He is one of the most famous and influential artists of all time, but Vincent van Gogh struggled in obscurity during his brief life. Born in the village of Groot-Zundert, Holland on March 30, 1853, van Gogh was born into a religious, upper middle class family and after much traveling and various unfulfilling occupations, he took up painting with almost no formal training. His tremendous oeuvre of landscapes, still-lifes, portraits and sketches with their vibrant colors and subjective perspective would revolutionize how the world viewed art. He fought depression and mental illness while creating an intense and arresting universe of images. Popular retellings of his tragic story include Vincente Minnelli’s Hollywood biopic Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas and Robert Altman’s quirky Vincent and Theo (1990) starring Tim Roth. His life also inspired Don McLean’s 1971 hit song “Vincent” and an animated feature is due out this year. But no film or song can completely capture the tumultuous journey of this conflicted soul.
Here are seven facts that offer a glimpse into van Gogh’s beautiful but desperate life.
His happiest year was in London
In 1873, van Gogh traveled to the British capital to work for the art dealer Goupil and Cie. He was previously employed by them in The Hague. This was the happiest time in his life. He was earning a considerable salary (more than his father) and he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter Eugenie Loyer. But she rebuffed his romantic advances when he declared them to her, saying that she was secretly engaged to a former boarder. In Nicholas Wright’s largely fictional play Vincent in Brixton, the playwright imagines that the future artist had an affair with the landlady, a widow of 15 years, rather than her daughter. His time in London did not end happily as he became more isolated. He transferred to Paris where he grew angry at his bosses for treating art as a commodity and was fired in 1876.
In less than 10 years, he painted almost 900 paintings
From November 1881 to July 1890, van Gogh produced close to 900 paintings. At the age of 27, he abandoned his unsuccessful careers as an art dealer and a missionary and concentrated on his painting and drawing. When he began painting he used peasants and farmers as models and then flowers, landscapes and himself because he was too poor to pay his subjects.
A prolific correspondent
He wrote nearly as many letters as he created paintings. Van Gogh composed nearly 800 letters in his lifetime, mainly to his brother and closest friend Theo.
Only one painting sold during his lifetime
Van Gogh was never famous as a painter during his lifetime and constantly struggled with poverty. He sold only one painting while he was alive: The Red Vineyard which went for 400 francs in Belgium seven months before his death. His most expensive painting Portrait of Dr. Gachet was sold for $148.6 million in 1990.
Only the lobe, not the whole ear was cut off
It’s popularly believed that van Gogh cut off his ear but he actually only severed a part of the ear lobe. The accepted version is that the artist mutilated himself with a razor after an argument with his friend Paul Gauguin in Arles where they were both staying during Christmas of 1888. He then ran to a bordello and presented the cut lobe to a prostitute. A new book by two German historians purports that what really happened is that Gauguin lopped off his friend’s lobe while they were fencing and the self-mutilation was concocted between the two to avoid embarrassment and arrest. Van Gogh immortalized his wound in his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.
6. His Most Famous Work Was Done in an Asylum
Starry Night, arguably his most famous work, was painted in an asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France. He voluntarily admitted himself there to recover from his 1888 nervous breakdown which resulted in the ear-cutting incident. The painting depicts the view from his bedroom window. It has been part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection since 1941.
He died at 37
On July 27, 1890, van Gogh shot himself in the chest. There were no witnesses and the gun was never found. He committed the act either in the wheat field he had been painting or in a barn. He was able to stagger to the auberge in Auvers where he was staying. Two doctors tended to him, but the bullet could not be removed because there was no surgeon available. He died on July 29, 1890 from an infection in the wound. His brother Theo later wrote to their sister Elizabeth,
“In the last letter which he wrote me and which dates from some four days before his death, it says, ‘I try to do as well as certain painters whom I have greatly loved and admired.’ People should realize that he was a great artist, something which often coincides with being a great human being. In the course of time this will surely be acknowledged, and many will regret his early death.” Theo, who had been supporting his brother, died six month later. Theo’s wife dedicated herself to collecting her late brother-in-law’s work and thanks to her diligence, it began to receive recognition 11 years later.