Biography

Francis Bacon, 'Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV' 1957
Francis Bacon
Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV 1957
© Estate of Francis Bacon

Vincent Willem van Gogh (Dutch: [ˈvɪnsɛnt ˈʋɪləm vɑn ˈɣɔx]; 30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade he created about 2100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life. They include landscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits, and are characterised by bold, symbolic colours, and dramatic, impulsive and highly expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art. He sold only one painting during his lifetime and became famous after his suicide at age 37, which followed years of poverty and mental illness.

Born into an upper-middle-class family, Van Gogh drew as a child and was serious, quiet and thoughtful, but showed signs of mental instability. As a young man he worked as an art dealer, often travelling, but became depressed after he was transferred to London. He turned to religion, and spent time as a missionary in southern Belgium. Later he drifted in ill health and solitude. He was keenly aware of modernist trends in art and, while back with his parents, took up painting in 1881. His younger brother, Theo, supported him financially, and the two kept up a long correspondence by letter.

Van Gogh's early works, mostly still lifes and depictions of peasant labourers, contain few signs of the vivid colour that distinguished his later work. In 1886 he moved to Paris and became interested in the French Impressionists. As his work developed he created a new approach to still lifes and local landscapes. His paintings grew brighter in colour as he developed a style that became fully realised during his stay in Arles in the south of France in 1888. He lived there in the Yellow House and, with the French artist Paul Gauguin, developed a concept of colour that symbolised inner emotion. During this period he broadened his subject matter to include olive trees, cypresses, wheat fields and sunflowers.

Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions and, though he worried about his mental stability, he often neglected his physical health, not eating properly and drinking heavily. His friendship with Gauguin came to an end after he threatened the Frenchman with a razor, and in a rage, cut off part of his own left ear. While in a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy his condition stabilised, leading to one of the more productive periods of his life. He moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris under the care of the homeopathic doctor and artist, Paul Gachet. On 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He died from his injuries two days later.

Considered a madman and a failure in his lifetime, Van Gogh exists in the public imagination as the quintessential misunderstood genius, the artist "where discourses on madness and creativity converge". His reputation began to grow in the early 20th century as elements of his painting style came to be incorporated by the Fauves and German Expressionists. He attained widespread critical, commercial and popular success over the ensuing decades, and is remembered as an important but tragic painter, whose troubled personality typifies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist.

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