Today Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous and popular artists of all time. Aside from infamously cutting-off his ear, Van Gogh’s art has come to define post-impressionism. Some of his paintings such as ‘Sunflowers’ are iconic, with his use of vibrant colours and subjective perspective providing vitality and helping revolutionise how the world views art.
However, during his relatively short life, Van Gogh actually struggled in obscurity and financial hardship, selling only one painting in his lifetime. He largely considered himself a failure.
Here are 10 facts about this intriguing artist.
1. Van Gogh tried many other careers before declaring himself an artist
Van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853, in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands. Before painting, he tried his hand at many other careers including as an art dealer, school teacher and preacher. After little success and finding them unfulfilling, he took up painting with almost no formal training aged 27, and announced himself as an artist in a letter to his brother Theo in 1880.
He then travelled through Belgium, Holland, London and France in pursuit of his artistic vision.
2. When Van Gogh first began painting, he used peasants and farmers as models
He would later paint flowers, landscapes and himself – mostly because he was too poor to pay his models. He also painted over many of his artworks instead of buying new canvas to further save money.
In his early works, Van Gogh used a dull palette of colours, with poverty and financial hardship common themes. It was only later in his career that he started using the vivid colours that he is famous for.
3. Van Gogh was troubled by mental illness for most of his life
Evidence suggests that Van Gogh had manic depression and suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions – indeed he spent lots of time in psychiatric hospitals.
Many modern-day psychiatrists have suggested possible diagnoses, including schizophrenia, porphyria, syphilis, bipolar disorder and epilepsy. Indeed it is thought Van Gogh suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, a chronic neurological condition characterised by recurrent, unprovoked seizures.
4. He only cut off a piece of his own ear, not the whole ear
Van Gogh had met his close friend Paul Gaugin in Paris in 1887 and they frequently painted together despite their stylistic differences. Both Van Gogh and Gaugin were staying together during Christmas of 1888 in Arles. During one of his seizures, Van Gogh attempted to attack Gauguin with an open razor. This ultimately resulted in Vincent cutting off a piece of his own ear – but not the whole ear as is often rumoured.
Van Gogh is then said to have wrapped the partially severed ear in paper and delivered it to a prostitute at a brothel where he and Gaugin used to visit.
Debate remains on the accuracy of this version of events, with two German historians suggesting in 2009 that Gauguin, a talented fencer, had instead sliced off a portion of Van Gogh’s ear with a sabre during a dispute. Van Gogh didn’t want to lose Gaugin’s friendship and agreed to cover up the truth, concocting the self-mutilation story to prevent Gaugin going to jail.
5. Van Gogh created his most famous work ‘The Starry Night’ while staying in an asylum
Van Gogh had voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Remy-de-Provence asylum to recover from his nervous breakdown in 1888 which had resulted in his ear-cutting incident.
‘The Starry Night’ depicts the view there from his bedroom window, and is now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Van Gogh on the other hand didn’t think this painting was any good.
6. Van Gogh’s life is documented through hundreds of letters
Van Gogh wrote over 800 letters during his lifetime to his brother and close friend, Theo, his artist friends Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard, and many others. Although many of the letters are undated, historians have been able to place most of the letters in chronological order, and they form a comprehensive source on Van Gogh’s life.
Over 600 letters were exchanged between Van Gogh and his brother Theo – and tell the story of their lifelong friendship and Van Gogh’s artistic views and theories.
7. In 10 years, Van Gogh created around 2,100 artworks including approximately 900 paintings
Many of Van Gogh’s paintings were created in the last two years of his life. The body of work he created was greater than most artists complete in a lifetime, despite him becoming an artist relatively late in life, experiencing financial hardship, mental illness and dying aged 37.
Such was the scale of his output that it equates to creating nearly a new artwork every 36 hours.
8. It is thought Van Gogh shot himself on 27 July 1890 in a wheat field in Auvers, France where he had been painting
After the shooting, he managed to walk back to his residence at Auberge Ravoux and was treated by two doctors who were unable to remove the bullet (no surgeon was available). He died 2 days later from an infection in the wound.
However, this fact is widely contested as there were no witnesses and no gun was found. An alternative theory (by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith) was that he was accidentally shot by teenage boys he’d gone drinking with, one of whom often played cowboys and may have had a malfunctioning gun.
9. His brother Theo, at his side when he died, said Van Gogh’s last words were “La tristesse durera toujours” – “the sadness will last forever”
10. Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime and only became famous after his death
Van Gogh’s ‘The Red Vineyards Near Arles’ is the only commercial success he experienced in his lifetime. It sold for around 400 francs in Belgium seven months before his death.
After Van Gogh’s brother Theo died of syphilis six months after Vincent’s death, Theo’s widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, inherited a large collection of Vincent’s art and letters. She then dedicated herself to collecting her late brother-in-law’s work and promoting it, publishing a collection of letters by Van Gogh in 1914. Thanks to her diligence, his work finally began to receive recognition 11 years later.
Ironically, despite the financial hardship and obscurity he faced in life, Van Gogh created one of the most expensive paintings in history – his ‘Portrait of Dr. Gachet’, which sold for $82.5 million in 1990 – the equivalent of $171.1 million in 2022 when adjusted for inflation.