By Brad Dison
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is considered one of the most influential artists in history with over 2,000 known artworks to his credit. The son of a preacher, Vincent grew up in a religious household in Belgium and intended to follow in his father’s occupation. Art had not yet taken hold of his interests. Throughout his life, Vincent struggled with a lack of self-confidence. He failed at both of his known romances. He struggled to find his direction in life. As he and his father had always assumed would be his path, Vincent began preaching in a mining district in Belgium. Vincent’s energetic preaching style did not fit well with the what he considered to be a dull and boring post. Church goers soon discharged him because he was overenthusiastic, maniacal, and obsessive. He worked for a short time as a bookstore clerk, but was soon fired. He worked as an art salesman, but failed at that as well. Vincent failed at selling artwork, but he had found his passion at last.
Vincent studied art in Belgium and painted several works which tended to be dark and somber. What art historians now consider his first great work of art is a drab painting he completed in 1885 entitled “The Potato Eaters” which consists of five people eating potatoes in a dimly-lit room. Except for the light and flame from the oil lantern, Vincent painted with pigments of mostly blacks and browns. Vincent’s artwork failed to gain much attention.
In 1886, Vincent moved to Paris, France, where his brother, Theo, worked for a prestigious art gallery. Theo tried to sell some of Vincent’s paintings but no one was interested. He only sold one of Vincent’s paintings. Theo helped Vincent all that he could. He occasionally gave Vincent money for food, which he promptly spent on more art supplies.
While in Paris, Vincent met artists who painted in a different style now known as impressionism which was characterized by short brush strokes with emphasis on the changing qualities of light. At first, Vincent imitated their techniques and began using brighter colors than those he used in his previous works. Vincent’s artwork evolved into a more bold, unique style. Still, no one was interested enough to buy his paintings.
In 1888, Vincent moved to Arles, France, where he hoped to open an art school with other like-minded artists. Fellow artist Paul Gauguin joined him, but their friendship was short-lived. Vincent’s mental and physical health deteriorated as he painted all day long and discussed the craft all night long with anyone who would listen. Vincent was obsessed with his artwork and sometimes completed several works in a single day. In one of Vincent’s fits of madness, he attacked Gauguin with a straight razor. During the scuffle, Vincent sliced off part of his own ear lobe before Gauguin subdued him. The row ended their friendship and Gauguin moved away from Arles.
Vincent painted at a feverish pace. Between 1888 and 1890, Vincent created hundreds of artworks, most of which were paintings. Just before dawn one morning in 1889, Vincent looked out of his window and was instantly inspired. The sky was slowly changing from black to blue. The stars seemed to sparkle like never before. The crescent moon seemed to smile down on Vincent. The dawn sky seemed to have been placed there just for Vincent. He quickly mixed just the right hues of paints and began painting. He painted the sky just as he saw it, but the town was from his own imagination because his window looked out onto an open field. Within a short time, Vincent completed The Starry Night. Even then, no one was interested enough to buy this or any of his paintings.
In 1890, just a few short months after he completed what art lovers consider one of the most important paintings in existence, Vincent died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. As Don McLean sang about the artist in his 1971 hit song entitled “Vincent,” “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
Within fifteen years of his death, art galleries around the world began showing Vincent’s paintings and referred to them as “masterful,” “dazzling,” and “daring,” with a “tragic gleam of insanity.” As happens with many world-renowned artists, Vincent’s artwork was only appreciated after his death.
Today, The Starry Night is a priceless painting in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It appears on many consumer products including posters, mugs, umbrellas, and clothing. The Starry Night, the painting which most of us immediately recognize as a priceless masterpiece, the painting which only a handful of people had seen during the artist’s troubled lifetime, Vincent painted while looking out the window of a lunatic asylum.
New York Tribune, April 15, 1905, p.23.
McLean, Don. Vincent. Track 3 on American Pie, Capitol Records, 1971, streaming audio, Amazon Prime, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000T027SO/ref=dm_ws_tlw_trk3.
MoMA.org. “The Starry Night.” Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79802
VanGoghGallery.com. “Vincent Vanincent van Gogh Gallery.” Accessed March 28, 2020. https://www.vangoghgallery.com/misc/biography.html.