The Starry Night, Café Terrace at Night, Irises, Sunflowers, The Bedroom; these are some of the titles of Vincent van Gogh's most recognized artworks. Whether or not you're familiar with van Gogh's work, you more than likely have seen it somewhere. van Gogh died in 1890 at the age of 37, but his work still resonates with today's art lovers. Why is this? Why are people so drawn to his work? Well, isn't an artwork more powerful when you know about its creator?
Van Gogh was part of an art movement called Post-Impressionism which is described by The Art Story as a movement where "painting transcended its traditional role as a window onto the world and instead became a window into the artist's mind and soul." So rather than just capturing the world, it captured the artist's emotional state, and van Gogh was an emotional being.
Van Gogh was born March 30, 1853 in a village called Zunbert in the Netherlands; his family consisted of his father who was a Reverend, his mother, and five siblings. At the age of sixteen, he took a job at an art gallery; this job took him to London and then to Paris in his early 20s, but van Gogh lost interest in art dealing and instead began focusing on entering Christian ministry. However, he began to show behavior that his church thought was overzealous and they dismissed him as a preacher (he had given his possessions to coal-miners). According to The Art Story, in 1880, "Van Gogh decided he could be an artist and still remain in God's service, writing, 'To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture.' "
Van Gogh began practicing drawing as his brother continued to work at an art gallery. They wrote letters to each other which have become the source of many of van Gogh's introspective quotes. His early works focused on capturing the peasant life of many of the locals, but once he got to Paris, it transformed into styles inspired by other great artists such as Monet, Degas, and Seurat, and even Japanese prints which caused him to start focusing on bright colors, particularly - yellow.
Nearing the end of his life, in his mid-30s, van Gogh's mental health episodes began worsening; some believe they were untreated bouts of epilepsy, delusions, and bipolar disorder. In the spring of 1889, van Gogh checked himself into a psychiatric hospital for treatment where he began to stabilize and produce his most well known work The Starry Night. His painting became a form of therapy.
In July 1890, Vincent shot himself and died two days later from his injuries with his brother by his side. However, alternative theories have arisen that speculate that he was murdered, but that on his death bed, he wouldn't reveal who actually shot him because he didn't want to ruin the lives of his adolescent killers (this was discussed in an episode of Buzzfeed Unsolved).
While he was alive, Vincent sold one painting, but now his works are displayed throughout museums across the world including here in California in Los Angeles, Pasadena, and San Francisco. He has songs dedicated to him, novels, films, and fictional appearances on TV including an emotional episode of Doctor Who. He's been portrayed by Kirk Douglass, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andy Serkis, Willem Dafoe, amongst others.
Why and how does van Gogh maintain such a powerful legacy? Not only is it his talent that draws us to him, but also his emotional backstory, his struggle with mental health, the ups and downs of his personal life, finances, and family. He was a man who sought happiness and fought to hold onto it whenever and wherever he could. Vincent had a creative outlet to express his deepest, darkest feelings. He engulfed himself in his work and in those hours spent on a painting, all was well. But aren't we drawn to stories that remind of us ourselves and to people who have gone through what we've experienced and who remind us that we're not alone?
Vincent romanticized life and found beauty in nature and people, regardless of his struggles with self-acceptance and self-love. His letters to his brother capture his essence of being a man who had a lot of love to give and who expressed it in his art. He once wrote, “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.” That's one of the reasons why Vincent van Gogh has stayed relevant, because he craved what we all want; love and acceptance. Kindness can go a long way, so can patience and so can encouragement.
Happy Birthday, Vincent.
Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en
The Art Story. "Post-Impressionism." The Art Story, 2013. https://www.theartstory.org/movement/post-impressionism/
"Vincent van Gogh's Paintings and Life." Vincent van Gogh. https://www.vincentvangogh.org/