Jean-François Millet.

Van Gogh remained with Goupil and Company for seven years, working in branch galleries in London and Paris. His younger brother Theo followed him into the business, filling his position in The Hague and then moving on to Paris. Always close, the brothers maintained a lively correspondence, and over the years van Gogh shared his most personal thoughts with Theo, relying upon his brother's full understanding, financial help, and sympathetic support.

Van Gogh failed to fulfill his initial promise as an art dealer, and he was dismissed in April 1876. He moved back to England, where he served as an assistant to a school master, giving lessons in French and German. He became active in a parish in Isleworth, and when given the opportunity to preach a sermon, he fixed his ambitions on a clerical career.

In 1877, again with the help of Uncle Cent, van Gogh moved to Dordrecht and then to Amsterdam to prepare for the entrance examinations required for a university course in theology. But he neglected his studies, preferring to devote his time to eccentric projects -- drawing meticulous maps of the Holy Land and composing a multilingual translation of the Bible.

In July 1878, van Gogh began a training program for an evangelical ministry, but after three months' probationary work, he was denied a post. With his family's help, he moved to the Borinage, an impoverished mining region in Belgium, where he became a lay minister. His now fanatical devotion led to the intervention of his superiors, and by July 1879, van Gogh was barred from preaching.

He stayed in the Borinage for another year, living in extreme poverty. In 1880, he wrote to Theo that he was "homesick for that land of pictures" and, with the fervor that fueled his religious calling, he embraced the mission of art.

Although brief, Vincent van Gogh's life as an artist was a rich and prolific one. The pages in this article take you to the different stages of van Gogh's life, and some of the paintings he produced during those times.

  • Vincent van Gogh's Early Years as a Painter. Van Gogh pursued his new vocation without rest during his first years as a painter. Learn about this time in van Gogh's life, and the paintings he produced as a result of his early training and explorations.
  • Vincent van Gogh's Growth as a Painter. Inspired by the vibrant art community in Paris and the country landscapes of Arles, Vincent van Gogh made numerous artistic discoveries. Learn about how van Gogh grew as an artist during this period.
  • Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Vincent van Gogh and fellow artist Paul Gauguin shared a tumultuous and challenging relationship. Read about the "Yellow House" period of van Gogh's life.
  • Vincent van Gogh's Health Conditions. For much of Vincent van Gogh's life, the artist was marred by health problems. In fact, many of van Gogh's paintings were created from the inside of a hospital room. Learn how van Gogh's health conditions affected his art.
  • Vincent van Gogh's Death. During the final days of Vincent van Gogh's life, the artist found inspiration in the quiet region of Auvers-sur-Oise. Learn about this period of van Gogh's life.
  • Vincent van Gogh Paintings. Vincent van Gogh's life as a painter was short, but prolific. This page takes you to the many paintings of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh yearned to return to a "land of pictures." Learn how van Gogh diligently pursued art, and how he discovered his own innate abilities, in the next section.

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