From his vibrant sunflowers to his moody landscapes, introspective self-portraits, Starry Night (1889) and more, Van Gogh’s art has become iconic. It’s hard to believe that, during his lifetime, Van Gogh’s art was not appreciated. He has, in fact, become the art world’s archetype of the ‘misunderstood genius’. The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, currently the hottest ticket in Chicago, delves into the mind of the artist, bringing his work to life – but with truth often stranger than fiction, is it even possible to untangle the myths from the man?
Born into an upper-middle class family in a small town in the Dutch countryside in 1853, Vincent Willem Van Gogh had a strange cross to bear from a very young age. He was born exactly a year after a still-born brother, also named Vincent Willem Van Gogh. Every time he went to church, where his father was the minister, he would walk past a gravestone bearing his name – is this perhaps the reason for his quiet introspection as a child?
Van Gogh loved nature, and immersed himself in the Dutch countryside on long, solitary excursions. These explorations became less solitary with the arrival of his younger brother, Theo van Gogh, near identical in looks to Vincent, who would become his closest companion and confidant.
At the age of 11, Van Gogh was harshly cut off from the world he knew and loved when he was sent to a boarding school about 30km away from his family. In his later life he recalled the experience of his parents leaving him behind as they drove off in a yellow car – yellow would come to represent ever-elusive happiness in his paintings.
At the age of 16 Van Gogh was sent to apprentice with his uncle, a very successful art dealer. Eventually Theo would join the same company, but in a different city. Van Gogh was overjoyed by this, and started a correspondence with his brother that would eventually comprise more than 800 letters – letters that to this day offer scintillating insights into Van Gogh’s art and psyche.
His work for the art dealership took him to many new places. At the age of 19, Van Gogh was based in London. Although he initially enjoyed what the English capitol had to offer, he soon became disillusioned with the commercialization of art. He was more interested in the art itself, rather than the monetary value attached to it. This, combined with a rejected marriage proposal, inspired Van Gogh to turn to religion, and he started consuming the Bible almost obsessively.
At the age of 23, Van Gogh decided to give up everything and become a missionary. He finally found a flock to guide in Petit-Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. The scenes of poverty he encountered here inspired him to draw what he saw in order to share it with Theo. In solidarity with those he preached to, Van Gogh started sleeping on straw, eating sparingly and neglecting his ablutions. Although he was liked by most, he was seen as a madman. His antics also did not endear him to the church. Eventually his father decided to intervene, and visited Van Gogh.
At 27, almost on a whim, Van Gogh decided to leave his missionary behind. He left on foot for Brussels, his mind now set on becoming an artist. Here he enrolled at the Academy of Arts, but lecturers questioned his skills and future as an artist as he had not mastered even the most basic of techniques. He left the academy and started drawing at a feverish pace – drawing and redrawing works of artists he admired.
He eventually decided to go to The Hague, where Anton Mauve, a cousin by marriage, was a respected artist. Mauve took Van Gogh on as an apprentice, and introduced him to watercolors and oil paints – the medium Van Gogh would fall in love with. Van Gogh painted his first oil painting at the age of 28. His palette consisted of darker, earthy tones, far removed from the vibrant colors he would become renowned for. Eventually the relationship between Mauve and Van Gogh soured, and Van Gogh again set out in search of inspiration.
Van Gogh traversed the Dutch countryside, where peasants became the focus of his art. He spent 7 months preparing for what he thought would be his masterpiece – The Potato Eaters (1885). Although this was the first of his paintings Van Gogh considered worthy, it generated little interest at the time.
Again, it was time to move on. The next stop for Van Gogh was Antwerpe. In this city Van Gogh discovered and indulged in new vices – absinthe and brothels. Here we would become an alcoholic, a condition that plagued him for the rest of his life. This is also where he contacted the ‘French disease’, as syphilis was referred to at the time. At the time this was a terminal diagnosis, and Van Gogh knew his time was limited. His painting, Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (1886), is most likely a shout of defiance against the dying of the light, upon learning of his condition.
Again it was time for Van Gogh to pack up and find someplace else to begin anew. This time he decided to turn to his devoted brother, Theo, in Paris. He arrived here in 1886, aged 33. Theo happily housed and fed Vincent, allowing him the freedom to devote himself to his art. Through Theo, who was a successful art dealer, Van Gogh was introduced to the Impressionists. He was mesmerized by their bold use of bright colours. He also discovered Japanese art, and feverishly reimagined and painted Japanese prints in his own style.
By sampling from different genres of art and styles of painting, Van Gogh was developing his own iconic style. After only 2 years in Paris, his work had been transformed. This is when he started signing his ‘worthy’ paintings as Vincent.
However, despite the comfort he found in Paris, Van Gogh was longing to once again lose himself in nature – he was in search of colors and inspiration the monochromatic Parisian streets simply did not offer.
In the winter of 1888, aged 35, Vincent set out to explore the south of France. In two years, he would be dead. His time was not idly spent, however. In these 2 years he would paint some of his most iconic works.
Almost by accident, Vincent stumbled upon Arles on his journey south. He was dazzled by the colors and sunshine, and found the surrounding landscapes reminiscent of the Japanese prints he so loved. Again, he started losing himself in nature on long, solitary walks.
Vincent started painting at a frantic pace, maybe sensing the steady, unstoppable approach of the void. He perfected his own style of quick, short brushstrokes, and with an almost machine-like speed, was able to produce up to three masterpieces a day.
Vincent found lodgings in the Yellow House. Although he had found the perfect setting for his art and psyche, he felt isolated from people – the locals treated his art with indifference. He determined that Arles would be the perfect haven for artists, and set about writing to artists he admired to join him.
The only artist enticed by Vincent’s proposal was Paul Gauguin. In October of 1888, Gauguin joined Vincent in Arles. They shared a room and devoted themselves to painting. They flourished together, but soon cracks started to appear in their friendship. They had fundamental differences in opinion when it came to the goal of art, and the lack of privacy added pressure on their differences. Vincent also started drinking copious amounts of absinthe again, which would lead to intense psychotic episodes. Things came to a head in December 1888, when after a heated argument, Gauguin left to spend the night at a brothel. Upon his return the next morning, he found a bloody scene in their shared room – Vincent had severed a part of his ear. Gaugain alerted authorities and departed without saying goodbye to Vincent. The two would never see each other again.
After the infamous ear incident, Vincent voluntarily committed himself. He returned to the Yellow House in Arles in January of 1889, but his neighbors and the townsfolk were not happy to have him back. They started a petition to have Vincent committed to an asylum.
Feeling dejected and rejected, Vincent consented to being committed. He spent a year at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum. While committed, he suffered from intense episodes of crises. He more than once tried to poison himself by drinking painting supplies, which led to his supplies being confiscated for periods. Between his bouts of self-destruction, however, Vincent was painting as if possessed. He hoped painting would save him from himself, and threw himself into his work. Starry Night (1889) is one of the many masterpieces he would paint while committed.
In May 1890, at the age of 37, Vincent left the asylum. He would die before the end of July.
Theo wanted to bring Vincent to Paris, and set him up in a village about 30km away. Vincent started to paint at a frantic pace, again losing himself in nature. He was especially moved by the loneliness of the surrounding wheat fields. He depicted this in several paintings, including
Wheatfield with Crows (1890), one of the last paintings he ever painted. It depicts yellow wheatfields contrasted by turbulent, moody skies.
Two days before his death, Vincent set out to paint in the wheat fields, returning home very late. No one knows exactly what followed, but the next day he was found crying in pain. He admitted to shooting himself in the stomach.
His brother, Theo, rushed to his side. After two days of agony, Vincent died on 29 July 1890, aged 37. He would leave behind numerous paintings that Theo distributed to his friends as keepsakes. The paintings were seen as having no value, simply reminders of a slightly mad artist.
Tragically, Theo would die 6 months later, and be buried next to the brother whose genius only he seemed to understand.
Vincent’s art was rediscovered in the 1920s, and 30 years after his death he started to garner critical acclaim. From the age of 27 to 37, he painted more than 800 paintings, and only ever sold one. Today his paintings are listed among the most expensive in the world. As his renown as an artist grew, so too did our fascination with the man behind the art – a visionary far ahead of his times.