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Who Am I?: Self Portraits in Art and Writing

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Bios / Resources: Bio Bytes: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
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Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889

[M]y aim in my life is to make pictures and drawings, as many and as well as I can; then at the end of my life, I hope to pass away, looking back with love and tender regret, and thinking, "Oh, the pictures I might have made!"—Letter to Theo van Gogh (Vincent's brother), November 19, 1883

Do you think "mad genius" when you hear the name Vincent van Gogh? You are not alone. Van Gogh's life was complicated by early failures, personal eccentricities, and an adult diagnosis of epilepsy. But he also succeeded with a daunting achievement—becoming a great artist.

During his lifetime Vincent van Gogh was scarcely appreciated—and he sold only one painting. A century after his death, however, Van Gogh's paintings of sunflowers, his textured landscapes, and his intense portraits and self-portraits—all expressive and emotional in color, with thick and energetic brushwork—are among the most recognized paintings on the planet.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889

Van Gogh spent his childhood in the tiny Dutch town of Zundert, in the southern Netherlands, where his father was a minister. Vincent recalled these as golden years, made secure by his close-knit family and rock-solid religious faith. Then, at age 11, Vincent's cozy life unraveled. Sent to boarding school, he lasted less than two years; he would never finish his secondary education.

Vincent van Gogh at the age of 13
Vincent van Gogh at the age of 13
Vincent van Gogh, The Zandemennik House, c. 1879/1880
Vincent van Gogh, The Zandemennik House, c. 1879/1880
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887
Vincent van Gogh, Postcard with Two Peasants Digging, 1885
Vincent van Gogh, Postcard with Two Peasants Digging, 1885

At age 16, however, he entered a world that—though difficult for him—was his introduction to art. One of his uncles got him a job at a firm selling art; for the next seven years, he worked for the company's branches in The Hague, London, and Paris. Feeling lonely and separated from family and home, Vincent passed these adolescent and early adult years immersed in reading. He plunged into artists' biographies, books about art, and philosophy—copying favorite passages that consoled him.

So instead of giving into despair I chose active melancholy. . . . I accordingly made a more or less serious study of the books within my reach, such as the Bible and Michelet's La Révolution Française, and then last winter Shakespeare and a little Victor Hugo and Dickens and Beecher Stowe and recently, Æschylus and then various less classical writers, a few great minor masters.
-Letter to Theo (July 1880, when Vincent was 27 years old)

Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19

Vincent van Gogh, Potato Eaters, 1885

He started by painting things he knew well: scenes of Dutch peasant life created in earth tones that literally express the dirt-poor existence of the rural working class. Within three years, Vincent moved to Paris, where he lived with his brother Theo (now also an art dealer) and experimented with the lighter colors and touch of the impressionist style.

He admired the unusual viewpoints and strong colors of Japanese prints, which were then the rage in Paris. But typical of Vincent, he became exhausted through overwork and too many late nights in the city. He decided to move to Arles, an ancient town in the south of France, where he hoped the warm climate and bright colors would relax and inspire him.

Vincent van Gogh, Potato Eaters, 1885

Arles delivered a lot of this promise. Vincent completed nearly 200 works in his two years there. He worked feverishly and his skills advanced at a fast pace. Vincent developed a unique style of intense, active brushwork and saturated, complementary colors. In Arles, he painted his most famous images, such as The Starry Night, his sunflowers, and his portraits of local residents and his self-portraits.

Vincent van Gogh, Ploughman in the Fields near Arles, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Farmhouse in Provence, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Roulin's Baby, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Roulin's Baby, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, La Mousmé, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, La Mousmé, 1888


My dear Theo,
The air here certainly does me good. I wish you could fill your lungs with it . . . I must also have a starry night with cypresses, or perhaps above all, a field of ripe corn; there are some wonderful nights here. I am in a continual fever of work.
—Letter to Theo van Gogh, Arles, April 9, 1888


Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888

Sadly, along with his feverish work came a form of epilepsy that caused alarming behavior, such as Vincent's desperate act of cutting off his earlobe after arguing with visiting painter Paul Gauguin. After suffering repeated breakdowns, Vincent committed himself to a sanatorium in nearby Saint-Rémy.

He painted whenever he could and believed he would improve only by making art. By the time he died at age 37, Vincent had written hundreds of letters—one of the greatest bodies of personal commentary about the aims of art and the artistic process—and produced an astounding body of work comprising some 900 paintings and more than 1,000 drawings.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888

He had struggled and succeeded at more than he dreamed when he wrote that he hoped to offer the world "some memento in the form of drawings of paintings . . . to express human feeling." (Letter to Theo, c. August 4–8, 1883)