Born in 1853 in Brabant, The Netherlands, Vincent Willem Van Gogh was the eldest son of Theodorus Van Gogh (1822–85), a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus (1819–1907). A good student, Vincent left school in 1869 at age sixteen in the middle of his secondary education to begin work as a clerk at the art dealership Goupil and Company in The Hague, where his uncle was a partner and where his younger brother Theo began work in 1872. Although he himself showed no inclination toward art as a profession, he appreciated art history and thrived in his commercial art profession, receiving high praise from his superiors, who soon transferred him to London.
After a failed attempt at romance with his London landlady's daughter, Vincent was devastated and, upon his subsequent transfer to Paris in 1875, became dejected and more introverted, neglecting his work and appearance and becoming heavily interested in the Bible and religious study. In 1876, Van Gogh was fired from Goupil and Company, and by 1877, he had taught and preached at schools in England and worked at a bookstore in The Netherlands, after which he decided to begin theological study in Amsterdam and then in Brussels. He worked as an evangelist in various villages in the Borinage, a poor mining district in Belgium, but his religious fanaticism, asceticism, and his lack of charisma as a preacher marked him for failure, despite his humanitarian intentions and his sincere, even obsessive, devotion to the poor and the sick. By 1879, he had experienced a total spiritual crisis and had decided to become an artist, beginning by sketching the Belgian miners and workers with whom he lived, then studying art briefly in Brussels with the painter Anton van Rappard With Theo's support, Vincent moved to his family's home in Etten, The Netherlands, in 1881, and in January of the next year, after quarreling with his disappointed parents, he moved to The Hague to begin serious artistic study.
In The Hague, Vincent studied with painter and relative Anton Mauve, and continued his rigorous program of drawing workers and the poor, with whom he claimed he felt a spiritual connection. He took in a prostitute named Sien as his model, and while supporting her, her child, and her mother, he began his first figure studies, the most famous of which is Sorrow. Scandalized by his proclaimed love for Sien and his desire to marry her, his family gradually cut off financial support, until Van Gogh was supported only by his devoted younger brother Theo. Theo had become an art dealer with Goupil and he continued to support and represent Vincent financially, commercially, and emotionally until his death.
This financial support allowed Vincent to begin experimentation with lithography, printmaking, and oil painting, but by 1883, he could no longer afford city life, and he was forced to leave Sien and move to the countryside. Staying first in Drenthe and then with his parents in Nuenen, The Netherlands, eventually he moved to the local presbytery, where he concentrated on depictions of peasant life and came into contact with visiting artists, including Van Rappard. Things slowly improved for Vincent's career–he met and befriended a few fellow artists, received a commission for a domestic mural, briefly took on a few (unpaying) students, and made a consignment arrangement with Theo, wherein he would send all his work to his brother with the understanding that Theo would try to sell it. Theo would pay him modestly for his efforts by continuing to financially support him. In 1885, after his father died and upon completing his first masterpiece of peasant life, The Potato Eaters, Vincent visited Amsterdam and then moved to Antwerp, where he could visit art museums and study at the academy. After a few months, he had become completely frustrated with the stifling academic art training and its emphasis on realism and "natural laws," and he abruptly moved to Paris to live with Theo in March 1886.
In Paris, Vincent was in the very epicenter of modern art, and he took the opportunity to study with Fernand Cormon, at whose studio he met some members of the Impressionist circle, including Emile Bernard, who later became a close friend. Theo's position in the commercial art world afforded Vincent the chance to see the latest Impressionist exhibitions and to speak with many of the Impressionist artists whom Theo represented, including Monet, Degas, Sisley, Renoir, and Pissarro, many of whom frequented the art shop of Pere Tanguy, a local hang-out for the Paris avant-garde. Vincent was able to trade his paintings for other artists' work, and an art dealer even took a few of his paintings, but he still could not sell anything. Influenced by the Japanese prints he was able to see in Paris, in 1887 Vincent began settling on portraits (including self-portraits) and flowers as subjects, hoping to improve his use of color.
In Paris, Vincent's psychiatric health began its decline, and the dark side of his complicated condition (probably a combination of mild epilepsy and schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, compounded with syphilis, glaucoma, Digitalis poisoning from paint, and a weakness for absinthe and alcohol) started to reveal itself in violent mood swings, depression, and drunken and erratic behavior. Vincent became involved with the female owner of the local Cafe du Tambourin, where he exhibited work with rising post-Impressionist stars like Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Bernard–he was even able to organize his own exhibition of Japanese prints at the cafe in March of 1887.
That spring, Vincent began spending a lot of time painting and talking with his new artist friends, especially the neo-Impressionist Paul Signac and Bernard, and his affair with the cafe proprietress ended after about five months. By the beginning of 1888, Vincent had managed to exhibit his own work at two substantial, proper shows–one that he organized himself in November 1887 at a restaurant to display the work of the circle of the younger Paris Impressionists, who became known temporarily as the "Impressionists of the Petit Boulevard". The neo-Impressionist leader Georges Seurat was impressed by the show, as was Paul Gauguin, and Vincent was able to show some work with Seurat and Signac at the Salle de Repetition of the Theatre Libre d'Antoine. In February 1888, after experiencing a near physical and mental breakdown due to stress and alcohol, Vincent decided he must move to Arles, in the south of France, where he could work in a more temperate climate more quietly and independently and with fewer expenses. He intended to concentrate on bucolic landscapes, open-air light and color, and peasant portraiture.
By the time he had moved to Arles for a period of rehabilitation, Van Gogh had already gained the respect of the Paris avant-garde, but in Arles and later in St. Remy and Auvers, he produced most of the masterpieces for which he is most widely known in what were the two final years of his life. Here, he finally achieved his mature style of distinctive color and heavy, modeled, rhythmic brushwork. The stress and sheer physical and mental exertion of this obsessive output, however, proved too much for his encroaching illnesses, and his condition gradually worsened as his painting became increasingly facile and accomplished.
In March, Theo managed to have his brother's work shown at an important exhibition of the Artistes Independents in Paris, which was a heartening sign of real inclusion in the Paris avant-garde. In May, Vincent moved into the "little yellow house" in Arles, where he remained until his move to the St. Remy asylum in May 1889. He befriended several local residents, some of whom he painted repeatedly, but he was lonely, yearning for the company of other artists that he enjoyed in Paris. In July, Gauguin accepted Vincent and Theo's offer to move in with Vincent in Arles in the hope that they could together spearhead Vincent's dream of founding an artistic community there. By the time Gauguin arrived in October, Vincent had produced some of his most important portraits and self-portraits, as well as his interior masterpieces The Night Cafe and The Bedroom. Gauguin and Van Gogh worked together fruitfully for two months, but their friendship became strained after an argument about a Montpellier museum exhibition they visited together.
In December, the strain of living with the difficult and antagonistic Gauguin reached a crisis after a violent argument. Vincent suffered a total mental collapse, experiencing auditory hallucinations and cutting off part of his left ear, possibly during an epileptic seizure while shaving. Vincent was taken to a hospital in Arles after presenting his severed ear to a prostitute at a local brothel as a gift–a last-ditch attempt at romance after so many failures and rejections. Vincent's "attacks" became fairly regular after this first major episode, and these fits of hallucinations, dementia, and seizures only increased in frequency until his suicide.
In May 1889 Vincent left Arles for an asylum in St. Remy of his own accord. Vincent spent his time at the asylum (almost exactly one year) painting landscapes of the hospital grounds and portraits of patients and attendants, hoping to achieve a cure for his condition. He suffered periodic episodes of hallucination, breakdown, and seizure, during which times he was confined indoors. He occasionally ate his paint during his fits, which only made him sicker and resulted in the temporary confiscation of his materials. In September, his work was requested for the "Les XX" ("The Twenty") exhibition of post-Impressionist artists in Paris, and although his Irises and Starry Sky, both works from Arles, were well received at the fifth Artistes Independents show, his interest in refining his portraits grew. Vincent was outraged by his first taste of publicity, a quite positive mention of his work at the Paris World Fair in October 1889, and in December he had suffered a serious relapse and had begun to mention thoughts of suicide to his attendants. His work at the "Les XX" exhibit in Brussels aroused much interest from the public, and one painting even sold in February 1890 for four hundred francs. The same month a glowing review of Van Gogh's work alone by Albert Aurier was published, and Vincent was overwhelmed with gratitude and hopefulness, but after a return visit to a friend in Arles he was once again incapacitated. In March 1890, ten of his paintings were exhibited at the next Artistes Independents show, and Monet claimed that Vincent's work was the finest in the entire exhibition. In May 1890, Vincent finally left the St. Remy asylum and visited Theo and his new wife and baby son, named Vincent, a move he had desired for months, but which was contingent on Theo making arrangements with a Dr. Gachet to supervise Vincent while he stayed at an inn in Auvers-sur-Oise, a town north of Paris.
Concentrating on portraits of Gachet's family and neighbors and landscapes of the surrounding wheat fields, Van Gogh finished at least seventy paintings in the seventy days he lived in Auvers, the final days of his life. He worked furiously and with total focus and concentration for the beginning of the summer of 1890, avoiding any serious attacks, although he slowly began to show signs of depression and erratic behavior. His letters to Theo became less lucid and coherent. On July 27, 1890, Vincent wandered behind a haystack in one of the wheat fields through which he strolled daily and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He was able to stagger back to the inn where he was staying, and Dr. Gachet was called. He died with a bullet lodged beneath his heart after a final physical attack two days later, with Theo at his side. His funeral in Auvers was attended by several of his artist friends and acquaintances from Paris, and Bernard organized a memorial show of Van Gogh's work in Paris. By October of 1890, Theo himself had experienced a mental and physical breakdown due in part to advanced syphilis, dying in January 1891 in Utrecht, The Netherlands. In 1914, Theo's widow had her husband's body exhumed so that it could be buried next to Vincent's in Auvers.