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Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)
( Originally Published 1955 )
Dutch-born master of the Post-Impressionist period in France, representing the more emotional and intuitive side of that art. He influenced the early twentieth-century painting of the Fauves in France and the Expressionists of the Briicke group in Germany. Born at Groot-Zundert in Holland, he was the son of a minister and the nephew of a group of art dealers. This group was associated with the firm of Goupil et Cie., where Vincent was employed in 1869, first in The Hague and then in Brussels. He read a good deal and visited the museums in those cities. In 1873 he transferred to the London branch of the firm; and thefollowing year he suffered his first serious disappointment in love. In 1875 he was shifted to the headquarters of the Goupil firm in Paris but did not get along with the staff, quarreled with clients, and became preoccupied with religion. The following year he lost his job, returned to England, taught for a while, and then went home to his parents. In 1877 he went to Amsterdam to prepare himself for admission to a theological school. A year later, failing to pass the examination, he came home again, tried an evangelical training course in Brussels and was finally sent as a lay preacher to the miserable miners of the Borinage in Belgium. By 1879 he had progressed to the post of temporary pastor in the heart of that black land, but his unorthodox zeal caused him to lose the job.
Out of his despair and complete destitution came the vision of turning to art. His brother Theo, then working for Goupil, began the lifelong financial and psychological help that marked their relationship. In 1880 Van Gogh did drawings of miners in the style of Millet. In 1882-83, he had a Dostoyevskian relationship with the prostitute Sien and did his first paintings in a thick, dark, heavy manner, and watercolors and lithographs of peasants, fishermen and nature. He was back home with his parents from 1883-85, set up a studio, worked hard and read a good deal, e.g., Carlyle, Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe. The climax of this early art came in The Potato Eaters (1885) where he tried to communicate the feeling of people eating the food they have dug from the earth with their own hands. In Antwerp in 1885-86 he discovered Rubens and Japanese prints, entered the Academy and tried to study seriously. The years 1886-88 mark the Paris period during which he was enthusiastically welcomed by brother Theo and met Lautrec, Pissarro, Degas, Seurat, Signac and Gauguin. He adopted the Divisionist or Neo-Impressionist technique for a short time, soon varying it to meet his own emotional needs.
The years 1888-89 find him in Arles, settled in a "yellow house with a tiny studio." There he painted with terrific enthusiasm and coloristic warmth pictures like The Sunflowers, elongating the fairly regular spots of color used by the NeoImpressionists into his own increasingly characteristic wrigglers of paint that twist and turn their separate and group ways across the canvas surface, conveying his intensity of feeling, his restlessness; and often the tragic nature of his emotions. A short visit from Gauguin ended with Van Gogh showing signs of mental unbalance, trying first to kill the other man and then cutting off his own ear. He was hospitalized for two weeks then and again in March of the following year for the violence of his hallucinations. Yet this is artistically the most fruitful and rewarding part of his life; approximately two hundred paintings resulted from these fifteen months at Arles. At one extreme we find explosive works like The Sunflowers; at the other a series of tensely linear and symbolic pictures like The Woman of Arles. In May 1889 he asked to be admitted to the asylum at Saint Remy and there had comparatively long periods of lucidity. In 1890 the first article on Van Gogh's work appeared in the Mercure de France and he made his first and only sale of a picture (for four hundred francs, at the Brussels show of Les XX), He did many copies after Delacroix, Daumier, Rembrandt and Millet in this period, pictures dealing with human and emotional problems. In May, 1890, he arrived at Auvers, became a friend and patient of Dr. Gachet, and committed suicide in July, at the age of thirtyseven.
From the beginning he had been interested in people and their problems: in this sense his career is far more consistent and far less eccentric and individualistic than the constantly reiterated biographical incidents would indicate. Van Gogh is in many ways typical of young intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, with their increasing awareness of the misery of the world.