2015 marks the 125th anniversary of the death of artist Vincent Van Gogh. Impoverished and unrecognized in his lifetime, Van Gogh is now one of the most beloved European painters, with tourists taking museum tours, river cruises, and other trips to see his paintings and the places he lived.
Early Life: 1853-1873
Vincent Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853. The son of a country minister and an artist mother, Van Gogh shared a name with a stillborn older brother, who died exactly one year before the younger Vincent was born. Like his mother, Vincent was prone to melancholy and moodiness.
When Vincent was 15, financial troubles in the family forced him to go to work with his art dealer uncle, Cornelius, in The Hague. Thanks to his fluency in English (as well as French, German, and his native Dutch), Van Gogh was transferred to Cornelius' Groupil Gallery in London in 1873.
London, First Love, and Religion: 1873-1880
Vincent's trip to London did not go well. After his landlord's daughter rejected his marriage proposal, a nervous breakdown led him to throw out all his books save the Bible. He was soon fired from the gallery for telling customers not to buy "worthless art."
Afterward, Van Gogh prepared to enter the School of Theology in Amsterdam. This dream would not come to pass, as Van Gogh refused to take the Latin exam and was rejected by the school. In 1878, he became a preacher at an impoverished coalmine. When his contract with the mine was not renewed, he moved to Brussels to become an artist, having honed his skills drawing pictures of the miners and their families.
Becoming an Artist: 1880-1886
Despite having no formal training, Van Gogh found support for his work from his art dealing younger brother, Theo. By 1885, he was working on what would come to be considered his first masterpiece, a painting called, "Potato Eaters." However, things were not going well for Van Gogh. As would happen throughout his life, his emotional entanglements and obsession with women were driving a rift between him and his family. A female cousin fled her home after Vincent became obsessed with her, and his family nearly cut off their support when Vincent became involved with an alcoholic former prostitute.
Through all his emotional troubles, Van Gogh began to rely on his art to keep him centered. After Theo moved to Paris, Vincent followed him in 1886 (without being invited to do so). There, he soon discovered impressionist art and Japanese culture, both of which would become huge influences on his art and life.
Later Life and Death: 1886-1890
It was in Paris that Van Gogh discovered Japanese art, as well as the paintings of Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, and other impressionists who would be his greatest influences. By 1888, Van Gogh had moved to the French village of Arles to live in his most famous residence, the "little yellow house." Saving most of his money for paint, Van Gogh lived on bread, coffee, and absinthe. His poor diet, along with his habit of ingesting paint chips and turpentine, eventually led to serious physical and mental health issues, culminating when he threatened fellow artist Gauguin with a razor, and then handed his severed ear to a prostitute hours later. After this incident, hospitalizations in several asylums followed.
This was also the period in which Van Gogh painted some of his most famous paintings, including "Irises," Starry Night," and "The Red Vineyard." Van Gogh would display his paintings in the asylum, and also had his art displayed at the Brussels exhibit and in Theo's gallery.
Van Gogh's wife, Johanna, would give birth to a boy in January 1890, but the rest of the year would not go well for Van Gogh. Transferred into the care of a new doctor and worried that Theo would stop selling his paintings, he became more distraught. On July 27, Vincent Van Gogh instead shot himself in the chest with a pistol. He died on July 29, at the age of 37.
Though Van Gogh received little recognition in his lifetime, his popularity grew after 71 of his paintings were shown in a Paris gallery in 1901. Before long, he would be remembered as one of the greatest post-impressionist painters, and one of the greatest artists in the world.
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