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Fascinating Lives
A Guest Column

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On a Dark and Starry Night: a Tale of Vincent Van Gogh

By Branded Soldier

Splash Dabbler Guest Columnist

November 20, 2006

 

It’s always the things that are the most scandalous that capture the public imagination; this means that the incidents from Vincent Van Gogh’s life that are most widely known tend to be things like him cutting off his own ear, his stays in mental institutions, and his relationship with a prostitute, finally ending with suicide.

 

Unfortunately for Van Gogh, both during and after his life, it was these dramatic, bizarre incidents that gave him his reputation and formed what many then and many now know of his character.

Van Gogh was born in Holland, in 1853. His father was a minister, and Van Gogh was given a very simple education. He began work as an assistant in an art gallery, and also worked as a bookseller and as a teacher; during these occupations, however, he was pursuing a religious vocation.

 

In 1878, when he finally did get his opportunity to work in a community of very poor peasants, in the Borinage, a destitute coal mining region in south Belgium, he was ecstatic. He saw it as a grand opportunity to show the great love that he had for humanity. But Van Gogh’s zeal and passion frightened the peasants themselves, who were not used to clergy who wanted to love them, only to condescend to them. It also offended the clergy that he was working with and under, shaming them with the contrast between his desire to shun special treatment and live as the people he was ministering to, and the ivory-tower mentality and lifestyle that they embraced. As a result, Van Gogh’s church work was short-lived.

He embarked on a painting career after this, in about 1879, which was relatively late in his lifespan. His mental condition, of which there are many modern retrospective opinions as to the exact diagnosis, was worsening by the year, and he seemed to know that he had less than a full lifespan in which to finish his life’s work.

 

There are a few key paintings by which he is most widely known, such as the sunflowers and the Starry Night, but Van Gogh worked feverishly during his short painting career, and was quite prolific. He was tormented by the fact that when he worked himself hard on his painting, the intensity of the work usually brought on an episode of illness; but he was incapable of not working, filled as he was with all the things that he wanted to paint before he ran out of time.

 

The illness began taking more and more of his time, with episodes becoming more frequent and of longer duration; the year 1889 was mostly taken up by outbreaks and recoveries. Van Gogh began to be deeply discouraged, not least because his painting was not lucrative and he had to rely on his brother Theo to support him while he worked; this meant that Theo always had to pay for his institutional stays.

 

Feeling that he would never be free of the illness, that it would continue to get worse, and that he would be more and more of a burden on his brother and his family, Van Gogh took his life on July 29, in 1890. He left behind what is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful and important bodies of work to be given to the world by an artist in the last few centuries.

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