The life of the iconic Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh

The life of the iconic Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh

Easily one of the most famous Dutch people to ever live, Vincent van Gogh is a hugely influential and world-renowned artist, known predominantly for his bold and dramatic brush strokes which can be found in many of his most well-known paintings, including Sunflowers and The Starry Night.

But how much do you know about the man behind the famous artwork? In honour of his birthday, let’s dive into the tumultuous life of Vincent van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s early life in the Netherlands

Born in the village of Zundert in Brabant on March 30, 1853, Van Gogh’s early life was filled with family, nature and love. He was the eldest son of Protestant minister Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Carbentus

Vincent van Gogh's siblings

Van Gogh had three younger sisters and two brothers: Anna, Theo, Wil, Lies and Cor. Theo went on to play a significant role in the life of his older brother.

Schooling & early career

Leaving home at the age of 11 to attend boarding school in Zevenbergen, Van Gogh showed little promise as an artist or as a student. He transferred to a secondary school in Tilburg at the age of 13, before dropping out halfway through his second year.

When he was 16, his uncle managed to secure him a job as a trainee at Goupil & Cie, an international art dealer based in The Hague. Four years later, in 1873, he transferred to the company's offices in London.

Self portrait exhibition Vincent van Gogh

Aimless years in France, England and Belgium

Van Gogh spent a few years in London, where he visited various museums and galleries and was able to admire the work of a number of renowned artists. In 1875 he moved to Paris, but in spite of his growing love for art of all kinds, he struggled to find any joy in his work at Goupil & Cie. He was dismissed from his position in 1876 and returned to England, where he worked at schools in Ramsgate and Isleworth. 

Feeling rather aimless, Van Gogh returned to the Netherlands in 1877 and spent a few months working in a bookshop near Rotterdam before enrolling as a theology student in Amsterdam - although this didn’t last very long either. He left Amsterdam, relocating to Belgium where he worked as a lay preacher. His devotion and commitment to his faith saw him nicknamed the Christ of the Coal Mine.

The start of Van Gogh’s artistic career

It was after this that Van Gogh decided to follow the advice of his brother Theo and pursue his skill and interest in drawing, becoming convinced that he could serve God as an artist. He spent the early years of his artistic career perfecting his techniques and meeting other painters, moving back to Brabant in 1881. Following an explosive argument with his father, Van Gogh moved to The Hague where he attended painting classes with Anton Mauve, a celebrated artist and the husband of one of Van Gogh’s cousins.

Theo financially supported his older brother throughout this period, even when, in 1882, Van Gogh fell in love with Sien Hoornik, a former sex worker and mother of two. This affair was short-lived, and Van Gogh left The Hague to travel through the countryside in the province of Drenthe for three months before returning to his parent's home in Nuenen in 1883.

Van Gogh worked as a “peasant painter” for many years, renting studio space in the Brabant village. It was during this period that he started work on one of his most famous paintings: The Potato Eaters. In 1885, he left the Netherlands for the last time, enrolling at the academy of art in Antwerp - which he left after only a few months. He decided to move to Paris, where his brother Theo introduced him to the work of various modern artists.

His life in Paris had a significant impact on Van Gogh’s style, as he scrapped the darker colours and sombre tones he favoured in The Potato Eaters and swapped them for brighter shades. The influence of modern art also saw Van Gogh develop his own painting style; the shorter brush strokes he is now famous for.

Image: Bumble Dee via Shutterstock. Starry Night painting Vincent van Gogh

The artist who cut off his ear: Van Gogh's final years

After two years in the French capital, Van Gogh ditched the hustle and bustle of the city for the peace of country life, moving in 1888 to the town of Arles in southern France, where he lived with fellow artist Paul Gaugin. This was where, in the final years of his life, Van Gogh further perfected his own style and created some of his most influential works.

The relationship between Gaugin and Van Gogh was strained, with Van Gogh becoming increasingly agitated and unhappy. An argument between the two ultimately resulted in Van Gogh cutting off his own ear, wrapping it in a piece of newspaper and presenting it to a local sex worker. After this, Van Gogh was admitted to hospital

After being discharged in January 1889, Van Gogh continued to work in spite of his poor mental health. A few months later, he admitted himself to the Saint Paul de Mausole psychiatric hospital. Over the course of the 12 months he spent there, Van Gogh completed 150 paintings, including Almond Blossom, which he sent to Theo after the birth of his first child with his wife Jo: Vincent Willem van Gogh.

He was discharged in May 1890 and decided to move to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirts of Paris. Here, under the encouragement of his doctor, Paul Gauchet, Van Gogh completed a painting a day.

How did Van Gogh die?

For a time, while living in Auvers-sur-Oise, it seemed as though Van Gogh's health was improving, but financial worries meant he became increasingly concerned about his uncertain future. Eventually, on July 27, 1890 - only two months after he was discharged from Saint Paul de Mausole - the uncertainty became too much to bear, and Van Gogh shot himself in the chest, succumbing to his injuries two days later.

Vincent van Gogh’s legacy as a world-famous artist

Vincent van Gogh’s status as a world-famous artist cannot be disputed. By the time of his death, Van Gogh has completed over 850 paintings and almost 1.300 other works on paper. While widely underappreciated during his lifetime, he sold his first painting only a few months before his death, at an exhibition in Brussels. Ever since, public appreciation for Van Gogh's skills has continued to grow.

Vincent van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh's most famous paintings

It would be an impossible feat to list all of the hundreds of paintings Van Gogh completed in his life. Even narrowing down the selection to just his most famous works results in a fairly long list. 

If you're looking to dip your toe into the world of Vincent van Gogh - or of Dutch art in general - here are a few of Van Gogh's most notable pieces:

  • The Starry Night
  • Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (known more commonly as just Sunflowers)
  • The Potato Eaters
  • Almond Blossom
  • Wheatfield with Crows
  • The Bedroom
  • The Yellow House
  • Van Gogh's Chair 

Many of these works are on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

Following the death of Theo’s widow Jo in 1925, Van Gogh’s nephew Vincent loaned his uncle’s paintings to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1930. Demands for a museum dedicated to the artist grew, however, and in 1962, Vincent transferred ownership of his uncle’s works to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation.

The Dutch government began work on the museum, which was eventually opened by Queen Juliana on June 2, 1973. One of the most famous museums in the Netherlands, if not the world, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam now welcomes 2 million visitors annually.

Want to learn more about other Famous Dutchies? Read all about the life of Piet Mondrian here!

Victoria Séveno


Victoria Séveno

Victoria grew up in Amsterdam, before moving to the UK to study English and Related Literature at the University of York and completing her NCTJ course at the Press Association...

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