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Vincent van Gogh


Self Portrait, 1890


Vincent van Gogh Gallery
Webmuseum: van Gogh

Although almost wholly unknown during his brief lifetime, the painter Vincent Willem van Gogh is today probably the most widely known and appreciated representative of postimpressionism. His work became an important bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries; it was particularly influential in the evolution of both fauvism and German expressionism.

Van Gogh clearly showed marked artistic talent even as a child, but neither he nor his family (his father was a Dutch clergyman) imagined that painting would become his career. Instead, at the age of 16, he went to work for Goupil and Company, an art gallery with which one of his uncles had long been associated; he was dismissed in 1876. Other false starts included a job in a Dordrecht bookstore during the spring of 1877, theological studies at the University of Amsterdam, and, from November 1878 to July 1879, service as a lay missionary in a coal-mining district in Belgium.

In 1880, Vincent chose art as a vocation and became dependent on his brother for money. Indeed, for the next 10 years Theo, who had also gone to work for Goupil, sent an allowance to Vincent, encouraged him to work, and wrote regularly. Vincent's thinking during his short but prolific career (approximately 750 paintings, 1,600 drawings, 9 lithographs, and 1 etching) is well documented in more than 700 letters that he wrote to Theo and others.

Van Gogh's early period includes all his work from 1879 through 1885. Between August 1879 and November 1885 he worked in Etten, The Hague--where he received some instruction from his cousin, Anton Mauve--and in Nuenen, among other places. In Nuenen he painted The Potato Eaters (1885; Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam), his first important picture, which underscores his lifelong interest in peasant subjects.

During the winter of 1885-86 van Gogh studied at the academy in Antwerp, where he was forced to draw from plaster casts and to adopt academic principles that did not suit him. He moved to Paris, where he lived with Theo. The Paris period (March 1886-February 1888) is extremely important because it enabled Vincent to see and to hear discussed the work of virtually every major artist there. Although van Gogh admired many members of the avant-garde, he also admired Eugene Delacroix, Jean Francois Millet, and the painters of the Barbizon and Hague schools. He respected painters as disparate as Adolphe Monticelli and J. L. E. Meissonier and such Japanese printmakers as Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Kesai Yeisen. Numerous self-portraits, still lifes, and cityscapes date from this period, such as Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (1887; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), A Pair of Shoes (1886; Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh), and Restaurant de la Sirene at Asnieres (1887; Louvre, Paris). During these years van Gogh's style shifted from the darker manner characteristic of his Nuenen period to a postimpressionist style heavily influenced by divisionism.

Van Gogh left Paris and moved to Arles in February 1888. His mature work and many of his most famous paintings date from the ensuing year. For example, he painted numerous blossoming orchards in the spring of 1888 (Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh), The Night Cafe on the Place Lamartine, Arles (1888; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.), Still Life with Sunflowers (several versions), and The Bedroom at Arles (1888; Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh).

In October 1888, Paul Gauguin came to live and work with van Gogh. After only 2 months, however, following the first of Vincent's attacks of dementia, in which he amputated his own earlobe, Gauguin left, having first summoned Theo from Paris. Thereafter, Vincent was hospitalized intermittently until the spring of 1890; he was voluntarily confined in the Asylum of Saint-Paul in Saint-Remy from May 1889 until May 1890. He continued to paint, however, and in June 1889 executed the Starry Night (Museum of Modern Art, New York City) and the extraordinary Self-Portrait (Louvre).

In the three months following his release from the hospital in May 1890, at the village of Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris, Vincent produced many notable works including the Portrait of Dr. Gachet (private collection, New York City), Field under Thunderclouds, and the famous Crows in the Wheatfields (both Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh).

Although Vincent had finally begun to receive critical praise, he shot himself on July 27, 1890, and died two days later. His grief-stricken brother died only six months thereafter.

1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.