From Monet’s Water Lilies to Paul Cezanne‘s French landscapes, artists have always been inspired by their surroundings. Vincent Van Gogh was no exception. He lived in over 15 different cities across Europe during his short, 37-year life, searching for both artistic inspiration, but also for a place to calm his busy mind. In a letter to his brother Theo in August 1888 he wrote, “It always seems to me that I’m a traveler who’s going somewhere and to a destination.”
Van Gogh’s huge body of work is like a timeline, revealing where he traveled, the places he lived, and his state of mind at the time. Each location not only provided inspiration, but also shaped his style and influenced his productivity. From the Dutch seaside to the French countryside, here are 5 places that shaped Van Gogh’s life and work.
5 Places That Inspired Vincent van Gogh’s Paintings
The Hague, The NetherlandsVan Gogh first went to the Dutch seaside town of The Hague in 1869 when he was just 16 for his first apprenticeship at the Goupil gallery. Here, he was first introduced to the work of other 19th-century European painters—some of which would later inspire his later landscape work.
Van Gogh was particularly influenced by Anthonij Rudolf Mauve—a Dutch realist painter who was a leading member of the Hague School. At the end of 1881 when van Gogh was in his late twenties, the young artist spent 3 weeks at Mauve’s studio. During this time he started experimenting with color and texture for the first time, often creating thick, impasto paintings in oil. One of these early canvases includes View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882), depicting a gray, windy day at the seaside near his home at the time. It was so windy in fact, that grains of sand are still embedded in the painting’s surface today, evidence that Van Gogh painted it en plein air that day.
Nuenen, The NetherlandsAt age 30, in December 1883, Van Gogh moved into his family’s home in the Dutch pastoral village of Nuenen. Despite having an estranged relationship with both parents, Van Gogh loved the surrounding calm nature, and thrived in his own studio that he set up in the property’s laundry room. He worked constantly during this time, often producing studies of typical Brabant locals, countryside landscapes, and the neighborhood church where his father was the pastor.
Although busy, Van Gogh was unable to sell his work, so he became financially dependent on his brother Theo who was working as an art dealer in Paris. They agreed that every painting Van Gogh made would be Theo’s property in return for 150 francs every month.
Without financial pressure, Van Gogh felt free to experiment even more with color and thick brushwork. One of the last pieces he made while in Neuen was Autumn Landscape (1885), which displayed his growing confidence in composition, color, and light. “My palette is thawing,” he wrote to Theo around the time he completed the piece, “and the bleakness of the earliest beginnings has gone.”
Paris, FranceVan Gogh spent two years in Paris during February 1886 and February 1888, where he was introduced to Impressionism for the first time. He socialized with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, met Paul Gauguin, and he even lived down the street from Auguste Renoir. The work of these artists heavily influenced Van Gogh, who began developing his loose, expressive brushwork that he became most famous for.
As well as depicting Parisian parks and street scenes, Van Gogh completed two of his most famous self-portraits during his stint in the city—Self-Portrait with Black Felt Hat (1887) and Self-Portrait with Gray Felt Hat (1887). Painted less than a year apart, it’s clear to see how fast the artist’s own unique colorful style developed during this short time.
Arles, FranceAlthough Paris was artistically productive for Van Gogh, he suffered financial pressure and fell into a nightly routine of drinking heavily. The artist once wrote, “I left Paris very, very upset, quite ill and almost an alcoholic through overdoing it.” In a bid to get healthy, Van Gogh moved to the south of France, to the quiet city of Arles in February 1888.
Surrounded by the Provencal countryside’s wheat fields, vineyards, and fields of sunflowers, Van Gogh became so inspired that he painted around 200 pieces during his 15 month stay—that’s more than 3 per week! Works such as Harvest in Provence, The Sower, and The Red Vineyard at Arles (all 1888) are characterized by bold colors and dynamic brushstrokes, signifying his happy state of mind.By early September, Van Gogh settled into the Yellow House which he later began using as a studio. This home was the subject of several of his canvases, including The Bedroom (1888) which depicts his own sleeping quarters. In the fall of 1888, Van Gogh invited fellow artist Paul Gauguin to stay with him there, but the visit didn’t end well. An argument caused Van Gogh to suffer a psychotic episode in which he infamously cut his own ear off. This experience resulted in a series of melancholic self-portraits, including Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889).
Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, FranceAfter a series of mental breakdowns, Van Gogh committed himself to an asylum 20 miles north of Arles called Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. His mental health fluctuated, but on good days he often painted in the institution’s walled garden and surrounding landscapes. It was during this time that Van Gogh completed one of his most famous paintings, The Starry Night (1889).
Featuring a dark sky, shimmering stars, and a glowing moon swirling above a small village, it depicts the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room, just before sunrise. It reveals that even through Van Gogh’s toughest times, he was committed to his craft. In Living with Vincent van Gogh: The homes and landscapes that shaped the artist (2019), scholar and curator Martin Bailey writes, “This vibrant painting stands as a powerful testament to the artist’s struggle to overcome the challenges of living and working in an asylum for the insane.”
However, just a year later in 1890, Van Gogh decided to end his mental suffering and sadly took his own life in the small town of Auvers in northern France. Although his life was short and turbulent, Van Gogh’s 850 paintings and 1,300 drawings showcase his passion and creative determination for life and art, making him one of the most celebrated artists of all time.