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Vincent van Gogh

Family and Childhood (1853–1871)

Important Terms and People

The Art Business (1872–1876)

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in the town of Groot- Zundert in Brabant, a region of The Netherlands close to the Belgian border. He was the oldest child of Theodorus van Gogh (1822–85), a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Community, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus (1819–1907). Vincent was born exactly one year after the first Vincent Willem had been stillborn to Anna Carbentus on March 30, 1852. There is little or no evidence that Vincent knew very much about this would-be older brother, but certainly some psychoanalytical biographers have worked themselves into a Freudian frenzy about the coincidence of these birthdays and about Vincent's torturous psychological struggle as the "replacement child" for his parents. Vincent was to have five siblings: two brothers, Theodorus (Theo) (1857–91), who would become his favorite family member as well as his closest and most devoted friend, patron, and artistic agent, and the much younger Cornelius Vincent (1867–1900); and three sisters, Anna Cornelia (1855–1930), Elisabeth (Lies) Huberta (1859–1936), and Willemina (Wil) Jacoba (1862–1941), his favorite sister, who shared Vincent's psychological ailments late in her life.

Because most of what we know about Vincent's life we have learned from his compulsive correspondence with his brother Theo, we know very little about his early life, since the first extant letter from Vincent to Theo is a brief note regarding Theo's visit to his brother in The Hague, dated August 1872. In her memoirs, his sister Elisabeth recalls Vincent being a serious, sensitive boy who preferred solitude to the companionship of family and friends and loved flowers, birds, and insects. He was a good student, but, according to his sister, his choice of clothing and his eating habits and solitary nature made him appear slightly strange to others from a young age. Vincent attended the local village school for academics and the parsonage for religious education from 1861 until 1864. From 1864 to 1866 he attended a boarding school in Zevenbergen, where he studied English, French, and German before transferring to a new high school in Tilburg. He left the Tilburg school in the middle of his second year there, probably because the cost of room, board and tuition there proved too much of a financial strain for his middle-class family. The Tilburg school had a well- respected art teacher, but Vincent showed no inclination toward art as a child, and his eccentricities did not manifest themselves in a particularly creative or artistic manner. Any creative potential was apparently completed sublimated or not yet developed–a few of his early drawings survive, and although they show a modest talent for realistic rendering and copying the works of others, they are in no way outstanding or unusual for a child of his age.

After spending an undocumented year at home, on July 30, 1869, sixteen-year old Vincent was sent to The Hague to work as a junior clerk in the art firm of Goupil and Company, an international firm that dealt in contemporary work as well as early nineteenth- and eighteenth-century art and photographic prints and reproductions of famous pieces. Vincent's uncle Vincent (whom his nieces and nephews nicknamed "Oom Cent") was an important member of the firm and secured the position for his nephew. In January 1871 the van Goghs moved to Helvoirt, another town in Brabant to which Theodorus van Gogh had been transferred. We have no details of Vincent's work or life for three years after his move to The Hague. His correspondence with his brother begins on August 1, 1872, when Vincent was already nineteen years old.

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