In many ways, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh is the epitome of the poor artist, the creator who struggled against limited contemporary recognition and the ever-present threat of poverty during his brief life. While his works were lauded to a degree in his lifetime by many of his peers, it is famously known that he sold only one work while he was alive. Today, his paintings sell for many millions and are widely lauded for their use of vibrant colour. Van Gogh’s living ambition to become a successful artist was never met, at least by commercial standards and by the time of his death from suicide in 1890, he had produced over 800 paintings, many of which were crafted in a creative burst in the two years preceding his death.
Van Gogh was born Vincent Willem van Gogh, 30 March 1853 in the southern Dutch village of Zundert, close to the Belgian border (Bernard 1985). He was named both for his paternal grandfather and an older brother who had predeceased him a year earlier (Muccini 1973). His father was a Dutch Protestant minister and his mother was is what would be called a homemaker today. He had several other surviving brothers and sisters, one of which, Theo, would remain his closest friend and confidante throughout his life, and frequently a source for his financial backing and support. Without Theo’s continued patronage and support, it is doubtful van Gogh would ever have painted anywhere near the volume he did (Bernard 1985).
It is clear from van Gogh’s personal letters (which number in the hundreds1) that his adult life was a continuing series of struggles to remain solvent and yet remain free to pursue his passion, which is reflected in the varied career paths he took. After leaving school, an uncle also named Vincent offered van Gogh a position as a clerk in an art dealership, the Goupil Art Gallery, in The Hague. At the age of twenty, he was sent by his employer to London, where he lived in the southern suburb of Brixton (Bernard 1985). At this stage in his life, he had not yet turned to painting as a creative outlet, instead he was a prolific drawer, and quite frequently illustrated the letters he sent2. He continued to illustrate his letters to his death. Initially, he wrote in his native Dutch language, but in later life, his correspondence was in French, the tongue of his adopted homeland (Bernard 1985).
About the time of his life in Brixton, he became keenly interested in British art and literature, especially the illustrations found in several British magazines. However, whatever progress he was making in his career was undone by his fascination for his landlady’s daughter Eugenie, a love that was not reciprocated. This failure led him to be transferred to Paris in 1874 and after two years, he was dismissed, reportedly for reproaching a customer (Muccini 1973). During this period, the concept of becoming an artist as a profession was germinating within van Gogh but the economic necessities of living from hand to mouth made that little more than a dream.
This was a motif that was to plague van Gogh for the remainder of his life. His letters indicate a keenness to find a woman and live the stable settled life he envisioned that marriage would bring. With that done, he could concentrate on the business of his art and receive commercial acceptance for his work as well as critical. Although he dwelled with several women, one of whom was a former prostitute3, there was no marriage and the unions never produced children. It was also clear from his letters that he felt these relationships were counter-productive to his art, even if they provided modelling subjects and a respite from loneliness. At the time of his suicide in 1890, van Gogh was alone (Pickvance 1987).
His letters and testimony from others depict a man willing and ready to shelve all other concerns in pursuit of his art. Frequently, he went without food so he could buy paint supplies, never flagging in his belief that his art and passion could become his career. As stated earlier, he sold only one painting commercially in his lifetime, the red vineyards near Arles and that was for 400 francs, worth about $1000 American dollars today (Pickvance 1987). That is one artwork out of the over 2100 he produced and it has to be remembered that he did not begin painting earnestly until the last ten years of his life. Whatever his commercial failure during life, he is now regarded as the one of the foremost painters in history.
Bernard, B (ed) 1985, Vincent by himself, Time Warner Books: London
Muccini, P 1973, Historical characters: Van Gogh, McGraw-Hill: Singapore
Pickvance, R 1987, Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers, MetPublications: New York