A Biographical Note on Vincent Van Gogh

incent-Willem Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in the parsonage at Groot Zundert in North Brabant. His father, Theodorus Van Gogh, was pastor of the parish; his mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus, wrote, drew, and painted. A year earlier, to the day, the couple had delivered another son, also named Vincent-Willem, who died at birth. They had four subsequent children, Anna (1855), Theo (1857), Elizabeth (1859), and Cornelius (1867). Essentially a loner, Vincent spent much of his boyhood wandering the countryside around the parsonage. Perhaps encouraged by his mother, he also practiced drawing and, on the evidence of a few surviving pieces from this time, became a fair copyist and draftsman. In 1864 Vincent attended boarding school in nearby Zevenbergen; two years later he moved to a boarding school in Tilburg which he attended for another two years.
At sixteen, he had to decide upon a career; for the Van Goghs, that meant either the ministry or art. He chose art and went to The Hague where he commenced an apprenticeship in a branch office of Goupil & Co., an art house which his uncle had founded. In 1873 Vincent was transferred to the London branch of the firm, and Theo began work in the Brussels branch. While in London, Vincent's love for Ursula Loyer, his landlady's daughter, was spurned. Following his rejection, he sought consolation in religion. In October 1874 Vincent was transferred to the Paris office, then back to London in December. The following May he returned to Paris where he argued with his employers, a period of conflict leading to his dismissal from the firm in April 1875.
Vincent returned to London and assumed the post of assistant teacher at Ramsgate until June when he took the same post at a school in Isleworth. In November, he delivered his first sermon in a local Methodist church. He left England to visit his parents for Christmas in Etten, near Zundert, where they had moved. He remained in Holland, taking a position in a bookstore in Dordrecht where he worked until May 1877, when he moved to Amsterdam to begin studying for the entrance examinations to attend Theological School. After fifteen months, he abandoned his studies and entered an Evangelical school in Brussels, which he left after three months.
In December 1878 Vincent moved to the Borinage, a poor mining district in South Belgium, where he preached and worked, at his own expense. The next January, he received a six-month nomination to work as a lay preacher in Wasmes. The Church Council dismissed him in July for his immoderate dedication to his calling; following a damp-fire explosion in one of the mines, Vincent devoted himself to the striking miners, giving them the little money he had and even tearing the shirt off his back to make bandages for those wounded in the explosion. He stayed in the Borinage, moving to nearby Cuesmes. At this time he discovered his vocation as an artist and began drawing the miners among whom he had worked and who continued to house and feed him.
In October 1880, Vincent moved to Brussels where he studied anatomy and perspective at the Royal Academy of fine arts; Theo sent the first of the support payments, which continued until the end of Vincent's life. The following April Vincent returned to Etten and lived with his parents. His widowed cousin, Kee Vos-Stricher, rejected his courtship. At the end of the year, after a quarrel with his father on Christmas day, he moved to The Hague and took lessons from his cousin Anton Mauve, a successful painter of The Hague School. After only a few weeks, he took in Clasina Maria Hoornik-Sien, as he called her-a pregnant prostitute, and her daughter. His attachment to Sien aggravated his relations with both his family and Mauve, and Mauve soon refused to work with him. In June Vincent entered the hospital with gonorrhea, probably contracted from Sien. Vincent remained in The Hague until September 1883 when, voicing the family's concerns, Theo pressured him to leave Sien. Vincent yielded to Theo, although Sien was pregnant again, because she had resumed her old routines, and he was unsure the child was his. After three months in Drenthe, an isolated region in Northern Holland, he returned to live with his parents, now settled at a parsonage in Neunen, still in Brabant.
During the almost two years Vincent stayed at Neunen, he pursued his art, producing drawings and paintings of local life, among them the renowned "Potato Eaters." Early in his stay, he nursed his mother through a broken leg. His brief affair with a neighbor, Margot Begemann, provoked his family's disapproval and ended with her attempted suicide. During March of his second year, his father died. In November 1885 he left Neunen for Antwerp, where, the next January, he entered the Academy of Art; several weeks later, after collapsing from physical strain and mental exhaustion, he preemptorily quit Antwerp and moved to Paris, lodging with Theo.
Vincent spent another two years in Paris, from February 1886 until February 1888. He joined the Atelier Cormon in March of his first spring and soon met many of the painters working in Paris, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Bernard, Guillamin, Gauguin, Pissaro, Signac, and Degas, with whom he worked and exhibited. While in Paris, he also discovered Japanese art, which exerted a strong influence on his work. His stay with Theo was often turbulent, but, since we owe much of our knowledge of Vincent's biography to his packed and frequent letters to Theo, few details from this germinal period survive. By February 1888 he felt a need to leave Paris; he could learn little more, and he was lured by the dream of light that had brought him south from Neunen.
The last two and a half years of Vincent's life are his most productive and certainly rank among the most productive periods of any painter's career; between February 1888, when he arrived in Arles, and his death in July 1890 in Auvers, he painted some 400 canvases and made more than 200 drawings and watercolors. While in Arles, he nursed a vision of a colony of painters living and working together in the Midi-the Mediterranean region around Arles. The closest he came to realizing his dream was Gauguin's brief and disastrous stay with him in Vincent's "Yellow House" from October to December of his first year, which culminated in Vincent severing his earlobe and his subsequent hospitalization. During this time, Vincent made several close friendships among the residents of Arles, including Lt. Milliet, a soldier stationed in the garrison, and Joseph Roulin, a postman; also Theo announced his engagement to and married Johanna Bonger. After his first episode, Vincent's second spring in Arles found him confined twice more, the second time forcibly at the request of the citizens. Following his third internment, Vincent left Arles and voluntarily committed himself to the asylum in the Cloisters of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in nearby Saint-Remy.
Vincent remained a year in Saint-Remy. While his illness--perhaps epilepsy complicated by syphilis, glaucoma, digitalis poisoning, or absinthe, or a form of schizophrenia--forced Vincent into periods of confinement, he also spent much of his time wandering the asylum grounds and even beyond, in the care of an attendant. In January 1890 Theo and Johanna delivered a son, christened Vincent-Willem. Vincent suffered his seventh crisis from mid-February until mid-April. Also in February, his paintings were exhibited in Brussels, and in March he sold "The Red Vineyard" for 400 francs, the only painting sold during his life.
Dissatisfied and increasingly depressed by the asylum, Vincent and Theo determined to move him to Auvers, a small village north of Paris, where Dr. Gachet, an amateur painter recommended by Pissaro, would care for him. Vincent left Saint-Remy in May and spent three days in Paris with Theo, Johanna, and his nephew before continuing to Auvers. His condition showed no improvement; he found himself at odds with Dr. Gachet and alienated from the villagers. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself and died two days later. Theo died on January 25, 1891.

Allen Hoey