Vincent Van Gogh – The Life of an Artist

We were fortunate enough to have an exhibition of some of the works of Vincent Van Gogh come to the NGV this year, which has made me expedite my post on my visit to the museum that is dedicated to his works – the main reason being that I really can’t write a post about the exhibition at the NGV (the National Gallery of Victoria, which in my opinion is by far the best art gallery in Australia) without first writing a post about my experience at the titular museum in Amsterdam. The problem was that you aren’t actually allowed to take photos in the museum, the main reason being that because he is such a popular artist the museum is going to be crowded and if everybody were to stop to take photos of the paintings then it is basically going to ruin it for everybody. Fortunately the museum actually have posted all of their paintings on the web, so even though I left my notebook in my bag, I am fortunate enough to be able to simply go to their website and use that, as well as the notes I made on my mobile phone, as inspiration for this post.
When I was in Amsterdam (and I have to admit that Amsterdam is by far one of my favourite cities, up there with Paris, London, Melbourne, and Hong Kong) I also ended up being there during Gay Pride Week, which meant that the city was absolutely packed. Fortunately I was able to cut the huge line waiting to get into the museum, but that didn’t mean that maneuvering through the crowds was any less easier. The other thing that I should mention is that the staff at the museum have eyes like hawks because as soon as you raise a camera (or a mobile phone) to take a picture they are suddenly standing behind you politely requesting that you don’t take photos. However, as I’ve mentioned, it has nothing to do with them not wanting people to take the images outside of the museum, but rather to enable people to flow through much better (and further, photos of paintings tend to be of a much worse quality anyway), since I was able to download, and post, the following paintings directly from their website (as long as I don’t make money from it).

The Museum

I probably should say a few words on the museum (as well as providing a link) before moving on to Van Gogh himself (though I am probably going to focus more on his art than upon his life – you can always find out about his life from Wikipedia). When Van Gogh died from a self inflicted gun shot wound, his works passed on to his brother, then onto his brother’s widow. Interestingly, two days before he died, an article appeared (I believe by Emile Bernard, a painter and an art critic) praising the works of Van Gogh, however Van Gogh never saw this article before taking his life.
His brother Theo died six months later, and his widow Joanna van Gogh-Berger, took possession of his artwork and began an incredible marketing exhibition in an attempt to promote his as an artist. Mind you, it was at this time that the fame that seemed to be so fleeting during his life was starting gain traction. Of the artwork that wasn’t sold, it was put on display in the Stedelijk Musuem (though it still remained in the possession of the Van Gogh estate).

In 1963 the government of the Netherlands decided to establish a museum dedicated entirely to Van Gogh and his life, though the museum wasn’t completed until 1973. The museum has since gone through numerous periods of rennovations. Security at the museum is incredibly tight, and in fact not only do you go through your standard metal detectors, but you also have a photo taken of you when you enter (which is why they insist on you removing hats and sunglasses). Interestingly, in 1991, numerous paintings were stolen from the museum, and even though they were recovered a short time after, a couple of them were severely damaged. As it turned out it was an inside job.

Anyway, this post isn’t so much on the museum, though I probably could have easily posted this on my travel blog. Another thing that I have since discovered is that not only are all of the works on display on the museum’s website, but pretty much all of the text in the museum is there as well, so it didn’t matter all that much that I didn’t get an opportunity to take any photos. However, even though you can pretty much learn all about Van Gogh and view the paintings simply by going to the website, there still is something magical about actually visiting the museum.

Early Life

Van Gogh grew up in the town of Nuenen in the Netherlands to a father who was a pastor of the local church. He was a bit of a loner, preferring to be home schooled than actually attending proper schools. This probably had a lot to do with his mother being a very family orientated person. While they weren’t wealthy, they were comfortable with the church providing the family for most of their needs. As an artist, Van Gogh began at an early age through drawing, something that was encouraged by his mother. Van Gogh was actually a deeply unhappy child, which is probably quite reflective of the serious mental illness that was to plague his adult years. For a time he worked for the art dealers Goupil & Cie, and this actually seemed to fulfil him for a time, and he made a pretty decent amount of money as well. However that wasn’t to last and he eventually found himself back in the Netherlands were decided to become a pastor, however this didn’t work out either. It was when he lodged with a miner in 1880 and began producing works of art based on the ordinary life about him that he was encouraged to become an artist.
Jules Breton – Peasant Girl with Hoe
This actually didn’t go down all that well with his parents, who viewed this idea as not just as a sign of failure, but also as a sign that maybe their eldest was lazy (it seems that a lot of people want to become writers and artists because they view this as an easy road to riches). However, Van Gogh’s brother Theo actively encouraged him, and even agreed to financially support him. However this time with his family didn’t last all that long because he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos, who was also a widow. She basically didn’t want anything to do with him, and he was eventually forced to move out following a row.
It was then that he moved to the Hague where we lived with his cousin Mauve, who was also an artist (and an established one at that). He also received his first commissioned works from an uncle who requested that he paint a number scenes in and around the Hague. However, never being too far from controversy, he met a woman named Sien Hoondrik, who was not only a single mother, but also a former prostitute. She became both a model and his lover – needless to say that his parents didn’t approve. However, this relation didn’t work out and Van Gogh eventually broke up with her and then moved back in with his parents.
Anton Mauve – Donkey Stand at the Beach
Bridge and Houses on the Corner of Herengracht-Prinsessegracht
It was here where Van Gogh painted ‘The Potato Eaters’ – not one of his most famous works (since the really famous ones aren’t actually in the museum), but one of his earlier works which began to establish his ability as an artist. However, this wasn’t to take on as it was too dark and dreary for the Paris Art Market, who preferred bright colours. However, this painting certainly shows a very dark and gritty early period, a period when he was still finding his way, and a time where most of his money was spent on art materials. He spent most of this time in the studio out the back of his parent’s house, but then made the decision that he needed to learn more, a lot more, and left home for Antwerp, never to return.

Coming on his own

While there was a lot in Antwerp, it wasn’t really all that much to Vincent’s taste. The thing was that despite the availability of models and churches, the artistic community was way too conservative, and Van Gogh really didn’t want to go down the conservative path – he didn’t want to follow the pack, he wanted to break out on his own and develop his own unique style. As such he pretty soon packed his bags and made his way to Paris, which at the time was the centre of the artistic community.
His brother Theo was working in Paris at the time for the art dealers Goupil, though Theo was a little put out with his older brother turning up unannounced. However, he used the opportunity to introduce Van Gogh to the community that had been built up around the area of Montmatre, and here he met the likes of Monet. However, true to himself, he didn’t follow the path of the impressionists, which had pretty much because the standard form of art of the day, but instead moved over to the new generation of artists – later to become known as the post impressionists. Here was was influenced by the likes of Emile Bernard and Paul Gaugin.
The Hill of Montematre
Before I go on, even though I was supposed to say much more about his art than his life, it seems as if I am spending more time on his life. However, looking at the painting above, we see a much different version of Montematre than what I saw when I was in Paris recently. Mind you, Paris in the 21st century is what you would consider to be a sprawl, and the city has sprawled out over Montematre and beyond. Yet in Van Gogh’s day it seemed as it still retained much of its rural character. Mind you, a visit to Montematre is amazing as you suddenly discover that you are surrounded by the art of the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists, and you even find artists out on the streets, painting as well as attempting to sell their works.
It was in Paris that Van Gogh moved away from the dark and gritty paintings of his earlier days to the bright and colourful paintings of his that we know and love. In Paris he began to develop his style of small brush strokes, and also natural paintings, either of the country scenes, still lifes, and the hustle and bustle of the city. His brother had access to a lot of Japanese wood carvings, and this also inspired Van Gogh. In fact he painted quite a lot of paintings using the traditional Japanese method (since Japanese art was incredibly popular at the time). However, he didn’t use models namely because in Paris they were pretty expensive. In the end though, Van Gogh wasn’t a city person, and decided to leave Paris and caught a train to Arles in the South of France.
View of Paris
Boulevard de Clichy
The next painting is an example of his Japanese artwork, something that I never realised that he did until I visited the museum. I have to admit that this is a side of Van Gogh that was quite surprising, though in many cases it was the colours that really stand out, and what Van Gogh has become famous for.
Courtesan (after Eisen)


It was here in Arles that Van Gogh painted some of his most famous paintings, and really came to his own as an artist. He rented a house which is known as ‘The Yellow House’ and the plan was to establish a community of artists in the south. However Van Gogh was not one of the most sociable of people, and the only artist to actually make the trek (at Van Gogh’s, and in turn his brother’s, expense) was Paul Gaugun. However, this didn’t work out, and while at first they were able to collaborate, their differing styles, and Van Gogh’s character, quickly led to a falling out, which concluded with the incident that Van Gogh is famous for – cutting off his ear. After being threatened Gaugun eventually left and returned to Paris.
The Harvest
The thing with Van Gogh was that he was plagued by mental illness for most of his life, so this didn’t really work all that well with him being able to collaborate. The other thing was that the two artists had two different styles – Gaugan preferred to paint from memory while Van Gogh painted by sitting en plein air (which basically means outdoors). It was from this point this his mental health deteriorated drastically, and he spent a lot of the time in the asylum at Saint-remy. However, they were kind enough to not only allow him to paint, but to also be provided with materials. In his last few months, at the advice of his doctor, he painted literally a painting a day abd spent the last few months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village just outside of Paris. However, the catalyst for his suicide was when his brother advised that he was no longer able to support him financially. A few days later he shot himself.
Fishing Boats on the Beach
I will basically leave it here, particularly since Van Gogh’s metal health, and death, is a topic all of its own (and in fact the museum had an exhibition dedicated to Van Gogh’s mental health and his last years). However, it is undeniable that Van Gogh is seen as one of the greatest artist of the Fin-de-Siecle, and his art and exhibitions attract hordes of people. Even the recent exhibition at the NGV was a testimony to that. In a way, one can probably thank his sister-in-law who tirelessly went about promoting his art so that in the end his life, and his death, would not be in vain.
I will finish this post with a picture of probably one of his most famous works – Starry Night. It turned out that I wasn’t able to see this painting namely because it happens to be in New York. What was interesting was that while I was at the pub the other night, I overheard a conversation on this exact painting, and the person was saying that when he was at the MoMA, he saw people crowded around the painting and was wondering what the big deal was – that is until he got to see it, and left amazed. In a way it differs so much from the Mona Lisa, which also attracts the hordes, but in the end is just another painting among many other paintings – yet the work of Van Gogh has the ability to leave you breathless.
Creative Commons License
Vincent Van Gogh – The Life of an Artist by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. The images of the paintings of Van Gogh are used with the permission of the Van Gogh museum on the grounds that the purpose is not commercial. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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