The short life of Vincent Van Gogh, spanning only 37 years, has been the subject of much curiosity, investigation and attention, since he discovered fame posthumously. Even as varied accounts have surfaced, they all share at least one common detail – the inner workings of the mind of this iconic post-Impressionist artist were complex, difficult to unravel or understand. Did the eccentric painter ever fall in love? Was he really as unstable as he is remembered as? Most importantly, did the Dutch painter really kill himself? Conspiracy theories aside, here are 11 facts about Vincent van Gogh and the legacy he left behind.
1. Growing up, Van Gogh would often pass a tombstone with his own name inscribed on it, due to the early death of his infant brother.
Vincent Van Gogh was born in Groot-Zundert in the province of Brabant, Holland in 1853 and was the son of a Protestant minister, Theodorus Van Gogh, who was named pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1849. Exactly a year before Van Gogh was born, his mother gave birth to a stillborn boy, also named Vincent. The grieving parents laid the child to rest in the same church, marking the spot with a gravestone. Therefore, every week, while attending his father’s service, Van Gogh would have to pass by the gravestone that was inscribed with his own name.(source)
2. The artist’s initial career aspiration was to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pastor.
In fact, before Van Gogh found his true calling as an artist, he took up and, subsequently, quit many jobs. His first job was as a trainee with an art dealership in the Hague, when he was 16. He went on to work at the same firm’s offices in London and Paris, before he was fired in 1876. Following this, he worked as a school teacher in England and at a bookstore in the Netherlands. Deciding that neither of those jobs were for him, he travelled to a mining district in Belgium where he worked as a lay preacher. During this time, Van Gogh apparently gave away his belongings and slept with the poor. However, the religious organization that was sponsoring him decided that he wasn’t suitable for the job and relieved him of his duties in July 1879.(source)
3. Over the course of his 10-year-long career as an artist, Vincent Van Gogh produced almost 900 paintings and 1,100 works on paper, including 37 self-portraits. However, he could only sell one painting during his lifetime.
The only painting that Van Gogh was able to sell during his brief lifetime was Red Vineyard at Arles(The Vigne Rouge), which is now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The painting, exhibited in Brussels in 1890, was bought by Belgian artist and art collector Anna Boch, for a price of 400 francs. Writing to his brother, Theo, in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh described the scene that inspired Red Vineyard as “… we saw a red vineyard, all red like red wine. In the distance it turned to yellow, and then a green sky with the sun, the earth after the rain violet, sparkling yellow here and there where it caught the reflection of the setting sun.”. The full letter can be read here.(source)
4. He never signed his paintings as Van Gogh, choosing to identify as ‘Vincent’, instead.
During his stay in England, Van Gogh’s name was constantly misspelled – everyone called him Van Gof and not Van Gogh. Therefore, he chose to sign his paintings with Vincent, never Van Gogh. In fact, he didn’t sign all of his paintings, but only those he considered ready to be sold or exchanged with other artists.(source)
5. Van Gogh is famously remembered for chopping off his left earlobe with a razor. However, differing accounts of the incident have made it difficult to ascertain the complete truth of what happened that fateful day.
In 1888, Van Gogh shifted to rented accommodation in Arles, France, where he painted his famous sunflower series. His artist friend, Paul Gauguin came to stay with him in Arles and they worked together for almost two months before tension between the friends developed and Van Gogh lost his earlobe. One version of the events of December 23, 1888, goes like this – in a dementia-induced fit, Van Gogh threatened his friend with a knife, before he turned it on himself and cut off the lower part of his left ear.
Another account pins the blame for Van Gogh’s severed ear on Gauguin and appears in a book published by Hamburg-based historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, titled ‘”Pakt des Schweigens” or “Pact of Silence” in English. The unfortunate event is described in the book as, “On the evening of December 23, 1888, van Gogh, seized by an attack of a metabolic disease, became very aggressive when Gauguin said he was leaving him for good. The men had a heated argument near the brothel and Vincent might have attacked his friend. Gauguin, wanting to defend himself and wanting to get rid of ‘the madman’ drew his weapon and made a move towards van Gogh and by that he cut off his left ear.” Apparently, this version did not surface till much later as both men made a ‘pact of silence’ for vested interests – Gauguin to avoid prosecution and Van Gogh to salvage his friendship.
Both accounts agree on the following detail though – after Van Gogh’s earlobe was severed off, he wrapped it up in a cloth, walked to the nearby brothel and handed it to a prostitute, who fainted at the sight of the ear.(source)
6. His most famous work, The Starry Night, c.1889 was created while he was staying in an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France.
Following the severed-earlobe incident, Van Gogh checked himself into a Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Remy on 8 May 1889, fearful that his mental health had not recovered completely. During his time at the asylum, he produced a large volume of work including, perhaps his best-loved painting, The Starry Night. Incidentally, Van Gogh branded The Starry Night a “failure” when he wrote to Theo. From the asylum, Van Gogh wanted to send a package of his paintings to his brother, who would later try and sell them with little success, but The Starry Night was left out of the package because Van Gogh didn’t have enough postage and he noted that it wasn’t even “a little good”, unlike the others.(source: 1,2)
7. Van Gogh never married or had children, but the artist fell in love a few times.
Although he only lived for 37 years, Vincent Van Gogh had his heart broken quite a few times. The first woman he fell in love with was Caroline Haanebeek, a family friend who did not share his feelings and eventually married someone else. In 1881, he fell madly in love with his widowed cousin, Kee Vos Stricker but she wouldn’t have him either. Another one of his notable love interests was a prostitute, Sien Hoornik, with whom he lived for 18 months. Then, in 1883, he met and gave his heart to, Margot Begemann, who lived next door to his parents and was 12 years older than Van Gogh. However, the alliance was opposed by Begemann’s family and she tried to kill herself when the relationship ended.(source)
8. Vincent Van Gogh is remembered as, apart from a brilliant painter, a ridiculously fast walker.
At the time when he was living in London, he used to walk from Brixton to Covent Garden and it took the painter 45 minutes to cover that distance. In fact, he walked over 100 miles from London to Ramsgate, where his sister lived. His worn-out shoes even became the subjects of his paintings.(source)
9. To this date, it remains unclear whether the legendary Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide or was murdered.
The widely accepted theory was suicide. For long, the Dutch painter is believed to have shot himself in the abdomen, at the age of 37 in a wheat field, in 1890. In fact, he even confessed it on his deathbed and refused medical help. Theo, at his side, when he died, said that Vincent’s last words were “La tristesse durera toujours”, which means that “The sadness will last forever.”
However, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith released a book in 2011, called Van Gogh: The Life, which disputed the suicide story. According to the biographers’ version, Van Gogh was murdered by a local teen bully who liked to dress up as a cowboy, complete with gun and all. An article published in Vanity Fair, co-authored by the Naifeh and White, elaborately details evidence that Van Gogh’s death was murder, not suicide. The gun was never recovered, neither were any of the items he claimed were with him(canvas, easel and so on), the walk Van Gogh said he took from the field back to the inn where he was staying was incredibly long for someone with a gunshot wound, and, as the article points out, “…what kind of a person, no matter how unbalanced, tries to kill himself with a shot to the midsection? And then, rather than finish himself off with a second shot, staggers a mile back to his room in agonizing pain from a bullet in his belly?” Lastly, though this is pure speculation, Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings around that time did not reflect any sort of dejection or depression and were, in fact, lighthearted and happy.(sources: 1,2)
10. A living replica of Van Gogh’s infamous left ear has been created using the artist’s DNA and is on display at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York.
‘Sugababe’ is the name of the artificially grown replica of Van Gogh’s ear and was created by conceptual artist Deimut Strebe, in partnership with scientists from MIT and other universities. This was made possible by DNA that was extracted from a stamp Van Gogh once licked and cell samples collected from his great-great-grandnephew. What’s even more interesting is that museumgoers can not only look at this ear but also whisper into it. Naom Chomsky was the first person to speak into the ear when it debuted in Germany at The Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe.(source)
11. A team of Oscar-winning producers is working on creating a feature-length, hand-painted animation film about the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, called ‘Loving Vincent’.
Directed by artist Dakota Kobiela, ‘Loving Vincent’ will narrate Van Gogh’s story through his paintings and letters. Polish artists hired for the film will have to have hand-paint close to 57,000 frames. All paintings are oil on canvas, in true Van Gogh-style and the animation is shot in the highest possible resolution. ‘Loving Vincent’, the world’s first fully-painted feature film, is expected to hit screens in two years but you can watch the first trailer for it here.(source)