In an unfinished letter of 1890 written to his brother, the iconic Post-Impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh made a final effort to explain himself. ‘I risk my life for my own work,’ he wrote, ‘and my reason has foundered in it.’ Some time later Van Gogh wandered into a field of wheat near the home of Dr. Paul Gachet (whom he had immortalized in Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890) and shot himself. He would die two days later.
By then, the myth of Van Gogh’s genius had already begun to spread. A few months earlier, the celebrated French critic Albert Aurier had described him in the Mercure de France as ‘this robust and true artist… with the soul of a mystic.’ Having famously sold only a single painting in his lifetime (The Red Vineyard, 1888), within 15 years of his suicide Van Gogh would be widely recognized as one of the most important artists of his generation.
Van Gogh’s artistic career spanned only a decade. Born the eldest of six children to a Protestant minister, the young Vincent would work for international art dealers, Goupil & Co, and as a lay preacher before he decided to paint. Van Gogh would always struggle with the fervency of his faith and, by 1880, having been dismissed from both Goupil and his preaching position, he turned to painting as a conduit for his spiritual struggles.
His early works were inspired by the rural realism of Jean-Francois Millet, a period culminating with The Potato Eaters (1885) before, on the advice of Theo van Gogh, his art-dealer brother and benefactor, he lightened his palette. It was a turning point, producing deeply personal works. ‘I have tried to express with red and green,’ he wrote of his work Night Café (1888), ‘all the terrible passions of human nature.’
The last two years of his life, following his infamous 1888 season in Arles with Gauguin — the effects of which were captured in his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) — saw him produce some of his most famous works. They included Starry Night (1889), painted during his self-imposed retreat to an asylum in Provence.
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