Vincent van Gogh Biography

Vincent van Gogh
Each Vincent van Gogh painting seems to speak to the viewer directly. Paintings by Vincent van Gogh, with their twisted figures, surrealistic elements and innovative use of color demonstrate the passion and the depth of feeling of the man who created them. Overlay these dramatic images with the tragic van Gogh biography, and it's easy to see why van Gogh paintings are some of the most treasured and replicated images in modern art. 


Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in Holland. Van Gogh was, by all accounts, a sensitive and withdrawn child. He was extremely close to his brother, Theo. The two would form a tight bond during childhood that would endure throughout the artist's lifetime.

Van Gogh began painting and drawing as a teenager, and began working for an art dealer when he was 16 years old. He didn't enjoy the work, and was dismissed for his lack of motivation. His coworkers also complained that van Gogh was irritable and hard to work with. Researchers suggest that van Gogh struggled with schizophrenia throughout his life. This disease typically begins early adulthood; it's possible that van Gogh began struggling with inappropriate behavior as a result of his disease during this time in his life. After he left the art dealership, he began working as a preacher for miners in Belgium. Once again, he was dismissed for his eccentricity and strange behavior.

Van Gogh was devastated by the loss of his jobs. He felt his purpose in life was to help people, and he was passionate about others. However, his behavior was often so strange and hard for people to understand, so they shunned him. Van Gogh decided to express his love for his fellow man through his work. From this point onward, van Gogh paintings would express what he was unable to express in person.

Early Career

In 1880, Vincent van Gogh began painting in earnest. These early paintings by van Gogh demonstrate a prototypical Dutch style. A famous van Gogh painting from this period is The Potato Eaters, completed in 1885. The color palette here is restrained to browns, blacks and yellows. One central light source illuminates the scene. Figures cluster around a table for dinner, in an image of domesticity and tranquility so prized by Dutch painters of the time. But this van Gogh painting is also quite innovative. Van Gogh was interested in painting working people who were just scraping by on their labors. He wasn't interested in painting portraits of the wealthy, as his Dutch contemporaries so often did. His love of the common man makes van Gogh artwork of this period so moving to modern viewers, but it didn't strike a chord with his contemporaries, and these early works were largely ignored.

Blossoming Artist

In 1886, van Gogh moved in with his brother in Paris. This would prove a fruitful move for the artist, as he would meet and become enamored with Impressionist painters such as Pisarro and Degas. He would learn to use a brighter, lighter color palette and heavier, quicker brushstrokes. A Vincent van Gogh painting from this period would look dramatically different from previous works, and would contain aspects of both Impressionism and Pointillism. During this time period, van Gogh would also meet the artist Paul Gauguin. This friendship would be a fruitful source of inspiration, sparking the creation of the famous van Gogh Sunflowers series of paintings.

In 1888, van Gogh hoped to open an artist's colony in Arles, and moved there to prepare. This is a sunny vacation spot, and the climate would deeply influence the van Gogh paintings produced there. He bought a house, and got confirmation that Gauguin would come to stay with him for a time. He painted his guest room a sunny yellow, and then realized he needed wall decorations. Van Gogh "Sunflowers" were painted to decorate Gauguin's room. These are incredibly hopeful, bright paintings drenched in a deep, bright yellow. Sunflowers wilt extremely quickly, so the paintings were executed in record time. The images also seem to contain the entire cycle of life, from the seeds, to the blossom of health to the wilting of death. Van Gogh's "Sunflower" paintings are some of the most recognizable, beloved images he ever generated.

Over 200 van Gogh paintings were completed during his time in Arles. As a person, however, this was a difficult time for the artist. He had frequent dizzy and fainting spells in public places, alienating his neighbors and the townspeople, who found him strange. Gauguin did come to visit, but the two artists quarreled frequently and fought dramatically. It has long been said that van Gogh cut off his own ear in a fit of melancholy after a fight. Experts now believe that Gauguin actually cut off van Gogh's ear with a sword during a physical altercation, although van Gogh did not press charges.


In 1889, van Gogh entered an asylum at Saint Remy. His mental illness was growing worse, and he struggled to differentiate reality from fantasy. He often thought God was speaking to him directly. In Starry Night, van Gogh shows a whirling, dizzying mass of stars and an incredible moon hanging above in the heavens, while the dark city below seems to pay no mind. In "Starry Night," van Gogh seems to imply that the heavens are active and alive, but only he can see it.

Van Gogh would never truly heal. While he continued painting, and enjoyed moments of clarity and happiness, his depression and anxiety worsened. In 1890, he moved to a private clinic in Auvers. His depression deepened, and he committed suicide in 1890 via a gunshot to the chest.

His Legacy

No van Gogh biography would be complete without a mention of the vast archive of letters left behind between Vincent and Theo. These letters demonstrate Vincent's passion, as well as his illness, and have informed scholars about his techniques.
In total, there are 900 van Gogh paintings, and 1,100 drawings. The artist sold only one painting during his lifetime. He wouldn't achieve universal fame until 1901, when his paintings were exhibited in Paris.