Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh's work and the details of his biography are so linked to his paintings iconography that it would be almost impossible to discuss Van Gogh without a brief overview of his life.  The following is an excerpt from the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Early life
Van Gogh, the eldest of six children of a Protestant pastor, was born and reared in a small village in the Brabant region of southern Netherlands. His early years in his father's parsonage were happy, and he loved wandering in the countryside. At 16 he was apprenticed to The Hague branch of the art dealers Goupil and Co., of which his uncle was a partner.

Van Gogh's working life can be roughly divided into two periods. The first, from 1873 to 1885, during which he wrestled with temperamental difficulties and sought his true means of self-expression, was a period of repeated apprenticeships, failures, and changes of direction. The second, from 1886 to 1890, was a period of dedication, rapid development, and fulfillment, until it was interrupted by a series of mental crises from 1889 onward.

He worked for Goupil in London from 1873 to May 1875 and in Paris from then until April 1876. Daily contact with works of art aroused van Gogh's artistic sensibility, and he soon formed a taste for Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and other Dutch masters, although his preference was for two contemporary French painters, Jean-François Millet and Camille Corot, whose influence was to last throughout his life. Van Gogh disliked art dealing. Moreover, his approach to life darkened when his love was rejected by a London girl in 1874. His burning desire for human affection thwarted, he became and remained increasingly solitary. He became a language teacher and lay preacher in England and, in 1877, worked for a bookseller in Dordrecht. Impelled by a longing to give himself to his fellowmen, he envisaged entering the ministry and took up theology but abandoned this project for short-term training as an evangelist in Brussels in 1878. A conflict with authority ensued when he disputed the orthodox doctrinal approach. Failing to get an appointment after three months, he left to do missionary work among the impoverished population of the Borinage, a coal-mining region in southwestern Belgium. There, in the winter of 1879-80, he experienced the first great spiritual crisis of his life. He was sharing the life of the poor completely but in an impassioned moment gave away all his worldly goods and was thereupon dismissed for a too-literal interpretation of Christian teaching.

Penniless and with his faith destroyed, he sank into despair, cut himself off from everyone, and began seriously to draw, thereby discovering in 1880 his true vocation. Van Gogh decided that his mission from then on would be to bring consolation to humanity through art, and this realization of his creative powers restored his self-confidence.

The productive decade
His artistic career was extremely short, lasting only the 10 years from 1880 to 1890. During the first four years of this period, while acquiring technical proficiency, he confined himself almost entirely to drawings and watercolours. First, he went to study drawing at the Brussels Academy; in 1881 he moved to his father's parsonage at Etten, Neth., and began to work from nature.

Van Gogh worked hard and methodically but soon perceived the difficulty of self-training and sought the guidance of more experienced artists. Late in 1881 he settled at The Hague to work with a Dutch landscape painter, Anton Mauve. He visited museums and met with other painters. Van Gogh thus extended his technical knowledge and experimented in the summer of 1882 with oil paint. In 1883 the urge to be "alone with nature" and the peasants took him to Drenthe, a desolate part of northern Netherlands frequented by Mauve and other Dutch artists, where he spent three months before returning home, which was now at Nuenen, another village in the Brabant. He remained at Nuenen during most of 1884 and 1885, and during these years his art grew bolder and more assured. He painted three types of subjects--still life, landscape, and figure--all interrelated by their reference to the peasants' daily life, to the hardships they endured, and to the countryside they cultivated. Émile Zola's Germinal (1885), a novel about the coal-mining region of France, greatly impressed van Gogh, and sociological criticism is implicit in many of his pictures--e.g., "Weavers" and "The Potato Eaters." Eventually he felt too isolated in Nuenen.

His understanding of the possibilities of painting was evolving rapidly; from studying Hals he saw that academic finish destroys the freshness of a visual impression, while the works of Paolo Veronese and Eugène Delacroix taught him that colour expresses something by itself. This led to enthusiasm for Peter Paul Rubens and a sudden departure for Antwerp, where the greatest number of Rubens' works could be seen. The revelation of Rubens' simple means, of his direct notation, and of his ability to express a mood by a combination of colours proved decisive. Simultaneously, van Gogh discovered Japanese prints and Impressionist painting. His refusal to follow academic principles led to disputes at the Antwerp academy, where he was enrolled, and after three months he left precipitately in 1886 to join his brother Theo in Paris. There, still concerned with improving his drawing, van Gogh met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and others who were to play historic roles in modern art. They opened his eyes to the latest developments in French painting. At the same time, Theo introduced him to Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, and other artists of the group.

By this time van Gogh was ready for such revelations, and the changes that his painting underwent in Paris between the spring of 1886 and February 1888 led to the creation of his personal idiom and style of brushwork. His palette at last became colourful, his vision less traditional, and his tonalities lighter, as may be seen in his first paintings of Montmartre. By the summer of 1887 he was painting in pure colours and using a broken brushwork that is at times pointillistic. Finally, van Gogh's Postimpressionist style crystallized by the beginning of 1888 in masterpieces such as "Portrait of Père Tanguy" and "Self-Portrait in Front of an Easel," as well as in some landscapes of the Parisian suburbs.

After two years van Gogh was tired of city life, physically exhausted, and longing "to look at nature under a brighter sky." His passion was now for "a full effect of colour." He left Paris in February 1888 for Arles, in the southeast of France.

In his pictures of the following 12 months--his first great period--he strove to respect the external, visual aspect of a figure or landscape but found himself unable to suppress his own feelings about the subject. These found expression in emphatic contours and heightened effects of colour. Van Gogh's pictorial style was not calculated, however, but spontaneous and instinctive, for he worked with great speed and intensity, determined to capture an effect or a mood while it possessed him. His Arles subjects include blossoming fruit trees, views of the town and surroundings, self-portraits, portraits of Roulin the postman and other friends, interiors and exteriors of the house, a series of sunflowers, and a "starry night."

Van Gogh knew that his approach to painting was individualistic, but he also knew that some tasks are beyond the power of isolated individuals to accomplish. In Paris he had hoped to form a separate Impressionist group with Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others whom he supposed to have similar aims. He rented and decorated a house in Arles with the intention of persuading them to join him and found a working community of "Impressionists of the South." Gauguin arrived in October 1888, and for two months they worked together; but, while each influenced the other to some extent, their relations rapidly deteriorated because they had opposing ideas and were temperamentally incompatible.

On Christmas Eve 1888, van Gogh broke under the strain and cut off part of his left ear. Gauguin left, and van Gogh was taken to a hospital. He returned to the "yellow house" a fortnight later and resumed painting, producing a mirror-image "Self-Portrait with Pipe and Bandaged Ear," several still lifes, and "La Berceuse." Several weeks later, he again showed symptoms of mental disturbance severe enough to cause him to be sent back to the hospital. At the end of April 1889, fearful of losing his renewed capacity for work, which he regarded as a guarantee of his sanity, he asked to be temporarily shut up in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in order to be under medical supervision.

Van Gogh stayed there for 12 months, haunted by recurrent attacks, alternating between moods of calm and despair, and working intermittently: "Garden of the Asylum," "Cypresses," "Olive Trees," "Les Alpilles," portraits of doctors, and interpretations of paintings by Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Millet all date from this period. The keynote of this phase (1889-90) is fear of losing touch with reality and a certain sadness. Confined for long periods to his cell or the asylum garden, having no choice of subjects, and realizing that his inspiration depended on direct observation, van Gogh fought against having to work from memory. At Saint-Rémy he muted the violent colours of the previous summer and tried to make his painting calmer. As he repressed his excitement, however, he involved himself more imaginatively in the drama of the elements, developing a style based on dynamic forms and a vigorous use of line (line often equated with colour). The best of his Saint-Rémy pictures are thus bolder and more visionary than those of Arles.

Van Gogh himself brought this period to an end. Oppressed by homesickness--he painted souvenirs of Holland--and loneliness, he longed to see Theo and the north once more and arrived in Paris in May 1890. Four days later he went to stay with a homeopathic doctor-artist, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a friend of Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne, at Auvers-sur-Oise. Back in a village community such as he had not known since Nuenen, four years earlier, van Gogh worked at first enthusiastically; and his choice of subjects such as fields of corn, the river valley, peasants' cottages, the church, and the town hall reflects his spiritual relief. A modification of his style follows: the natural forms in his paintings are less contorted, and in the northern light he adopted pale, fresh tonalities. His brushwork is broader and more expressive and his vision of nature more lyrical. Everything in his pictures seems to be moving, living. This phase was short, however, and ended in quarrels with Gachet and feelings of guilt at his inescapable dependence on Theo (now married and with a son) and his inability to succeed. In despair of ever overcoming his loneliness or of being cured, he shot himself and died two days later. Coincidentally, Theo died six months later (Jan. 25, 1891) of chronic nephritis.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
oil on canvas 28x36"  Metropolitan New York
Form:  The texture of this painting is fairly rough because Van Gogh used thick impastos of paint.  Van Gogh also used straight umodulated out of the tube colors.  The dominant colors here are primary tones.  Van Gogh rendered most of the forms using outlines and contour lines and did not rely on value or chiaroscuro to define or describe his subjects.  In a way, this is more of a drawing with paint than a painting.  The brushstrokes in the sky are designed in sweeping large curvilinearcounterbalancing strokes.  Van Gogh's application of short dashes of colour one next to another is a demonstration of impressionist style optical mixing.  This is demonstrated especially in how he applied the blues of the sky.

The composition is asymmetrical.  The large cyprus tree in the foreground dominates the image and its shape is echoed by the church's steeple in the background.

Iconography: This was painted while Van Gogh was locked up in an asylum in Saint-Remy, France. It was, of necessity, painted from memory unlike most of the rest of his work, which was painted either outdoors or as a still life.

The dominant elements in this painting are the sky, the stars in it, and the cypress tree in the foreground.  The fact that the sky is like a sea in motion could be read in any number of ways: as a clue as to the turbulence of Van Gogh's state of mind and or possibly an illustration of the unknown forces that move the universe.  The moon seems to radiate energy, but it does not appear friendly, or gentle, as one would imagine moonbeams to be. Instead it imitates the radiating waves one would find when a stone is dropped in a pond, disruptive.

The cypress tree in the foreground were often used as gravemarkers and were planted as memorials over graves.  In my interpretation, (Mencher's) the large tree in the foreground seems to connect the earth and the sky in a way that the steeple in the background cannot hope to.  This may possibly be Van Gogh's own ideas of the role of man in the world versus the role of nature in God's plan.  This idea being very similar to St. Augustine's ideas concerning the "City of Man and the City of God."  This is similar to Masaccio's interpretation in his painting The Tribute Money.

Context: Van Gogh was extremely religious in his early years, before he took up painting as an avocation. There is speculation that there is significance to the fact that there are eleven stars in the sky, taken from the Old Testament in the bible; the story of Joseph, " 'Look, I have had another dream,' he said, ' I thought I saw the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowing to me,' " Genesis 37:10


Room in Arles, 1889
Van Gogh
Form:  The texture of this painting is fairly rough because Van Gogh used thick impastos of paint.  Van Gogh also used straight umodulated out of the tube colors.  The dominant colors here are primary tones except for the yellow ochres and oranges used for the bedposts.  Van Gogh rendered most of the forms using outlines and contour lines and did not rely on value or chiaroscuro to define or describe his subjects.  In a way, this is more of a drawing with paint than a painting.

The entire image has a rather fisheye lens look to it and the perspective seems a bit off.  There are two possible reasons for this.  One scholar has explained that Van Gogh's room's walls angles were actually just a touch off.  This is actually true because one can actually see the house today, but there are also some other visual discrepancies.  Some of the vertical lines in the seem to sway or curve.  The pictures lean out just a bit too far and the vertical and horizontal lines are not consistent with the laws of linear perspective. 

Two other explanations exist.  Van Gogh was careless, which at times he was and he may have been forced to sit so close to the canvas that he unconsciously incorporated the distortions that naturally occur when sitting to close to a painting.  He was unable to move away from the painting to check the visual problems.

Iconography:  As in the "Starry Sky" the formal elements may be an expression of Vincent's internal world.  This painting was done in Vincent's own room in Arles. Note the cramped composition, the disproportion of the bed, the saturation of colors, and the odd angle of the paintings hanging over the bed. This, while done from life, does not accurately represent an external reality, it seems to represent his own 'internal' reality.

Van Gogh was taken care of by his older brother Theo. As a result, he was allowed a certain amount of self-pity and malaise that other men his age and bearing could not afford to indulge themselves in. Theo sent him to Arles to 'rest', and Van Gogh was in a state of poverty and under-nourishment while living there, as well as hallucinations and acute depression. This resulting painting, nervous and cramped appearing as it is, is an accurate reflection on how he felt at the time, like the walls were pressing in on him, and all he could do was sleep. Like the religious fervor he had embraced earlier in life, Van Gogh became as equally obsessed with painting once he had decided it was his true calling, and felt that he must put on canvas the myriad demons within his own troubled mind.

Context: According to,

" Vincent's Bedroom in Arles is one of the artist's best known paintings. The striking colours, unusual perspective and  familiar subject matter create a work that is not only among Van Gogh's most popular, but also one that he himself held as one of his own personal favourites.. because Van Gogh was so pleased with the painting he described it at great length in letters to his family. In fact, Vincent describes this painting in no less than thirteen letters and, as a result, a great deal is known about the artist's own feelings about the work.  In a letter to his brother, Theo, Vincent wrote:
 ' My eyes are still tired by then I had a new idea in my head and here is the sketch of it.
  Another size 30 canvas. This time it's just simply my bedroom, only here colour is to do
  everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things, is to be suggestive here
  of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather
  the imagination. The walls are pale violet. The floor is of red tiles.  The wood of the bed
  and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows very light greenish-citron.
  The coverlet scarlet. The window green. The toilet table orange, the basin blue.
  The doors lilac. And that is all--there is nothing in this room with its closed shutters.
  The broad lines of the furniture again must express inviolable rest. Portraits on the walls, and
   a mirror and a towel and some clothes.
   The frame--as there is no white in the picture--will be white.
   This by way of revenge for the enforced rest I was obliged to take.
   I shall work on it again all day, but you see how simple the conception is. The shadows and
   the cast shadows are suppressed; it is painted in free flat tints like the Japanese prints. It is
   going to be a contrast to, for instance, the Tarascon diligence and the night café.'


Van Gogh
Landscape with snow, 1888
Form and Iconography: The colors used in this earlier work are calm, almost peaceful. Though he is using the short brushstrokes, they are not filled with the tension and anxiety found n his other works. The asymmetrical composition is sweeping, this is a view of an entire field, leading off into the distance. 

It is said that Van Gogh was happiest when the weather was nice and he could be outdoors painting. Though plagued  with mental instability and a string of failed relationships with women of questionable repute, there were occasional breaks in his unhappiness. This painting would clearly be a reflection of his ability to enjoy and observe nature. It also puts to rest the theory that Van Gogh was an untalented artist. As we can see here, when it pleased him to do so, he could paint quite beautifully as well as accurately capture the world he saw around him.

Context: Van Gogh was never happy in big cities, and his appreciation for the outdoors is often shown by the time he takes to render his landscapes.


Sower with Setting Sun, 1888
Van Gogh
Form: Ink was on paper. Looking much like an etching this is done with ink and a paintbrush. The main figure is just off to the side enough to make the work asymmetrical, and it also has a nice gestural and loose feeling to it.

Iconography: This image is based on a similar work called the "Sower" by Millet.  It is an illustration or representation of the Parable of the Sower as told by Jesus in which he likens the toils of the sower to our own journey through life.  "That if one sows a good seed one will reap a good crop."

This story and the image that he borrowed from Millet would have had a particularly strong resonance for Van Gogh because he was very religious.  As a quick study, this is a good piece of work. Once again, we see the joy that Vincent has while outdoors. The figure is of a man sowing grain for his harvest, which could indicate the connection between earth and man, symbolizing the connection that Van Gogh himself felt for the earth. In the back, the sun is uncharacteristically huge and round, and its' rays are depicting shining outward from it. This gives it an energy and a sense of happiness it would not have had if the sun were absent from this work.

Context: In 1885, while still in the Netherlands, Van Gogh had focused much of his artistic energy doing studies and representations of the poor peasants he encountered. It seems he had an affinity for those who had to work hard to make a living, and he may here be hearkening back to those days.

These drawings were actually done after Van Gogh had already made a painting of the same subject.


Self Portrait, 1889
Van Gogh
Form: Expressionistic self portrait, done in oils with  non-local colors and thick heavy brushwork.

Iconography: This is one of many self portraits done by Van Gogh. It was at this time in his life that he had met and worked with Gauguin in Paris. They had a seemingly temperamental relationship, at first best friends but then having many near violent falling outs. Van Gogh's mental health seemed to worsen during this time, and looking at this painting one can see evidence of his descent into a nervous breakdown. He is swirling the background around his figure, which suggests an anxious energy and tension. He has used sickly greens and yellows in the both the highlights and shadows of his face, and the look he exudes is intense and troubled. If we look at his upper body, it appears as though he is about to hunch his shoulders forward, or move in some way to suggest protecting himself, and his mouth is set in a definite frown. This unhappiness can be attributed to the fact that Vincent was cooped up in a house for the winter with his sometime-friend Gauguin, and his failed friendship and love life was getting too much for him to bear.

Context: " The relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin deteriorated throughout December, however. Their heated arguments became more and more frequent--"electric" as Vincent would describe them. Relations between the pair declined in tandem with Vincent's state of mental health. On 23 December Vincent van Gogh, in an
irrational fit of madness, mutilated the lower portion of his left ear. He severed the lobe with a razor, wrapped it in cloth and then took it to a brothel and presented it to one of the women there. Vincent then staggered back to the Yellow House where he collapsed. He was discovered by the police and hospitalized at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Arles. After sending a telegram to Theo, Gauguin left immediately for Paris, choosing not to visit Van Gogh in the hospital. Van Gogh and Gauguin would later correspond from time to time, but would never meet in person again."


Cemetery in the snow, 1885
Van Gogh
Form: Early oil painting, symmetrical and well crafted. earthen palette and realistic representation.

Iconography: One of the earlier works done by Van Gogh, while living in the Netherlands. He was new to painting, and  as such was working very hard to paint accurately and well in order to gain credibility. He has painted this scene of a cemetery probably as he saw it and was working hard to maintain realism. Cemeteries were nothing new to Van Gogh, in fact it is speculated that they may have played a part in his unhappy mental state. Before Vincent was born, his mother had been pregnant with a boy, who was stillborn. His parents named it Vincent and buried it in a graveyard close to their home. His mother became pregnant very soon after and Vincent Van Gogh was born exactly one year to the day the other baby had been stillborn. His mother used to take Van Gogh to the graveyard every year on his birthday to visit the grave. It is speculated that the young Vincent was traumatized by constantly seeing the gravestone with his name and birthdate as the date of death for the unfortunate baby. 

Context: Whether it is true that it led to his subsequent depression and insanity or not, Van Gogh was still familiar with the setting of a graveyard and did an exquisite job capturing the silence and stillness of this scene.

Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) 

Lyrics and Music by Don McLean

Starry, starry night 
Paint your palette blue and gray 
Look out on a summer's day 
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul 
Shadows on the hills 
Sketch the trees and daffodils 
Catch the breeze and winter chills 
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand 
What you tried to say to me 
And how you suffered for your sanity 
And how you tried to set them free 
They would not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they'll listen now 

Starry, starry night 
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze 
Swirling clouds in violet haze 
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue 
Colors changing hue 
Morning fields of amber grain 
Weathered faces lined in pain 
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand

Now I understand 
What you tried to say to me 
They did not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they'll listen now 
Starry, starry night 

For they could not love you 
But still your love was true 
And when no hope was left inside 
On that starry, starry night 
You took your life as lovers often do 
But I could have told you Vincent 
This world was never meant for one as 
beautiful as you 

Starry, starry night 
Portraits hung in empty halls 
Frameless heads on nameless walls 
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget
Like the strangers that you've met 
The ragged men in ragged clothes 
The silver thorn of bloody rose 
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow 

Now I think I know 
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They did not listen they're not listening still
Perhaps they never will... or asym.met.ric adj [Gk asymmetria lack of proportion, fr. asymmetros ill-proportioned, fr. a- + symmetros symmetrical] (1690) 1: not symmetrical 2 usu asymmetric, of a carbon atom: bonded to four different atoms or groups -- adv -- n

¹coun.ter.bal.ance n (1611) 1: a weight that balances another 2: a force or influence that offsets or checks an opposing force ²counterbalance vt (1611) 1: to oppose or balance with an equal weight or force 2: to equip with counterbalances adj [L curvus + linea line] (1710) 1: consisting of or bounded by curved lines: represented by a curved line 2: marked by flowing tracery <~ Gothic> -- n