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Van Gogh: How the Post-Impressionist’s Work Evolved During His Short Life

Vincent Van Gogh Paintings Van Gogh Life Van Gogh Bio

“Self-Portrait” (1887) (Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

The work of Vincent van Gogh is among the most recognizable art in the world. Completed in the second half of the 19th century, the Post-Impressionist‘s collection of drawings and paintings illustrates his artistic interests and the evolution of his practice.

While Van Gogh has found a significant amount of fame posthumously, his life was not as untroubled as his characteristically colorful canvases would suggest. From financial struggles to his failing mental health, Van Gogh faced many personal challenges during his career. Eventually, the weight of these problems would lead the artist to take his own life, making his now-beloved body of work particularly poignant.

Today, Van Gogh is known for the distinctive style of his popular paintings. Defined by thick, painterly brushstrokes and a bright color palette, these luminous landscapes, expressive portraits, and lively still lifes have come to represent the artist. However, Van Gogh's work did not always feature this familiar aesthetic. Instead, it was shaped over time, evolving with each phase of his short life.

Vincent Van Gogh Paintings Van Gogh Life Van Gogh Bio

Left: “The Cottage” (1885) (Photo: Google Arts & Culture via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)
Right: “Thatched Cottages at Cordeville” (1890) (Photo via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Van Gogh's Evolution

Early Years

Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, the Netherlands. While he would occasionally draw as a child, his artistic talent remained largely undiscovered until he decided to pursue painting at 27 years old.

Prior to becoming an artist, Van Gogh explored a number of possible career paths. Having quit school just three years prior, his uncle secured him a job as a clerk at Goupil & Cie, an international art dealer, when he was just 16 years old. A few years later, he was transferred from offices in the Hague to London, where he visited museums regularly and became a lifelong fan of Realist artists like Jean-François Millet.

Vincent Van Gogh Paintings Van Gogh Life Van Gogh Bio

A later letter from Vincent Van Gogh to John Peter Russell showing a figure inspired by Realist artist Millet (1888) (Photo: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Young Adulthood

Van Gogh left his job at the firm in 1876. He worked in a school and a bookshop before unsuccessfully studying theology in Amsterdam and working as a lay preacher in Belgium. Following these stints, Van Gogh's brother, Theo, offered to financially support him so that he could pursue art.

After relocating to the Netherlands, Van Gogh began taking art lessons from artist Anton Mauve. Inspired by Realism, he became a “peasant painter,” producing gritty depictions of life in the countryside. While Theo—now an art dealer in Paris—tried to sell these “peasant paintings,” their dark hues and unpleasant subject matter did not appeal to the French.

Vincent Van Gogh Paintings Van Gogh Life Van Gogh Bio

“The Potato Eaters” (1885) (Photo: Google Arts & Culture via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

To remedy this, Van Gogh decided to join Theo in Paris, where he would work with artist Fernand Cormon and brighten up his palette.

 

“Utterly Numbed” in Paris

Exposed to the airy art of Impressionist artists like Claude Monet and introduced to fellow Paris-based painters like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh soon adopted a lighter and more colorful approach to painting. It is here that he also developed his signature brushwork.

Vincent Van Gogh Paintings Van Gogh Life Van Gogh Bio

“View of Paris from Montmartre” (1886) (Photo via Wikimedia Commons  Public Domain)

Still, even with this new and modern approach, Van Gogh did not find success in the French capital. “It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure,” he wrote to Theo in 1888. “Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.”

He decided to relocate once again—this time to Arles, an idyllic city in the south of France.

Vincent Van Gogh Paintings Van Gogh Life Van Gogh Bio

“Café Terrace at Night” (1888) (Photo via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

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