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Vincent Van Gogh

"...I am overwhelmed by such a feeling of loneliness to such a horrible extent that I shy away from going out...only when I stand before my easel do I feel somewhat alive."

These words were written by Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother, who supported him throughout his entire artistic career. Was van Gogh the emotionally unstable artistic genius that popular opinion would have us believe? Apparently, yes.

Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 in a small village in Holland. The family had connections in the art world and at age 16, van Gogh was apprenticed to an art dealership. He rotated between branches of the company in London and Paris for several years, finally losing interest in dealing with art which did not appeal to his own particular taste. At age 23, he resigned his position with the company and took a teaching post. During this time van Gogh began to consider devoting his life to the church and became somewhat obsessed with Bible study.

At the age of 25, van Gogh began religious studies in Amsterdam, later moving to a coal-mining district in Belgium where the workers and their families lived in terrible poverty. Filled with compassion, van Gogh gave away many of his possessions to those under his care. Believing that his actions were too extreme, he was dismissed by his superiors. After suffering a severe depression, van Gogh began to take an interest in drawing the miners and their families. By age 27, he had abandoned his religious pursuits and began to pursue a career as an artist. It was also at this time that his brother began to support him financially, a situation that continued until van Gogh’s death. Between the ages of 27 and 31, van Gogh suffered a series of failed love relationships that caused his emotional state to deteriorate. During this time he took some art instruction and experimented with watercolors and oils, further refining his craft. He preferred portraits of the local peasants. At age 32, van Gogh painted what many consider to be his first great work, The Potato Eaters.

In 1886, van Gogh moved to Paris to live with his brother and to improve his chances of artistic success. It was in Paris that van Gogh was introduced to the works of the Impressionists which had a profound influence on his use of color. He began to move away from dark and subdued colors and adopted more vibrant hues. It was also during this time that van Gogh became interested in Japanese art and began to incorporate it into his work.

In 1888, van Gogh moved south to Arles. Although he suffered from emotional highs and lows, he was extremely productive during this period, painting a number of seaside landscapes as well as many of his most famous portraits. Later, he was joined by his friend Gauguin, with whom he had dreams of setting up an artists’ community. Although the artists’ collaboration was in many ways rewarding, it was not without a lot of turbulence. The relationship spiraled downward, culminating in the famous story about van Gogh cutting off his ear. It is believed that van Gogh attacked Gauguin with a razor during an argument and after failing to do him harm, turned the razor upon himself and sliced off his own earlobe. He then apparently wrapped the severed ear in newspaper and presented it to a local prostitute.

From then on, van Gogh’s emotional state fluctuated wildly. He was at times calm and lucid but at other times anxious and delusional. Consequently he was admitted to a mental asylum for treatment. He continued to work sporadically and produced the well-known Sunflowers. But on several occasions he experienced attacks in which he tried to poison himself by ingesting his paints. Although van Gogh’s mental state was steadily worsening, his work began to receive recognition in the art community. His Starry Night and Irises were exhibited at the famous French Salon des Indépendants in 1889.

Van Gogh’s last year contained a series of recoveries and breakdowns. He continued to work whenever he could. After a particularly serious attack, van Gogh moved closer to his brother under a doctor’s care. Surprisingly, he took a drastic turn for the better and began to paint with surprising energy, producing more than 80 paintings in the last two months of his life. It appeared that he was finally happy.

Unfortunately, van Gogh suffered a setback due to an emotional reaction to a family illness. In 1890, at the age of 37, van Gogh went for a walk and shot himself with a pistol in the chest. He died early the next morning. Despite his emotional problems and difficult personality, van Gogh was greatly mourned by his fellow artists and admired for his struggle to create what are now known as some of the most significant works of art of the era.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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