Born in the
Netherlands in 1853, Vincent van Gogh was the first of six children born to
Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Rev’d Theodorus van Gogh, a Protestant minister.
Sober and reserved, traits exacerbated by his unhappy time at boarding school,
as a child van Gogh showed no natural inclination toward art. Aged 16, van Gogh
began to work in The Hague. Four years later, van Gogh was transferred to the
Groupil Gallery, London, where he found an affinity for British culture,
visiting art galleries and reading the works of British authors. Following a
rejected marriage proposal to his landlady’s daughter, Van Gogh suffered a
mental breakdown, and was shortly after fired from his job for telling clients
to not waste money buying ‘worthless art’. Van Gogh became deeply religious,
and began teaching at a Methodist school. Van Gogh considered joining the
clergy, but was denied entrance to the School of Theology after refusing to
learn Latin. In winter 1878, van Gogh began work preaching and ministering to a
mining town where he aided the sick, earning him the sobriquet ‘Christ of the
Coal Mines’, and drew portaits of the miners and their families. Displeased
with van Gogh’s lifestyle, the church chose not to renew his contract, and van
Gogh was forced to find another occupation.
Despite having no
formal art training, in 1880 van Gogh decided to pursue a career as an artist,
with financial support from his brother Theo. Painting helped van Gogh remain
balanced, and in ’85 he produced the painting considered to be his first
masterpiece, a group portrait entitled ‘The Potato Eaters’. After moving,
uninvited, into his brother’s Parisian apartment in 1886, van Gogh encountered
impressionist art, and became enamoured by the vibrant colours. After studying
Japanese art, van Gogh dreamed about travelling to Japan, but never did so at
the insistence of close friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, instead moving to
Arles, in southern France, where he was known to prefer spending money on
paints over food.
By December 1888, van
Gogh was a regular turps drinker. Concerned, his brother Theo arranged for
artist Paul Gauguin to monitor van Gogh. Less than a month later, van Gogh and
Gauguin had an argument, after which van Gogh famously severed his own left
ear, which he gave to a prostitute. After this unfortunate incident, van Gogh
was put into the Hotel-Dieu hospital by the police. Visited by his brother, van
Gogh suffered severe dehydration and violent seizures, but was expected to
recover, according to doctors. In 1889, van Gogh was released. Alone and
depressed, van Gogh was again hospitalised soon after.
After the local
people signed a petition denouncing him as a threat, van Gogh was moved to the
Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he painted
pictures of the gardens. In 1889, van Gogh received an invitation to exhibit
his work in Brussels. Van Gogh accepted, and sent six works, including ‘Irises’
and ‘Starry Night’.
In January 1890, Theo
and his wife had a son, who they named after van Gogh. Later that same year,
penniless and suffering severe mental health problems, van Gogh commited
suicide via gunshot wound.
Van Gogh’s portraits
are extremely well known, firstly for their use of colour and bold, dramatic
brushstrokes, but also the emotional insight into the subject, demonstrating
the ability of the painter to form deep bonds with those who chose to sit for
him. The skilful composition of van Gogh’s portraits is most evident in the
several paintings of the Roulin Family he did in Arles. Having the subject wear
a primary colour, with the background a contrasting colour, van Gogh selected
both to generate a certain emotion from the viewer. In his second portrait of
Armand Roulin, van Gogh positioned nearly all elements to indicate sadness, hat
tipped down, using greens and blues shifted toward the dark side. His portrait
of Camille Roulin, however, uses far happier colours, with the stark yellow
background indicative of sunlight, reflective of the innocence and carefree
quality found in young children like Camille.
The realism of van
Gogh’s portraits differed vastly between each work, the artist preferring to
get a feel for the subject before beginning a new work. While some portraits
are near-photographic representations of the subject, some give far more into
emotion, creating a portrait which provides profound insight into the subject.