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The 19th century European society of Van Gogh's time was not ready to accept his truthful and emotionally morbid way of depicting his art subjects. His internal turbulence is clearly seen in most of his paintings, which set the stage for the direction of a new style of painting called Expressionism. It is characterized by the use of symbols and a style that expresses the artist's inner feelings about his subject. The whole of Van Gogh`s painted works - 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 period 1880-1890.
Alongside these runs his great published correspondence of 800 letters, mainly to his brother Theo, and it is through this that we learn much about, although never fully understand, the tormented spirit of this eccentric genius, Vincent Van Gogh. They reveal how, having been unable to enter the ministry of the church, he gradually became taken over by his work, inextricably enslaved by its demands, 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 him 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 called him accursed and even refused to provide his hearse for Vincent`s funeral. Therefore, an understanding of the paintings by Van Gogh requires insight into his turbulent life, because his style of painting is exemplified by a projection of the painter's inner experience onto the canvas he paints. In Vincent Van Gogh's own words, he said, "What lives in art and is eternally living, is first of all the painter, and then the painting." To understand an artist of Expressionism we must first explore their biography.
Many of us can identify with the roadblocks that Vincent Van Gogh experienced in his many career and romantic pursuits, all ending in failure. His reaction to these experiences however, demonstrates a biological and psychological abnormality, causing behaviors that alienated those around him. As he became more isolated from society and began to pour all of his energies into painting, his eccentricities and outbursts developed pathological traits, which caused him first, to be institutionalized, and second, it led to his suicidal death at the young age of 37.
His career in the art world began in 1869 when, on the recommendation of his uncle `Cent`, a founder and shareholder, he was employed by the Goupil & Co art gallery as a clark in their Hague branch. Theo joined the Brussels office in 1873. Being transferred to London to complete his training, he fell in love with Eugénie, the daughter of his landlady, but was rejected. This led him to a period of great despair and depression, so much so that he could not attend to his duties effectively and he was transferred to Paris in 1875, 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 for 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 harbouring 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 - and was able also to linger on the beach and watch the sea. 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 impecunious existance and again his uncle Cent obtained for him a clerk`s job in a booksellers in Dordrecht.
Unfulfilled in this work, he 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 suppos 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 the possibility of 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, writing to Theo:
"You know how one of the roots or foundations, not only of the Gospel, but of the whole Bible, is `Light that rises in the darkness`. Well, who needs this most, who will be receptive to it ? Experience has shownthat the people who walk in the darkness, in the centre of the earth, like the miners in the black coal mines, for instance, are very much impressed by the words of the Gospel, and believe them, too." He set off for Borinage, near Mons, 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 Académy des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
During his short and turbulent life, he sold only 1 painting for 400 francs, just 4 months before his death. It is titled "The Red Vineyard" (See painting below). Nonetheless, he produced an incredible number of masterpieces that will continue "living" for the rest of human history.
Most casual art lovers see Van Gogh as a troubled, but successful artist. This is far from the actual truth of his turbulent life, which was fraught with failure in every occupational pursuit he attempted including painting, and was marked by intermittent episodes of depression, violence and acting out behaviors.
Thanks to the preservation of 1000's of letters Van Gogh had written to friends and family, especially to his brother Theo, we have a nearly complete understanding of his feelings, experiences, and views on every aspect of his life. Surprisingly, his incredible artistic talent went undeveloped and unrecognized until he was 27 years old, after he had already failed at two other career choices, as an art dealer and a Protestant minister. Under the shroud of family shame when he was found incompetent to follow in his father's ministerial foot steps, he began to study art. He obsessively poured himself into this newly found talent and completed thousands of sketches and oil paintings before he shot himself to death at the age of 37 years old.
Many observers of Van Gogh's life justifiably believe that his eccentricities, which were visible from early childhood, compounded to create many distressing experiences that directly impacted the development of Expressionism. Painting was no longer the medium used primarily to capture photographic images. It became a crucible that could hold all of the artist's passions, conflicts, and unrealized dreams. Thus, a look into his childhood will give us an understanding of Van Gogh's creative expression, as well as an understanding of the origins of Expressionism.