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10 things to know about Vincent Van Gogh

The Musee d’Orsay just hosted an exhibition on Vincent Van Gogh, entitled “Van Gogh a Auvers-sur-Oise” (Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise). This is the first show to focus on Van Gogh’s final months, spent in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise, 27 km from Paris. Even though he was in Auvers-sur-Oise for only 2 months, Van Gogh completed an astounding 74 paintings and 33 drawings during his time there.

Van Gogh is one of the most famous artists of all time and possibly the most famous modern artist. We know much about his personal life because of his extensive correspondences in letters with his brother, Theo. Even if you can’t make it to Paris this winter to catch the great exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay, here are 10 things that you should know about Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh is from the Netherlands

Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands to religious and austere family.
Vincent had an older brother, also named Vincent, who was stillborn on the same day one year before Vincent’s birth. Most people know that Van Gogh suffered from mental illness throughout his life. Sharing the same name and same birthday with a deceased sibling may have caused young Vincent to become sorrowful at a young age. 



Van Gogh was a preacher



Before he decided to become an artist, Van Gogh was actually a preacher. He prepared to become a minister but was denied admission to the Theology school in Amsterdam because he refused to study Latin. He then preached at a coal mine in Belgium, and while he was ministering he also drew the coal miners and their families.

Van Gogh learn to paint by himself

Vincent largely taught himself as an artist, although he did receive some formal training in The Hague, Netherlands, from a cousin of his. Van Gogh admired the Barbizon artists of France, especially Jean-Francois Millet who inspired him to paint peasant life. One of Van Gogh’s first masterpieces is “The Potato Eaters”(1885)  which depicted the harsh reality of country life. 

Vincent was very close to his brother Theo Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s younger brother, Theo, worked as an art dealer and played a crucial role in helping Vincent get started as an artist. Vincent moved to Paris, where Theo had an apartment in Montmartre. Van Gogh spent two years living there with Theo. While in Montmartre Van Gogh met the Impressionists and other modern artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and during his two years in Paris Van Gogh’s artistic style transformed, his palette getting significantly lighter.

Van Gogh lived in the South of France

Van Gogh left Paris in 1888 and headed to Arles, in the south of France. He aspired to create an utopian artist community there. The artist Paul Gauguin joined Van Gogh in October of that year at the request of Vincent’s brother Theo. The two artists lived and worked  together in “the yellow house” for weeks weeks. This period was very prolific for both of the artists and they each completed portraits of one another. However, after a particularly harsh argument Gauguin abruptly left Arles and his friend.  This was the incident which prompted Van Gogh to cut off his left ear.

Van Gogh suffered from mental illness

Following the ear incident, Van Gogh was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. Despite spending one year in the facility, he managed to complete nearly 150 paintings, including one of his most famous works, “Almond Blossom.” The hospital featured a walled garden where Vincent frequently painted, and he was even provided with a second room within the hospital premises that he could utilize as a studio.

Van Gogh was his own model for portraits

Over his career Van Gogh painted 43 self portraits. There is a simple reason for this –  Van Gogh was often too poor to actually pay for a model to sit for him. Instead, he would set up a mirror and paint himself. Vincent had an angular face, red hair and green eyes, but in each of the self portraits his appearance changes. He often looks serious in the self portraits but we can begin to discover his personality through each of these paintings. 

Van Gogh wasn’t successful during his lifetime

Van Gogh’s paintings are now some of the most expensive paintings in the entire world, however during his lifetime the artist was relatively unknown. In early 1890, the year of his death, an Independent artists exhibition was held in Brussels called “Les Vingt”. Ten of Van Gogh’s works were selected for the show, and the response was positive. Theo wrote to his brother to let him know the show was a success and that he was starting to get positive recognition for his work.

Van Gogh killed himself

Another one of Van Gogh’s most famous works is the portrait of his doctor Paul Gachet. Gachet was a homeopathic doctor who was connected with several artists of the time. Theo helped to have Gachet become Vincent’s doctor following his release from the psychiatric hospital. In the portrait, Van Gogh shows Dr. Gachet holding a sprig of foxglove, a plant known for its curative properties. The doctor did not give Vincent medical treatment, but instead the artist would go to the doctor’s home to talk with him regularly. The doctor encouraged Vincent to keep working on his art. Despite Gachet’s best efforts to help Van Gogh during his mental health struggles, Vincent set out for work on July 27, 1890 to paint in a field. He is believed to have shot himself in the stomach. He died two days later with Theo at his bedside. From his letters in July before the suicide we can see that Van Gogh’s mental health was deteriorating before the incident.

Vincent Van Gogh became known thanks to Jo Bonger.

Theo Van Gogh’s wife Jo Bonger is responsible for Vincent Van Gogh becoming a world famous artist. When Theo died just six months after Vincent, Jo was left with her late husband’s collection of Van Gogh’s artworks. While Theo was alive it was his goal to make his brother’s art known, so Jo felt it was her responsibility to fulfill this wish. She began to organize exhibitions and sales of Van Gogh’s work.

In addition to the current exhibition, you can see some of Van Gogh’s masterpieces here in Paris at the Musee d’Orsay. 

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Article written by Sarah

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