VINCENT VAN GOGH: The “Mad” Painter

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh - photo by Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter who lived in the latter half of the 19th century. He was best known for his post-impressionistic style of painting and his use of bold colours and empathic brushwork, a highly innovative art style during his time. Van Gogh lived and personified image of the struggling and tortured artist. He suffered from mental illness his whole life, which led to his early death at his own hands.

Van Gogh was a relative unknown who couldn’t even sell his paintings during his lifetime. Years after his death though, his genius as an artist has become widely recognised and even celebrated. His paintings and drawings are now considered great pieces, very aesthetically pleasing, and can command high prices if they ever come up for sale. His art style has become an inspiration to many artists, and his influence on the art world can be still be seen even up to this day. More than a century after his passing, van Gogh has become a popular icon, known even to those who only have a passing interest in art. He may well be the most famous painter who ever lived.

Early Life

Vincent van Gogh in 1873, when he worked at the Goupil & Cie gallery in The Hague – photo by Wikipedia

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in the town of Zundert in the province of Brabant in the Netherlands. He was born on the 30th of March 1853 to Theodorus van Gogh, a protestant minister, and Anna Carbentus. He was the eldest of six children, and he had three sisters and two brothers. One of his brothers, Theo, became his lifelong friend, confidante, and supporter.

As a young child, Vincent was encouraged by his mother to draw, and he demonstrated a talent for it. However, his first real exposure to art came when he was 16. His uncle, who was also named Vincent, gave him an apprenticeship at a branch of the art dealership Goupil & Cie. The branch was in The Hague, and his uncle happened to be one of the partners there. Vincent’s experience with the dealership sparked in him his longing to create art, a longing he had to endure until he started painting years later.

Van Gogh worked for Goupil & Cie for a time. During this period, he was moved to the London office, and then to the Paris office. Soon after being transferred to Paris, he left the company after disagreeing with its policies.

Bedroom in Arles (first version), 1888, Vincent van Gogh – photo by Musée d’Orsay, Paris

After Paris, van Gogh went back to England where he worked as a language teacher and lay preacher. In 1877, he went back home to the Netherlands to live with his parents. His parents by that time had moved to the town of Etten. While there, he worked as a bookseller.

Compelled to serve, van Gogh tried to become a minister like his father. He sought admission to the University of Amsterdam to study theology but was not able to enter. He also took a short-term course to become a missionary but failed there as well.

In 1879, he took up a post as a missionary in Borinage, Belgium, serving a poor mining town there. It was there that he first saw the true face of poverty, a subject that would become very prominent in his early works. He was later dismissed from the service for being overly zealous.

Café Terrace at Night, 1888, Vincent van Gogh – photo by Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Despondent about being dismissed, Vincent went back home. While there, he was urged by his brother Theo to start taking up art in earnest until Vincent agreed. It is worth noting that at this time, Theo has become the manager of the Goupil & Cie branch in Paris and has started to support Vincent financially.

Van Gogh later moved to Brussels to study with the Dutch artist Willem Roelofs. He then attended the Academie Royale Des Beaux-Arts where he studied anatomy and the rules of modelling and perspective. Thus started the decade where van Gogh would create art.

The Decade of Art

Van Gogh only had a very short career as an artist. It lasted ten short years, from 1880 to 1890. The first four years of that decade he spent on getting the technical proficiency needed to better his art. In these early years, he limited himself to only drawing and the use of watercolours. Van Gogh’s training began when, as earlier mentioned, he went to Brussels to study drawing at the academy there.

A year later, he went back to his parent’s home to do some self-training. He soon realised that this was not enough and he needed more guidance to improve. He later left for The Hague to work with another Dutch painter, a cousin named Anton Mauve. While there, he also visited museums and conferred with other artists. In doing so, he expanded his technical knowledge and, in 1882, he added painting with oil to his repertoire. He then spent the next few years either spending his time “alone with nature” to paint or at his parent’s home which, at this point, has moved from Etten to Nuenen.

The Potato Eaters, 1885, Vincent van Gogh – photo by Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

By 1885, van Gogh’s art style has grown bolder and more self-assured. The paintings he created during this period were sharply lit with a sombre tone to them. His best-known piece during this era was The Potato Eaters, a painting of five people in a room sitting around a table eating potatoes while an oil lamp from above lighted the whole scene.

In 1886, van Gogh again left his family home to study at the Antwerp Academy in Belgium. Three months later, though, he left Antwerp to join his brother Theo in Paris. While there, van Gogh was exposed to French painters and learned about the latest in French painting. It was during his time in Paris, from 1886 to 1888, when he created his own idiom and brush style. It was also during this time when his art started to become more colourful and less traditional.

The Night Cafe, 1888, Vincent van Gogh – photo by

By 1887, he was only using pure colours in his paintings, not to mention that his brushwork had a broken, almost pointillistic look to it. By 1888, he has achieved what is now known as his Post-Impressionist style. Some of the artwork he created during these years was the Portrait of Pere Tanguy and The Night Cafe. He also started doing a series of self-portraits during this time.

After staying two years in Paris, van Gogh grew tired of city living. Longing to get back to nature, he left the city to live in Arles located in southeast France. Van Gogh would stay there for the better part of a year. He continued painting in Arles, sticking mostly to his favourite subjects: still life, landscapes, and portraits. His artistic style also grew during this period. He steered away from more traditional techniques and freely embraced his individual style. The year van Gogh was in Arles is considered one of the great periods in his career. Examples of his art at this point of his career were, Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, Harvest at La Crau, and the ever-popular Starry Night.

Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, 1888, Vincent van Gogh – photo by National Gallery, London

Van Gogh also tried, during this period, to create an impressionist group based in Arles. To this end, he invited a number of impressionist artists to stay with him at a house he rented there. The painter Paul Gauguin accepted his invitation, and for two months they worked together. This partnership proved to be both advantageous and ultimately disastrous to van Gogh. Both artists did influence each other while they were together to the benefit of their art, but their beliefs and attitudes were so opposed that the relationship ended with van Gogh suffering from a severed left ear. It was not clear whether the injury was from Gauguin attacking him with a razor or was self-inflicted. Gauguin left for Paris, and van Gogh stayed in a hospital for two weeks. Van Gogh would later paint self-portraits that featured his bandaged ear.

Declining Mental Health and Death

The incident with Gauguin may or may not have triggered the start of the deterioration of van Gogh’s mental stability. But this much is certain: he started to have more mental troubles afterward. Even early on, van Gogh was prone to suffer from depression. But from this point on, that depression would have been more than bearable for him. After his brief stay at the hospital to tend to his wounds, he went back home to paint. Weeks later, he started to have bouts of mental disturbance.

Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889, Vincent van Gogh – photo by

Fearing that it would hinder his capacity to work, van Gogh checked himself into an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence so he could be supervised medically. While there, he continued painting, although intermittently, in between recurring attacks of depression. And this reflected on his work. His works around this time had a certain sadness to them as can be seen in his painting Wheat Fields with Cypresses. This was one of the best paintings that he had produced during this period. He stayed in the asylum for another 12 months before checking himself out.

Van Gogh’s time at the asylum made him very homesick. He also missed his brother very much. After leaving the hospital, he moved back to Paris with his brother. Van Gogh only stayed with Theo for a little while before moving to stay with Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a homeopathic doctor-artist who lived at Auvers-sur-Olse. This change of location and being with other artists like Gachet helped lighten his mood and helped him work more enthusiastically. This did not last long, however. His perceived inability to succeed, his guilt over being a burden to his brother, and his frequent quarrels with Gachet proved too much for him.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh – photo by Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

On July 27, 1890, van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a pistol. He died two days later. His brother, Theo, who was his lifelong friend and supporter, was heartbroken by his brother’s passing. This, as well as his poor health, may have contributed to Theo also passing away six months later.

There is some speculation as to what his last painting was. Some say it was Wheat Field with Crows, but others say it was Daugbigny’s Garden. Still, the paintings he made during the last few years of his life are considered the best he ever made.


Vincent Van Gogh cannot be considered a successful man during his lifetime. It can even be considered a tortured existence. Considering the way he died, there is some truth to that. Still, if you ever see any of his artworks, you cannot help but be moved by them. If you ever hear his life story ever told, you cannot help but be moved by it. There is great melancholy in both his life and art, but there is also great beauty in it. And the beauty shines through the sadness.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, Vincent van Gogh – photo by The Courtauld Gallery, London

Nowadays, Vincent van Gogh is no longer just an artist who lived over a hundred years ago. He has become an icon. His influence can still be seen, not just in the art world but in the world in general.

Van Gogh and his art have now become part of the popular culture, so much so that there are books, poems, songs, movies and TV shows made about him. There is even a museum dedicated to him and his art.

Decades after his tragic end, he is now recognised for what he truly was: an artistic genius and perhaps the greatest artist the world has ever known.