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Van Gogh’s Tumultuous Life Told Through His Paintings

Van Gogh's Life Told Through His Paintings

During his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh only sold a single painting. Despite his difficult career as an artist lasting only ten years, he left behind some of the most revered paintings of all time. While many know him for The Starry Night and the famed story of his ear, the life of van Gogh was far more fascinating.

Born in Holland, van Gogh was raised by religious parents who emphasized the importance of living a life in service of God. Vincent frequently struggled to maintain a career, trying numerous odd jobs before deciding to become a preacher like his father. He began to study the Bible and attempted to kickstart his career as a preacher, only to be promptly let go by the Church. The young man soon found himself feeling lost and purposeless. It was his brother, Theo, who eventually convinced him to pursue painting in order to serve God through art.

Vincent worked tirelessly to develop his painting skills and found himself increasingly inspired by the trend-setting impressionist painters of that time period. However, he struggled to master the technique and instead began to develop his own unique style. His unconventional approach to painting was often considered unrefined by the public, making it difficult for him to make a living selling his art. 

Van Gogh famously battled mental illness throughout his life, in and out of mental institutions until his eventual suicide in 1890. The turmoil of his mind is frequently displayed in his paintings, oscillating between lively and ominous themes, which reflect his changing mental state. The story of Vincent van Gogh is a heartbreaking one, as his revolutionary talent was only appreciated after his death.

Below are eight of van Gogh’s most fascinating paintings, each offering a new perspective on the events of the artist’s turbulent life.

1. The Potato Eaters (1885)

Often considered van Gogh’s first great masterpiece, The Potato Eaters features five farm workers sharing a meal after a grueling day’s work. Vincent began planning this painting years before, hoping to showcase his artistic skill by using such a complex format. He opted for muted colors in an effort to encapsulate the harsh living conditions of the potato farmers. After van Gogh finally finished what he thought would be the painting that launched him into the public eye, he was disappointed to hear the critic’s harsh judgement. They found numerous faults in The Potato Eaters, from its lack of color to the flawed facial features of the farm workers. While this painting did not receive the acclaim that van Gogh had hoped for in 1885, nowadays it is considered his breakthrough masterpiece.

The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, May 1885, Van Gogh Museum

2. Portrait of Theo van Gogh (1887)

This painting was originally assumed to be one of the many self-portraits that Vincent painted during his career, however that conclusion was recently disputed. In 2011, it was theorized that this painting actually features van Gogh’s brother, Theo. As previously mentioned, the two brothers were very close, especially during the time when they lived together in Paris. Vincent often struggled to support himself, as his career in art proved to be anything but lucrative. Theo van Gogh was always quick to offer assistance in any way he could, from housing to money to emotional support.

This portrait was completed during Vincent’s time in Paris and clearly demonstrates his budding personal style. His use of short, bold brushstrokes and vibrant hues allowed him to offer a new take on what a portrait should look like.

Portrait of Theo van Gogh by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Theo van Gogh, 1887, Van Gogh Museum

3. Cafe Terrace, Place du Forum, Arles (1888)

Van Gogh eventually left Paris in search of brighter colors and new inspiration. He traveled south and eventually settled in Arles, France. One of van Gogh’s most eye-catching pieces, Café Terrace, features a tranquil café that he frequented while living in Arles. 

Here we can see him branching out into a darker, yet equally vibrant color scheme. He employs some of the same bold yellows that are featured in Sunflowers, but this time contrasts them with cool blues. Van Gogh later spoke of this piece in a letter to his sister, saying “here you have a night picture without any black in it”. This painting is demonstrative of van Gogh’s undeniable talent, seamlessly portraying the night scene as peaceful rather than gloomy.

Cafe Terrace, Place du Forum, Arles by Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Cafe Terrace, Place du Forum, Arles, 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum

4. Sunflowers (1888)

After settling in Arles, van Gogh found magnificent inspiration from the vibrancy of the blooming sunflowers that lined the city. He would often wander the fields, picking heavy bushels of sunflowers to adorn his quaint new house. He painted a series of five sunflower paintings, which ultimately became some of the most famous paintings of all time.

During this time period van Gogh wanted to capture the power of bold color, famously using only three shades of yellow to construct these masterpieces. These paintings heavily contrast to his later paintings, such as Thatched Cottages at Cordeville, which feature cool blue tones and reflect his changing mental state.

Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889, Van Gogh Museum

5. The Bedroom (1889)

After fleeing Paris in search of simplicity and natural beauty, van Gogh settled into a quaint yellow house in Arles. One of his most famous paintings, The Bedroom, displays his personal room within the house. This painting epitomizes van Gogh’s search for peace and tranquility, opting to put so much of his time and effort into painting something as simple as his bedroom. The casual atmosphere and subject of The Bedroom presents a sharp contrast from the regal paintings that were popular in Paris.

Nowadays, critics are often more intrigued by the expressive details of this painting, rather than the bedroom itself. Van Gogh used vibrant colors and choppy brush strokes to bring life to every aspect of his room, from the fluffiness of the pillows to the detail of the wood floor. At this point in his life, he was restlessly searching for tranquility, as his mental state continued to become increasingly volatile. 

The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1889, The Art Institute of Chicago

6. The Starry Night (1889)

Likely van Gogh’s most recognizable painting, The Starry Night, perfectly encapsulates his deteriorating mental state at the time. He had recently checked himself into a mental institution in Saint-Remy, after famously cutting off a piece of his own ear after a volatile fight with his friend, Paul Gauguin. Even while residing in a mental institution, van Gogh lived fairly comfortably, with access to his own art studio and relative freedom to peruse the grounds. In The Starry Night we begin to see a shift in his style, incorporating darker tones and a dreamlike theme. He merges the restlessness of nature with the rigidity of the buildings by blending the wavelike swirls in the sky with parts of the cityscape.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, Museum of Modern Art

7. Dr. Paul Gachet (1890)

After being released from the mental institution in Saint-Remy, he was advised to work with Dr. Paul Gachet. Gachet was a psychiatrist that had a particular interest in assisting struggling artists, such as van Gogh. The two are said to have clashed at first, possibly due to their many similarities that van Gogh emphasized in a letter to his brother. 

However, Vincent eventually became fond of his new doctor and ultimately created two portraits of him. Van Gogh later wrote to his brother, saying “I’ve done the portrait of Mr. Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it… Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done(2009). These paintings have become some of van Gogh’s most revered prints, as they are expressive of his deteriorating mental state, while simultaneously reflecting his respect for Dr. Gachet. 

Dr. Paul Gachet by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Dr. Paul Gachet, 1890, Musée d’Orsay

8. Wheatfield with Crows (1890)

For many years it had been assumed that Wheatfield with Crows was van Gogh’s final painting. It wasn’t until recently that scholars discovered that he had created a few more paintings before his eventual suicide a few weeks later. However, many still view this painting as his final work of art because of its haunting symbolism and foreshadowing about the end of his life. From the ominous flock of crows, to the stormy skies, one can easily feel van Gogh’s deep rooted pain and loneliness through the painting. While he still employed the classic blue and yellow tones that he is known for, one can immediately notice the darkness that hangs overhead. His life ultimately came to an end when he shot himself soon after, in a field that resembled this one. 

Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, July 1890, Van Gogh Museum

Despite his turbulent life, the revolutionary talent of van Gogh is undeniable. His paintings have gone on to inspire generations of artists to stray from tradition and boldly embrace their own style.

Click here to explore more of van Gogh’s extraordinary paintings!

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