By Sam Pak
March of 2023 celebrates the birth of a complicated yet revered Dutchman. Neglected in his own time, he has gained the respect and admiration of artists, historians, and onlookers across the globe. His name is Vincent Van Gogh.
Van Gogh was born on March 30th, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands. He is a treasured artist for his expressionism and vibrant style, which at the time, was very progressive in the art world. Although we may revere his work today, Van Gogh wasn’t appreciated in the way he deserved when he was alive. Instead, he lived a very troubled life, both mentally and professionally.
Van Gogh is remembered for having a tragic life, filled with mental traumas and apathy toward his work. It would not be until after his death that the world would start to recognize the brilliance of his modesty and vision.
Let’s explore some of the moments in Van Gogh’s life that made him one of the world’s most renowned artists.
Plodding Toward His Dream
It’s rather extraordinary to think about how brief Van Gogh’s art career lasted and the amount of masterful work that he produced between 1880 and when he passed in 1890. That’s only ten years of devoted attention to his passion!
Born into a pastor’s family, Van Gogh was raised Protestant and was determined to live out his faith humbly.
It was a rocky trail he took to find his calling, having started out learning theology when he shifted to evangelical training in 1874. This led him to pursue missionary work in impoverished regions across Belgium. He ultimately resorted to giving away all of his possessions in an act of faith-led selflessness. To his chagrin, the church he was affiliated with actually distanced itself from him, citing that he was taking scriptural guidance too literally.
Now completely broke, he fell into crippling depression, as he was led to believe his acts of faith were in vain.
Unfortunately, this was the spark that drove Vincent into delirium. He expressed to one unknown acquaintance that “They think I’m a madman because I wanted to be a true Christian. They turned me out like a dog, saying that I was causing a scandal.”
But in his state of sadness and isolation from people, he found a new ambition, the desire to paint.
His New Mission
Van Gogh carried a very unique cross throughout his life. A life of self-imposed deprivation from wealth and comfort, only to be turned away for all of it. Amid crushed confidence, he discovered at the age of twenty-seven that his new goal in life was to express his love and consolation to humanity through his newfound talent for art.
It was only through his expression in art, born of deep sadness, that he regained his confidence and a new purpose in life.
He deemed his new calling as an artist as a way of sending a message to the wretched like himself. He wanted to show others like him that he could empathize with their pain of loneliness and depression and give them a source of encouragement.
How Did Vincent Van Gogh Die?
By 1888, Van Gogh had fostered a new friendship with contemporary painter Paul Gauguin. The two painters coached each other and learned from each other, inspiring each other to reach new lengths in their professional art careers. But after continued disunity in their approaches, they fell into an argument. The famous story depicts Van Gogh on Christmas Eve, chasing Gauguin with a razor blade during a mental breakdown. In his hysteria, he wound up slicing a portion of his own left ear!
Even more bizarre was what he did with the ear afterward. He bagged it up and delivered it to a prostitute named Rachel, pleading that she “guard” the ear. News broke out that Van Gogh had lost his mind, and this further complicated his perception of himself.
After recurring mental episodes, he admitted himself to an asylum in the hope that he would regain mental acuity. It was in the asylum where, in doses, he worked on his iconic work Starry Night, among other works like the Olive Trees, Garden of the Asylum, Cypresses, and Les Alpilles.
So how did Vincent Van Gogh die? He met his end in quite a sad and odd way.
Upon being discharged from the asylum, Vincent could not shake the haunting feeling of loneliness. His continued state of depression and sadness led him to shoot himself in the stomach, stating that “I hope I haven't botched it.”
He survived the gunshot wound for nearly thirty hours before he passed away on July 29, 1890.
An Unappreciated Visionary
Van Gogh, his life, and his work have stood the test of time. We honor him today as being a demonstration of the toll of mental illness. But conversely, it was his troubles and afflictions that inspired him to create such incredibly moving works of art that we are able to cherish today.
His style and approach to expressionism have gone on to influence millions of people, even inspiring the creation of the film, Loving Vincent (rated PG-13), an entirely hand-painted animated film in the style of Van Gogh.
Learn More About Vincent
If you’d like to learn more about Vincent Van Gogh or feature a study about him for your students, you can find a timeline figure of him in our Napoleon to Now Timeline Figure set as well as in our Artists Activity-Pak!
“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” - Vincent Van Gogh