The whole of the painted works of Vincent Van Gogh - over 800 canvases - were produced in the very short time span of only 8 years. Indeed his total output of over 2000 drawings and paintings originate from the years 1880-1890. Alongside this runs his published correspondence of 800 letters, mainly to his brother Theo, and it is through his letters that we learn much about the tormented spirit of the eccentric genius who was Vincent Van Gogh. They reveal how, having been unable to enter the ministry of the church, he gradually became taken over by his work, in search of the ultimate 'truth' and feeling "the positive consciousness of the fact that art is something greater and higher than our own adroitness or accomplishments or knowledge".
This belief led Van Gogh to a great modesty and he used to sign himself, if at all, only "Vincent", always knowing that his life on earth would be very short. The parish priest of Auvers-sur-Oise even called him cursed and refused to provide his hearse for his funeral!
His career in the art world began in 1869 when, on the recommendation of his uncle, a founder and shareholder, he was employed by the Goupil & Co art gallery as a clerk in their Hague office. Theo joined the Brussels office in 1873. Being transferred to London to complete his training, he fell in love with Eugenie, the daughter of his landlady, but was rejected. This led him to a period of great depression, so much so that he could not attend to his duties effectively and he was transferred to Paris, where he lived in a small room in Montmatre. He was forced to resign in 1876 and immediately returned to England.
Vincent's emotional turmoil did however bear artistic fruits in the form of a remarkable gift of perception - seeing powerfully what most others did not observe at all - "sad but always cheerful" he described himself and he turned to the religious scriptures for solace, secretly harboring the ambition to become a clergyman like his father. However, he did manage to find employment in Ramsgate, on the south coast, where he tough French, spelling and arithmetic in a small school. From there he found employment as assistant to the Methodist preacher Reverend Jones at Isleworth, where he came into close contact with the great squalor and poverty of his parishioners, inspiring him to a desire to live in the service of the most destitute. However, returning home to Holland for Christmas, his parents managed to talk him out of this penniless existence and again his uncle found him a job with a bookseller in Dordrecht.
Unfulfilled in this work, Vincent spent most of his time translating biblical passages into English, French and German, and his free time in the depths of the countryside where he felt at peace. His plan was to study theology and he confided in his brother: "I suppose that for a 'sower of God's words', as I hope to be, as well as for a sower of the seed in the fields, each day will bring enough of its own evil, and the earth will produce many thorns and thistles". The image of the sower was to become a recurring theme in his work.
His father finally agreed to let him follow his religious calling and sent him to Amsterdam to study for the entrance examinations to the University Theology course which, after 15 months of study, he failed, finding the work too arid, preferring to contemplate the countryside and drawing. But the plan was not altogether abandoned and he went to Laeken, near Brussels, to attend an Evangelical training school. However, he was again refused, being considered too impulsive. Not daunted by this, his thoughts returned to the poverty of the London suburbs and his mission to preach in the spiritual desert.
So Vincent set off for Borinage in Belgium, to live among the miners and, being refused a teaching job at the school, settled in the village of Paturages where he taught the Bible and cared for the miners at his own expense. With his father's help he was eventually appointed lay preacher in Wasmes. His great charity at this time, his life often being compared to that of St Francis of Assisi, with such actions as giving up his bed to a poor person and sleeping on the floor, soon brought him into conflict with the established Church, which was outraged by his conduct and he was forced to resign! He continued his work for a while at Cuesmes but increasingly turned to drawing.
In the summer of 1880, at the age of 27, he decided to devote himself entirely to drawing and became a full-time artist. Supported financially by Theo he went to study at the Academy des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
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Read more from the Vincent Van Gogh biography and find other biographical writing by Dr Bianca Tavares at Vintage Posters.
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