Born in 1853, Vincent Van Gogh was only thirty-seven years old when he died from a gunshot wound to the chest. However, in his brief but troubled life, the masterful artist found an expression for his art and life that few others find.
He was born in the Netherlands to parents who were strict and religious. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and his mother came from a wealthy family in The Hague. Vincent was a serious and quiet child but by the time he was twenty he found work in an art dealership, however, he aspired to be a minister. After failing his entrance exams for seminary he seemed to struggle with life. He soon chose to assist a Methodist pastor and eventually moved to Belgium where he worked as a missionary. These decisions were frustrating to his family because young Vincent tended toward an Arminian theology and not his family’s Calvinist faith.
While in Belgium, he became captivated by the laborers who worked in the fields. Seeing the needs of the people, he gave up his housing for those in need and slept in a room on a bed of straw. Soon, he took in a pregnant prostitute who also had a young child. Of course, his family disapproved and pressed him to leave the arrangement. He eventually complied and enrolled in AcadémieRoyale des Beaux-Arts.
One of five children, Vincent had strained relationships with nearly everyone from his parents to his brother, Theo – with who he lived and worked for a while, to art instructors, potential lovers and other artists – most famously Paul Gaugin. But it was also his relationship with other artists and instructors that helped bring Van Gogh’s art to fullness. In his short life, he produced thousands with watercolors, wood-block prints, and oil paintings including nature scences, still life, family portraits, and the post-impressionist prints we are most familiar with such as The Starry Night, which he painted while a patient at an asylum in France.
The famous story of Van Gogh cutting off his ear is one of many episodes of mental and emotional instability. When he shot himself, he was most likely painting in a field. He didn’t die immediately. Instead, he found the strength to walk home. His brother was able to come to him the next day. Since the doctors were not able to remove the bullet he developed an infection that probably hastened his death two days after the incident. A Letter from Theo van Gogh to Elisabeth van Gogh Paris, August 5, 1890 quotes Vincent’s last recorded words, “The sadness will last forever.”
It has been suggested that Van Gogh suffered from both epilepsy and bipolar disorder but also that his mental state was severely affected by both untreated venereal disease and lead paint (he was known to chew on his paint brushes while working). When artists struggle they often struggle in every aspect of life but also they can produce breathtaking art. Like the myriad colors of a forest in autumn, beauty often comes at a price. Still, through his suffering, he sought to maintain his faith. He once said, ‘Christ alone, of all the philosophers, magicians, etc., has affirmed eternal life as the most important certainty, the infinity of time, the futility of death, the necessity and purpose of serenity and devotion. He lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists, scorning marble and clay and paint, working in the living flesh. In other words, this peerless artist, scarcely conceivable with the blunt instrument of our modern, nervous and obtuse brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor books. He maintained in no uncertain terms that he made … living men, immortals.’ (Letter to Emil Bernard on June 26,1988).
Among his work are religious paintings that depict the suffering he was all too familiar with. The Pieta, The Raising of Lazarus, The Good Samaritan, and At Eternity’s Gate, among others, portray, both humanity and divinity as well as suffering and salvation.