The Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh was a failure in all the things that seemed important to his contemporaries. He never earned a living, started a family nor became rich. His talents were only recognised after his death when it was too late for this lonely, misunderstood painter who never ‘fitted in’ to his society and who spent a lifetime in poverty, trouble and neglect. Vincent was born in 1853 and when he grew up his first job was as a salesman. However, he was fired and he tried teaching French before turning to the Church at the age of 27 where he volunteered to serve as a missionary in the destitute coalmining area of the Belgian Borinage.
Always an idealist, Vincent took quite literally the teachings of Christ about sharing and caring for those worse off and he gave away his clothing, furniture, food, and the money, which was being supplied to him by the Church. When it found out that he wasn’t ‘keeping up appearances’ as their representative, but was in fact living in greater poverty and squalor than the paupers around him, the Church sacked him, and left him literally starving to death before his brother Theo came and took him home. It was while Vincent was living in the Borinage that he had begun to draw the terrible conditions that the people of the area lived under, which inspired his famous early work The Potato Eaters (1885).
This dark painting shows a family of paupers dining on the only things they could afford – cheap potatoes and coffee. By painting this, Vincent sought to express the misery of their lives, and man’s inhumanity to man. For the next 6 years he lived in various places around Holland, teaching himself to paint and draw but it was only when he went to live with his brother in Paris that he came into contact with what was for him, a life changing experience. This was his exposure to the new art movements, some of which he combined into his own style of painting, ‘Expressionism’, which is basically the desire to catch emotional spontaneity in paint. After 2 years in the city he left for Arles in the south of France, where he hoped to develop his work further, and start up an artists colony.
Although the people of Arles thought that Vincent was a work-shy layabout, it was only by painting in the fields of Arles from dawn to dusk that he created the painting style that he is most famous for, works painted with heightened colours and composed with a vivid, passionate expression of light and feeling. He also sent out invitations for other artists to join him but only one did, the painter Paul Gauguin. However, it wasn’t long before these two hard-drinking and quick-tempered men came to blows in one of the most infamous episodes in van Gogh’s life where most people think he cut off his own ear. In fact, it was only the small lobe at the bottom.
Gauguin later claimed to the police that Vincent had followed him after an argument and had tried to kill him with an axe whereupon he (Gauguin) had frightened Vincent with a ‘powerful stare’, which made him run home and mutilate himself. This all sounds nonsense to me for I think that Gauguin had slashed van Gough during a drunken argument. Anyway, Vincent was taken from his house and put into the mental asylum at Arles and for the rest of his life he suffered from intermittent attacks of insanity. Personally, I’ve always thought that these ‘attacks’ were really the hallucinations, which many heavy drinkers suffer from when they get the ‘D. Ts’. From this moment Vincent’s compositions took on a hallucinatory, whirling, flame-like character, with intermittent ‘clear’ periods in what was certainly a mind subject to bouts of torment.
Some of his last works seem to me to be the among his saddest, showing a terrible sense of loneliness, isolation, danger, and fear of death, such as his ‘Irises’, which he painted at the asylum of Saint-Remy in 1889, just a year before his death. In this work the small white Lily on the left, is leaning backwards in a cowering attitude towards the large, threatening, dark blue Irises on the right, who seem to be moving in towards it (or him?) for the kill. # When Vincent left Saint-Reme he moved on to the village of Auvers sur Oise near Paris, where a Dr. Gachet had agreed to treat him. Here, Vincent painted over 80 pictures in 70 days, which seemed to take his mind of his problems. However, his problems came back when his brother (who had been supporting him financially) told Vincent that he might lose his job and so wouldn’t be able to support him any longer. Vincent felt that this was the end for he had also fallen out with his only other source of moral support, Doctor Gachet, when he began to realise that the Doctor was as sick mentally as himself. Broke, friendless, and unhappy, Vincent wandered about the fields for days in a kind of stupor.
One of his last paintings tells us of his feelings of foreboding, menace, isolation and fear. This is ‘The Wheat field with Crows’ which shows an empty, yellow wheat field, crossed by three red-coloured roads going nowhere at all. Above the field, in a dark purple, black cloudy sky, there is a flock of sinister-looking crows who have spread themselves right across the canvas. Van Gogh’s feelings of despair became too much and in a last letter to his brother he wrote that his whole life was a useless waste. Finally, on the night of the 27th of July 1890, Vincent went out to the fields for the last time and tried to shoot himself in the heart but shot himself instead in the stomach. He then walked home to his lodgings where he told no one about his suicide attempt. Instead, he locked himself in his room to die alone.
The landlord, thinking that van Gogh was hiding in the room because he couldn’t pay the rent, threatened to call the police but settled instead for calling in his brother Theo from Paris. He asked Doctor Gachet to look at Vincent’s wound but it turned out that he couldn’t treat it because he wasn’t a medical doctor. In fact, his title of ‘Doctor’ was self-endowed and all baloney. At all events, Vincent died from blood poisoning two days later and his last words to his brother were ‘Misery will never end’. All Vincent needed was a wee bit of charity and humanity in his life and that’s all anybody needs today.