When we think of Vincent Van Gogh, we think of his famous paintings Starry Night, Wheatfield with Crows, and Sunflowers. He is considered an artistic genius for his use of vibrant colors and texture within his landscapes and portraits. Thus, making him a famous Post-Impressionist during the late 18th century. But what is the story behind his craft? Apart from his artwork, what kind of person was he? What challenges did he endure? You may be surprised to learn Van Gogh is no different than the ordinary person.
In October 2022, I had the pleasure of attending the Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience exhibition in Jacksonville, Florida. I was surrounded by over 300 pieces of his artwork digitally displayed on massive screens. Besides interacting with his artwork, I gained insight into who he was as a person. Through quotes from letters he wrote, I learned he had failed at being an art dealer and a preacher before he was a painter. In fact, his closest confidant in life was his brother Theo whom he often wrote to discuss his frustration. However, despite his struggles, Van Gogh found art therapeutic, having felt broken inside. Unfortunately, his art didn’t help him cope entirely with his mental illness. Ultimately, he was admitted into an asylum where he painted his famous Starry Night in 1889, conveying his disappointment in not finding purpose and success in his life. Tragically, a year later after his release, he still committed suicide. After seeing his story visually displayed, I realized he had faced many challenges to fulfill his passion for art. Yet, the biggest obstacle of all was his fear of failure.
As mentioned, before he was an artist, Van Gogh had other career aspirations. Like all of us, he wanted to find his true calling and passion. So, as a young adult, he was a clerk in a bookstore, an art salesman, and a preacher in the Borinage in Belgium. Sadly, he failed at each of these professions. However, he was known for being difficult to work with throughout his whole life so there’s been talk about if Van Gogh was fired or just quit the jobs. For example, according to The Van Gogh Gallery, he was dismissed from the Borinage for his “overzealousness.” Nevertheless, Van Gogh always found a new profession when one didn’t work out. He decided his calling and passion was to become an artist.
On July 21, 1882, he wrote to Theo, “What I am in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an oddity or a disagreeable person—someone who has and will have no position in society, in short, a little lower than the lowest. Very well—assuming that everything is indeed like that, then through my work I’d like to show what there is in the heart of such oddity, such a nobody.”
To prove there was such a nobody within his work, Van Gogh began his journey and career by traveling to Paris in 1886. In Paris, he worked at the Goupil’s gallery, and during his time there he met Impressionist artists Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Paul Gaugin. Van Gogh took inspiration from their work, so he started copying their style and technique. He tried painting “in the short brush strokes of the Impressionists’ style.” However, Van Gogh ran into difficulty copying the Impressionists style exactly. Rather, he created “his own more bold unconventional style.”
Two years later, in 1888, Van Gogh traveled to Arles, France where he rented out four rooms. Ultimately, he opened an art school called The Yellow House where he “hoped like-minded artists could create together.” Of all his friends, Gaugin participated and joined Van Gogh at The Yellow HouseAlthough friends as artists, they had issues. Van Gogh was known for being difficult and having temperaments.
On the evening of December 23, 1888, Gaugin left The Yellow House and Van Gogh chased him down. In a fit of rage, Van Gogh cut off his own ear lobe with a razor blade. According to Tim Brinkhof, a writer for Big Think, Van Gogh afterward went to a brothel giving his ear to a prostitute. He wrote, “Van Gogh offered the ear to a woman, telling her to 'keep this object carefully.’” He was taken to a hospital later that evening after being found unconscious. Although he was left earless, he captured his appearance in his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Eventually, Van Gogh was admitted into an asylum in Saint-Remy. In today’s context, his actions are considered traits of bipolar disorder.
As viewers of his artwork, it’s important to acknowledge Van Gogh’s journey and challenges to become the artist we know today. He struggled like everyone else, such as finding his passion while unknowingly living with mental illness. Van Gogh feared failure and he was a perfectionist, but he didn’t realize the part that plays in the journey of any career. Who cares if he failed at his previous aspirations and only sold one painting in his lifetime? What sets Van Gogh apart from other artists is his passion and dedication to his artwork. He desired to be profound and seek purpose. He wanted to be like the famous Impressionists he idolized. If Van Gogh didn’t have the passion he had, like when he opened The Yellow House or painted Starry Night and Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, he wouldn’t be the artist we know and celebrate today. The struggle makes you stronger, the obstacle is the way.
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