Kunstmuseum Basel - Museum für Gegenwartskunst
Portrait of Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) about 1872 during his stay in The Haag

Vincent van Gogh. Biography

1853–1880

Birth, schooling and first jobs

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born to a pastor’s family on March 30th 1853 as the first of six children. Four years later his brother Theo, Vincent’s most important point of reference, was born. Following his schooling, van Gogh began an apprenticeship at an art dealer’s in The Hague. However, since van Gogh had only a limited interest in the art trade, he quit this position after six years. Between 1876 and 1880 he worked in England and Belgium, as an assistant preacher, among other things. Van Gogh suffered increasingly under the pressure of having to define for himself a profession that would make him a living, but also fulfill him. His efforts to find a place in society failed, just as did his attempt to take up the study of theology.

Shortly before Vincent’s surprising arrival in Paris in 1886, Theo van Gogh had moved into rue Lepic 54 and was able to offer his brother living and work space.

1880–1885

The begin of his art career

In 1880 van Gogh first took up an art career. His brother Theo, who now worked as an art dealer, began supporting Vincent financially. In October 1880 van Gogh signed up at the Art Academy in Brussels, but found that learning on his own suited him more, so that he soon left the academy. Vincent had to fight depression; first thoughts of suicide emerged. In The Hague he met artists from the Hague School and was given encouraging stimulus by his cousin Anton Mauve. During his time in The Hague, van Gogh worked directly from nature and discovered oil painting on his own. In 1885 his father died. At the end of October, he traveled to Antwerp and tried his luck at the painting and drawing class of the École des Beaux-Arts.

The Yellow House at Place Lamartine in Arles. Vincent van Gogh rented the right half of the house from May 1888 to April 1889. He hoped to fulfill his dream of an artists’ community. (The house no longer exists; it was destroyed in World War II.)

1886–1888

Departure for Paris

In the spring of 1886, van Gogh moved to Paris, thus arriving at the focal point of the European art scene. After his first meetings with John Russell, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard, he – through Theo – made the acquaintance of Impressionism’s most important artists, among whom: Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Paul Signac and Goerges Seurat. Under their influence, van Gogh turned from his, up to then, preferred brown and earth tones and adopted a lighter palette. In winter he made friends with Paul Gauguin. In 1887 van Gogh participated in an exhibition at Café du Tambourin that included works by Bernard, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. Vincent exhibited further paintings with, among others, Bernard and Toulouse-Lautrec at the restaurant Du Chalet. The artists called themselves Peintres du Petit Boulevard.

1888–1889

The fresh, light colours of the south

In February 1888, van Gogh departed for Arles. It was the fresh, light colours and the warm atmosphere of the south that lured him to the Provence. There he did almost two hundred paintings and over one hundred drawings and water colours. In the spring of 1888, he painted pictures of orchards, in the summer scenes of the grain harvest. In August 1888, along with landscapes, van Gogh worked on a series of portraits. In keeping with his dream of establishing an artists’ community in Arles, he invited his Paris friends to come to Arles, but only Gauguin accepted his invitation. Unfortunately this community of two did not last long. The relationship between the effusive Gauguin and the nervously overwrought van Gogh suffered from constant friction. Which soon erupted in a confrontation. In a fit, van Gogh, on the night of 23 December 1888, cut off a piece of his left ear, whereupon Gauguin left. His neighbours in Arles arranged for this “fou roux” to be interned in a clinic. Fearful of his own unpredictability, in May 1889 van Gogh presented himself voluntarily at the sanatorium Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy. In the sanatorium Vincent had a studio at his disposal. He began to paint again, at first the view from his window; later, when accompanied, he was allowed to work outdoors.

1889–1890

The last years

In 1889 and 1890 works by van Gogh were exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, at Les Vingt in Brussels and at the 1890 Salon des Indépendants. Major art critics began publishing appreciative articles on van Gogh. In May 1890 he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, about 30 kilometres fromParis. There he was under the personal care of the doctor, collector and hobby artist, Paul Gachet. He painted almost eighty pictures in Auvers, above all, landscapes and portraits.

On July 20th 1890 van Gogh wrote his last letter to Theo. Two days later Vincent turned a pistol on himself during an evening walk and was gravely wounded. On July 29th Vincent van Gogh died at the age of 37.