In 1885 Vincent van Gogh wrote from Nuenen, a village in Holland, to his brother Theodorus (known as Theo) van Gogh in Paris: “There is, in my opinion, an impressionist school, though I know very little about it.” His notions about Impressionism were very approximate. He thought a new school had been formed around Delacroix, Millet and Corot. At the time when Impressionists were truly coming to the end of their shared artistic path, Van Gogh already had some idea as to where he wanted to go.
His life was difficult. To escape a Dutch village and move into the realm of great art – not everyone could do it. But Vincent van Gogh was unusually persistent. “I am very glad that you do not object to my intention of coming to Paris”, he wrote to Theo. “I think it will help me move ahead; I’m afraid of hitting a dead end if I stay here, to keep repeating the same mistakes.” Thus, Vincent travelled to Paris. At the end of February 1886, he met his brother Theo in the Louvre’s Salon Carré among the paintings of the great Italian artists.
Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in a Dutch village called Groot Zundert. His father, Theodorus van Gogh, was a Calvinist pastor. According to family tradition, at sixteen and without finishing school, he began working as an art dealer in The Hague. Thus, his contact with and knowledge of painting occurred early. Vincent worked in the branch office of Goupil and Company Art Gallery of Paris, which gave him the possibility to visit Paris and work in London for almost two years, then, until April, 1876 in the same firm in Paris. At twenty-three years old, Vincent knew museums in The Hague, Paris, and London, and was exceptionally widely read.
In Etten, a village where his parents lived, there was no suitable work for him, and he changed trades and cities. Vincent worked in the poor quarters of London as a teacher’s assistant and read his first sermon there. The Van Gogh family came from a long line of preachers, so Vincent’s calling was natural. At his parents’ insistence, he began preparation to enter the School of Theology at the University of Amsterdam, and then the Flemish School of Evangelism in Brussels. Having failed in the Evangelism School, Vincent went to work as a preacher in the poorest coal area of Belgium, Borinage, where he self-denyingly helped the poor, even descending into the mines himself.
Living in a state of utter destitution among paupers was a kind of test of Vincent’s abilities, as if he sensed that life would not be easy for him. Heavy work deprived the miners of beauty, joy and human dignity. These people became the first models of his paintings. When writing his brother in June 1879 from Borinage, Vincent’s words already described a future composition: “Not far from here there’s a high spot from which you can see in the distance at the far end of the valley a section of Borinage with its chimneys, mounds of coal, workers houses, and during the day much activity of black figures that you could mistake for ants. On the horizon you can make out stands of fir with small white houses nearby, small towers, an old mill, etc. Most of the time a sort of fog hangs above it all, or perhaps it’s a capricious effect of light and shadow that reminds you of Rembrandt (…) or Ruysdael’s paintings.”
In Borinage he overcame these tribulations and decided to become an artist. Vincent began studying where he could. Despite the serious conflict with his father regarding his future, he persistently searched for a school and a teacher. Soon it seemed that progress was being made on the artistic front. Tersteeg, a severe judge and the director at the Salon in The Hague under whose supervision Vincent had worked, gave him a box of paints and an album for his drawings as a present, recognising his right to be a painter. The appraisal of his achievements by well-known Dutch artists was especially important.
The usually caustic Weissenbruch admired his drawings. Anton Mauve, a landscape painter from the Hague and a follower of the Barbizon School, played a special role in Vincent’s life. Married to one of Van Gogh’s cousins, he readily agreed to be the future artist’s first instructor. He taught Vincent to use coal and chalk, brush and shading, to make watercolours. And even though they were soon to go their separate ways, Vincent would remain grateful his entire life to Mauve.
Vincent met the Dutch artist G.A.Van Rappard in Brussels in 1880. Rappard was seven years older than Van Gogh, had studied in the Academy in Amsterdam and worked in his studio in his native city of Utrecht. His letters to Rappard reveal the breadth of Vincent’s interests and erudition, contradicting the legend of the half-educated and uncultured villager.
Van Gogh demonstrated a surprising level of culture; not only did he know the classics, ancient authors and philosophers, but also modern French, German, English and even American and Russian literature. Since childhood, Vincent, a man who hadn’t completed his studies, spoke three languages fluently, apart from Dutch, his mother tongue, and he assumed this was the same for others…
Watch the following video about Vincent Van Gogh
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