The Idiot’s Guide to Everything: Vincent van Gogh

Posted on July 29, 2013

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‘The sadness will last forever’
(Vincent van Gogh, final words)

I would wager that if you asked the man on the street to name a famous painter, Vincent van Gogh is the name that would come up. Even if they can’t actually name a painting, he will be the figure that flows to mind. They’d probably also tell you that he was mad and he cut his own ear off. So, who was Vincent van Gogh? Let’s have a look see.

Born on March 3rd 1853, van Gogh was brought up in a very religious family in the southern part of the Netherlands, near Breda. He began drawing as a child. His involvement in the art world would continue, as he followed his uncle into the art dealing world. This would lead him to living and working in both London and Paris. Whilst he was fairly successful in the industry, he grew tired of it and decided to go home and follow what he thought was his true calling. As his upbringing would suggest, this was the cloth.

Vincent enrolled to study theology, but would run into many problems whilst in education. This wasn’t because of a lack of intelligence, far from it. A multi-lingual man, van Gogh none the less felt that Latin was an irrelevant language when talking to the peasantry. Thus his studies stalled. He did work as a missionary in a coal mining community however, an experience that instilled a frugal lifestyle deeper and deeper into him. However, his preaching would stop, and art would once again come to the fore. He moved to Amsterdam, fell in love, had his heart broken, and began painting.

His first painting of note came in 1885, entitled ‘The Potato Eaters’. At this point he was still using mostly earth tones, but an obsession was well under way. He completely devoted himself from here on to painting. He lived on next to nothing and studied colour theory obsessively. Impressionism was the flavour of the time, and colour was exploding all over the shop. Vincent moved to Paris, and the colour began to swathe over him.

He wasn’t long in Paris though, and his lifelong dream of creating a community of artists would lead him to Arles. It was here that he painted ‘Sunflowers’, which is regarded as his most famous work. It was also whilst in Arles that he managed to lose his ear. There are many myths surrounding this most famous loss of body part. The one that survived the longest was that in a fit of passion he cut it off and sent it to a prostitute, but that’s ridiculous. People also believe that he cut it off himself due to constant tinnitus, but this is also hard to prove. The most likely theory is that it was sliced off whilst tussling with his good friend Paul Gauguin, a fellow painter. Gauguin was an expert swordsman, and fled Arles after a serious altercation with van Gogh. It is believed that this altercation left van Gogh one ear short of a pair.

After only ten years of painting however, van Gogh’s life would come to a tragic end. Again, this is open to wild theories, but the most widely held notion is that he attempted to shoot himself, but was a little wide of the mark. He made his way to the hospital, where surgeons were unable to dislodge the bullet. He lived 29 hours after the shot, before finally succumbing, at the age of 37.

Vincent van Gogh is regarded as the archetypal tortured artist. The list of ailments and illnesses he lived with is long and wide ranging, with everything from bipolar disorder to lead poisoning to hypergraphia. He drank absinthe almost obsessively in order to deal with these problems, an addiction which led to some of the issues being exacerbated. He ate poorly, even living off his paints for a time, which contributed to his lead poisoning. He was often regarded as malnourished. He smoked constantly, drank coffee to excess, and generally lived a life of ill health.

Still, the widely held notion that he was ‘mad’ is incorrect, and one that shows how little we still truly understand about mental health. He was frequently depressed, anxious, had severe epilepsy, sunstroke, and almost constantly suffered stomach and digestion problems. Far from being maniacal, he was a perfectionist, an incredibly thoughtful craftsman. His dedication to his work gave him an impression of insanity, but this is all perception.

One van Gogh fact that isn’t myth however, is that he was practically ignored during his time. Whether he sold any paintings or not, I don’t know, but he certainly wasn’t internationally celebrated like he is today. Within 20 years of his death however, memorial shows were being held all over the world, and his reputation would grow and grow to the point where today he is the name of choice for the man on the street.

Happy death day, Vincent van Gogh.

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