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Vincent Van Gogh
A Brief Biography

Boots (After Van Gogh)

Boots (After Van Gogh)

One book on drawing stated that Vincent Van Gogh was someone who had virtually no inherent artistic talent but learned to be an artist by sheer determination.

That's probably too sweeping a statement. True you have people who seem to have a facility for art - Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo - that you think they needed no instruction. However, virtually all famous artists - including Leonardo and Michelangelo - had formal training often extending for years.

Most of all you need to know that if you ever look at a great artist's first attempts and are amazed at their facility, then your are probably not looking at their first attempts.

Instead, what you find is their artistic talent was an ability to learn rapidly. There was one recent exhibition of a famous contemporary painter that showed some of his art when he was 14 years old. It was OK, but not exceptional for someone who was 14 years old and who had a number of relatives who were professional artists. But five years later and after taking art lessons, he produced amazing artwork which to this day is ranked among the best by an American.

As for Vincent, his original attempts showed many of the beginners' errors in art - poor perspective, off-proportions - stuff like that. It wasn't until he began to study in formal classes that he really began to produce good paintings and drawings. If you look at the original of the above copy (a modern rendering) and other of his student works, you find Vincent certainly had ability.

Vincent was born in 1853 in the Dutch town of Zundert. His dad, Theodorus, was a preacher and as typical for the time, his mom, Anna, kept the household running. Their first child was named Vincent but died at childbirth. Much has been made of the fact that when the second child - our Vincent - was born he was given the same name and no doubt saw his name on the tombstone in the churchyard.

Vincent had begun drawing at an early age. Unlike his later friend, Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Vincent did not show an ability that made his family decide he should embark on an artistic career. And remember this was a time when the ability to draw, paint, or sculpt gave one the opportunity for, if not fame and fortune, then at least a steady job.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
Vincent's Friend

But as Vincent liked art, perhaps he should be encouraged to get into the business end. Vincent's namesake uncle, called Cent, was a partner in one of France's major art dealers, Goupil & Cie. Goupil & Cie, although located in France, had galleries throughout the world and Cent managed the gallery in The Hague. Vincent became an apprentice there when he was 16 and Vincent's younger brother, Theo, also joined the firm four years later. Later Theo transferred to Paris and remained a Goupil & Cie employee for the rest of his life.

Vincent worked for Goupil & Cie for the next four years at offices in Holland, London, and Paris. But Vincent wasn't happy with being an art dealer and wanted to do something to help others. So in 1876, at age 23, he left the firm.

Vincent wasn't quite sure what he really wanted to do. Although he still liked drawing and painting, his art still didn't impress many people. So he taught school, worked at a bookshop, and also began to try his hand at being a lay preacher. Then in 1879, he was given an appointment as a missionary in Borinage the coal mining district of Belgium just north of the French border.

Although during his time at Borinage he continued drawing and painting, Vincent was nevertheless an admirable missionary. He took care of the poor and sick by giving away his clothes and personally tending to their illnesses. Where he wasn't so great was as a minister. He did not - according to the church higher-ups - have any organizing abilities or ability to give coherent sermons which tended to go off into complex theological arguments. After about 18 months, the church gave Vincent the boot.

Embittered by what he felt was a good-old-boy network in the church, Vincent decided his real avocation had always been that as an artist. Theo, whose job was pretty good, agreed to finance Vincent's study in Paris and would send him with needed supplies.

Theo managed to get Vincent a place in the atellier - the teaching studio - of Fernand Cormon. Although virtually forgotten except by art historians, at the time Fernand was a well known (and successful) artist who specialized in fancy historical and mythological paintings. These were the rage among the rich fat-cats in France and elsewhere.

At this point it's important to separate the sensitive, idealistic, and articulate Vincent of fiction - that is, who we see in Lust for Life - and the real Van Gogh. Few of his fellow students saw him as any kind of artistic genius. With the exception of Emile Bernard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Fernands's other students tended avoid him. Actually they were a little afraid of him. Vincent's temperament was sullen, his French - spoken through poorly fitted false teeth - was bad, and in artistic discussions, he tended to loose his temper for no apparent reason.

So despite how much we wish Vincent was an admirable dinner companion, the truth is he was not a particularly pleasant person. His appearance tended to be disheveled and after he moved to Arles, one girl who worked in her father's art supply shop later remembered him as impolite and dirty. She said the local people thought he was nuts.

Now one professional's definition of people who are mentally ill are if they are residents of a mental hospital. So at least for a few months, Vincent was mentally ill. After a number of episodes where he exhibited erratic and even dangerous behavior (including the famous self-mutilation of his left ear which drove Paul Gauguin to Tahiti), he admitted himself voluntarily to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole hospital near Arles (which was also where Albert Schweitzer was briefly interred as a German national during World War I). All in all, Vincent's behavior makes one suspect that his psychological problems were actual due to some physical ailment.

But in any case, we can safely say that no one knows what was the problem was even though - or perhaps because - every few years someone comes up a new explanation. Among the possibilities that have been listed are various types of epilepsy, an inner-ear problem, bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness), magnesium deficiency, thujone poisoning from drinking absinthe, lead poisoning, porphyria and hypergraphia, a brain tumor, glaucoma, poisoning from digitalis, and sunstroke. However, like so much history, the diagnoses can correspond to what happens to be in the news at the time the opinion was given.

According to most accounts Vincent was fully lucid when on July 27, he showed up at his rooming house in Auvers-sur-Oise with a gunshot wound to the stomach. He lived a bit more than a day. Long accepted as suicide a more recent appraisal was he might have been shot accidentally by someone else.

You'll hear Vincent sold only one painting during his life. That's true, sort of. By the standard of the French government - who at the time still controlled artistic standards - there was no sale without a "sound price". At the time that meant a few hundred francs for a painting, and Vincent sold Red Vineyards near Arles for 400 francs. He did sell other paintings for less - sometimes 30 or 40 francs - but most of the real sales began after he died. The rise in his popularity can be seen as resulting from the efforts of Theo's widow (Theo died just a few months after Vincent), Vincent's friends, and the rise of the popularity of modern art.

Five years after his death, Vincent got a big shot in the arm when the art dealer Ambroise Vollard staged an exhibit of Vincent's work. When Ambroise spoke, people listened and later Ambroise represented another artist - at the time virtually unknown - named Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso. The young painter with the jaw-cracking name did pretty good as well.

OK. Now we come to the big question.

Just how do you pronounced "Van Gogh"?

Americans, of course, say "Van Go" as in a moving van going someplace. The British, though, say "Van Goff" (that is, making the "gh" as in "enough"). Neither pronunciation is even close to they way Vincent himself said his name.

"Van" - as Ludwig Van Beethoven once said - is a Dutch predicate not to be confused with "von" in German. "Von" is used to indicate nobility im Deutschland. In Dutch and to American ears there is a slight "f" sound to the "v" and as there is no short "a" with the quality of English "a" as in "hat", the vowel is sounded more as a short "u" as in "but".

So put it all together and "Van" comes out something like "fvun".

What really give English speakers problems, though, is initial "G" of "Gogh". It is what linguists call a gutteral voiced-fricative but is pretty unique to Dutch. It is best described as an "h" but pronounced deep in the back of the throat. The vocal cords must vibrate (hence the "voiced" designation.

There is more to the sound. So think of the way you sound when you are out in the cold and want to warm up your hands. You take a deep breath and blow into your hands. But vibrate your vocal cords. The result is a rough sounding back throated "h", a bit smoother than the "kh" sound of Scottish "loch" (as in "Loch Lamond" and German "ach" (as in "Ach, Du Lieber!").

The "o" after the G is pretty much as English long "o" as in "go". But again the gh is a gutteral fricative but this time it is unvoiced and is much like the "ch" in "loch" and "ach". If not exactly the same, that sound will do in a pinch.

But most Americans, though, will still say "Van Go" and the British will stick with "Van Goff". That's really not so bad. Once a Dutch broadcaster, Arthur Japin, gave the correct pronunciation of Vincent's name to an English audience. But then he cautioned, "Please! Don't try this at home."



Van Gogh: The Life, Steven Naifeh, Steven; Gregory Smith, Random House, 2001. This book has a website with at

The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery, David Brooks, This website has all of Van Gogh's painting posted, as well as a biography and essays about Vincent's art. A good essay about Van Gogh forgeries and fakes.

Vincent Van Gogh Gallery, Similar to the website above.

Van Gogh Museum, The Van Gogh Museum's website.

Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters, Van Gogh Letters Project, Everyone knows Vincent wrote copious letters, mostly to his brother, Theo, and this is probably the best place to find them. They make interesting reading and are vital for the Vincent scholar, but they can get a bit overwhelming in their sheer number.
     That said, this is a well-designed and easily navigated website. The letters are well-indexed, have interactive footnotes, and best of all, they are displayed as text on the web page and not as (ptui) pdf files - and the site is free and requires no registration. Bravo! for the creators of the site!

"Van Gogh The Preacher?" Maev Kennedy, The Guardian, January 22, 2015.

Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life, Julia Frey, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994

"Jeanne Calment, World's Elder, Dies at 122", Craig R. Whitney, New York Times, August 5, 1997.

New Explanation Given For van Gogh's Agonies", Natalie Angier, The New York Times, Natalie Angier, December 21, 1991.

"How to Say: Van Gogh", BBC Magazine Monitor, January 22, 2010.

"Gothic", Qi, Steven Fry (host), Alan Davies (co-host), Jack Dee (contestant), Sue Perkins, (contestant), Arthur Japin (guest), February 19-20, 2010.