ARTISTS (1853–1890); ZUNDERT, NETHERLANDS
The prolific yet short-lived career of Vincent van Gogh has captivated the art world nearly as much as his actual paintings have. From his birth in the Netherlands to his death in France—not to mention the infamous ear incident of 1888—the Dutch post-impressionist painter was a creative force of nature who took a little longer than other artists of the era to find his calling. Now, his life has been immortalized in movies, songs, and countless art exhibits, but, as is the case with so many great artists, van Gogh wasn't celebrated much while he was alive. Find out more about the fascinating man behind The Starry Night and Sunflowers below.
1. Most of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings were done in a single decade.
Vincent Willem van Gogh grew up in the Netherlands and joined an art firm called Goupil & Cie in The Hague in 1869, when he was just 16 years old. Four years later, Goupil & Cie sent him to deal art in London, but it was never a good fit—van Gogh couldn’t muster enthusiasm for the business side of art, and he was fired in 1876. After trying his hand at teaching and even preaching, he turned to what he’d soon realize was his true vocation: painting. Largely self-taught, van Gogh painted nearly 900 works between November 1881 and July 1890, when he died at age 37.
2. Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night in an asylum.
Van Gogh entered the Saint-Paul-de Mausole Asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, after a mental breakdown in late 1888. He painted The Starry Night based on the view from his second-story bedroom window—with a few significant modifications. For one, he omitted the iron bars that were almost definitely fastened to the window, since he mentioned “the iron-barred window” in a letter to his brother Theo the previous month. And he added a lovely, moonlit town in the distance, which he wouldn’t have been able to see from his window. Some historians think he modeled the village on earlier sketches he had done of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, while others believe it was inspired by the Netherlands, where van Gogh was born.
3. Nine paintings from Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers series still exist.
Van Gogh painted two series of Sunflowers. He completed the first series—four paintings known as the Paris Sunflowers, which all depict the flowers lying on the ground—while living with Theo in Paris in the mid-1880s. Then, when he moved into a yellow house in Arles in 1888, he set to work on what’s now called the Arles Sunflowers, which display floral arrangements in vases. He planned to decorate the house with the sunflower paintings to please fellow painter Paul Gauguin, who would visit him there. Originally, van Gogh had painted seven Sunflowers in Arles, but one was destroyed in a fire during World War II, and another was lost after it was sold into a private collection.
4. Historians aren’t sure exactly why Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear.
Everybody agrees the infamous incident took place on December 23, 1888, while van Gogh was living in Arles, France, with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, but there are several theories as to why van Gogh took a knife or razor to his own ear that fateful night—as well as how much he cut off, and who was the recipient of history’s most revolting gift. The leading theory is that van Gogh was distraught after a quarrel with Gauguin, though others believe it was a reaction to learning his beloved brother Theo was getting married. Some even think it was Gauguin who did the slicing.
Also, while it’s possible that van Gogh only lopped off the lobe, his physician sketched an image that shows van Gogh’s entire ear is missing. Circumstances notwithstanding, van Gogh then brought his mutilated ear to a woman in a nearby brothel—long thought to be a prostitute, though recent evidence suggests she was likely a barmaid—and asked her to guard it carefully.
5. Vincent van Gogh died from a (likely) self-inflicted gunshot wound in France.
Van Gogh’s auricular accident of 1888 may be due to the fact that he was likely dealing with an undiagnosed health issue at the time. The particular mental and/or physical illness van Gogh suffered from isn’t known—though a doctor did once diagnose him with a form of epilepsy—but suggestions include dementia, hallucinatory psychosis, alcoholism, syphilis, turpentine poisoning, schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and more.
On July 27, 1890, while living in the French village Auvers-sur-Oise, van Gogh walked into a field and shot himself in the abdomen. He was able to make it back to the inn where he was staying, but he died from the wound two days later, with Theo by his side. He was just 37 years old. Some have theorized van Gogh was shot by someone else, but it’s generally believed the artist was responsible for his own death.
6. Vincent van Gogh didn’t sell many paintings commercially while he was alive.
Van Gogh is a pretty classic example of someone who didn’t see commercial success during his lifetime. Apart from the 19 cityscapes of The Hague that his uncle commissioned him to make early in his career, van Gogh only sold a few paintings while he was alive—one to Parisian art dealer Julien Tanguy, one that Theo sold to a London gallery, and a third, The Red Vineyard, to the sister of van Gogh’s friend, Eugène Boch.
That said, van Gogh did often trade works to other artists in exchange for food or supplies, so his paintings definitely weren’t unknown or unappreciated. Much of van Gogh’s art went to Theo after his death, but Theo himself died just a year later. At that point, Theo’s widow, Johanna, began working to organize exhibitions and promote the art of her brother-in-law across Europe, which eventually led to more mainstream success for the already-deceased artist.
A Selection of Vincent van Gogh’s Paintings
- Still Life With Cabbage and Clogs (1881)
- Dunes (1882)
- Girl in the Woods (1882)
- Cottages (1883)
- Weaver Facing Left With Spinning Wheel (1884)
- Cart with Red and White Ox (1884)
- Vase With Honesty (1884-1885)
- Head of an Old Peasant Woman With White Cap (1884)
- The Potato Eaters (1885)
- Skull of a Skeleton With Burning Cigarette (1886)
- A Pair of Shoes (1886)
- Self-Portrait (1886)
- Japonaiserie: The Courtesan (1887)
- Sunflowers (1886-1888)
- The Sower (1888)
- Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (1888)
- The Night Café (1888)
- The Café Terrace at Night (1888)
- Starry Night Over the Rhône (1888)
- Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1888)
- Bedroom in Arles (1888)
- Paul Gauguin (Man in a Red Beret) (1888)
- Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear (1889)
- Irises (1889)
- The Starry Night (1889)
- Cypresses (1889)
- Wheat Field With Reaper and Sun (1889)
- Olive Grove (1889)
- At Eternity’s Gate (1890)
- Houses in Auvers (1890)
- The Church at Auvers (1890)
- Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890)
Notable Quotes by Vincent van Gogh
- “Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures.”
- “It’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit, even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious.”
- “[The] great isn’t something accidental; it must be willed.”
- “The sight of the stars always makes me dream.”
- “Even though I’m often in a mess, inside me there’s still a calm, pure harmony and music.”
- “The more I think about it the more I feel that there’s nothing more genuinely artistic than to love people.”
- “It is good to love as much as one can, for therein lies true strength, and he who loves much does much and is capable of much, and that which is done with love is well done.”
- “There is safety in the midst of danger. What would life be if we didn’t dare to take things in hand?”
- “I seek, I pursue, my heart is in it.”