National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Vincent van Gogh
Overview

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Vincent van Gogh was born and spent his childhood in the southern Netherlands, where his father was a minister. At sixteen he joined a well-known art dealership and remained seven years although he was not well suited to the business of art. Then, he worked in succession as a teacher, preacher, and missionary. While evangelizing in a poor coal-mining district he began to draw in earnest. Dismissed by church authorities in 1880, Van Gogh finally found his vocation in art.

While studying art in The Hague and briefly in Antwerp, he became increasingly influenced by Japanese prints and the work of French avant-garde artists. In March 1886 he arrived on his brother Theo's doorstep in Paris. Theo, an art dealer, provided constant emotional and financial support throughout the rest of Van Gogh's life. It was in Paris that Vincent's art took flight. He worked with Camille Pissarro, who encouraged him to brighten his somber palette and to juxtapose complementary colors for a luminous effect. At the same time, influenced by younger artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin, he began to use color symbolically and for emotional effect.

Exhausted by the hard life he lived in Paris and wanting to "look at nature under a brighter sky," he moved early in 1888 to Arles, in the south of France. He hoped the warm climate would relax him and that bright colors illuminated by a strong sun would provide inspiration for his art. He worked feverishly, pushing his style to greater expression with intense, active brushwork and saturated, complementary colors. "I have tried," he wrote, "to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green." Yet, neither his colors nor the rhythmic surfaces of his heavily painted canvases were divorced from nature—they were tools to communicate the spiritual power that he believed molded nature's forms.

Opinions about the nature of Van Gogh's illness are still debated, but just before Christmas 1888, he suffered a breakdown. In May 1889, following periods of intense work interrupted by recurring mental disturbances, Van Gogh committed himself to a sanitarium in nearby St.-Rémy. He painted whenever he could, believing that work was his only chance for sanity. After a year, in the spring of 1890, he returned north to Auvers to be closer to Theo; in July he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

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