Vincent Van Gogh was a Dutch painter whose life was torn by emotion, passion, and distress.
We all know his name, and he might even be the most famous historical painter today—Van Gogh’s paintings are instantly recognized by people everywhere, but during his life he never knew fame at all. Supposedly, he only sold one painting out of the hundreds that he created.
So what was it that made the world eventually came to know Vincent Van Gogh?
He actually started painting later than most artists, originally working as an art dealer and a preacher. Vincent had little formal training in art, but decided (around the age of twenty-seven) that his true calling was to be a painter. From that point on he painted constantly, often spending most of his money on paints and supplies rather than food.
This next painting, The Potato Eaters, was created when he was thirty-two. It’s of a common working-class family in a southern region of the Netherlands; and, although he never painted extremely realistically, Van Gogh still wanted to truthfully show the nature of their existence—eating a meal of potatoes they had dug from the ground themselves.
Unlike his later paintings, Van Gogh’s early work used darker colors, lending a somber mood to his art.
His brother Theo (an art dealer in Paris) tried to help sell Vincent’s work, but unfortunately no one was ever interested in buying such gloomy depictions of rural life in the Netherlands.
Van Gogh was discouraged by his lack of success, but he didn’t quit painting. Eventually he moved to Paris where his brother introduced him to many of the Impressionist painters and their work. It was during that time that Van Gogh absorbed the ideas of the Impressionists, and his paintings became much more colorful.
He was too obsessive about painting, however, to make many close friends, and his increasingly unstable personality caused problems with both Theo and the other artists in Paris.
So Vincent moved to Arles, France, just to get away from Paris for a time, and even convinced Paul Gauguin to join him in an effort to start a brotherhood of painters. However, their tenuous friendship (and Van Gogh’s plans for a community of artists) ended after he threatened Gauguin with a razor blade and then went on to cut off his own left earlobe with it.
You can see the bandages around his head in this self-portrait which he must have painted soon after that incident.
It was the first of many mental breakdowns, and eventually Van Gogh was committed to a mental asylum for insanity. And even at the asylum he still painted whenever possible.
Ironically, despite his emotional and psychological problems, it was while he lived in Arles, before being institutionalized, that Van Gogh created his most famous and memorable works of art.
Unfortunately, he left the asylum without fully recovering from his mental illnesses. Just a few months after returning to live with Theo outside of Paris, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest while walking in the fields near his home.
When he died a few days later at the age of thirty-seven, he left behind over 900 paintings and the story of his very troubled life.
But it’s that story, more than anything, that really makes Van Gogh famous—and like his paintings, he’ll never be forgotten.