“Seek only light and freedom and do not immerse yourself too deeply in the worldly mire.” ― Vincent van Gogh
Say the name of the Dutch artist and several things come to mind. His distinctive swirled brush strokes. His self-portraits. A vase of sunflowers. Stars in the night sky. The story of how he cut off a piece of his own ear. His romantic and tragic life story plagued by mental illness, and dying in near obscurity only to be discovered long after death, with his work selling in the millions, is the prototype for the tormented starving artist. But Van Gogh had two very important people in his life, that helped his life’s work finally get the credit it deserved and for him to be remembered as one of the most important artists of his or any generation: His brother Theo, and his sister-in-law Johanna Gezina “Jo” van Gogh-Bonger.
“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” ― Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh’s early pursuits were promising, but ultimately failed ventures. Work as an art dealer in the family business did not pan out. From there Van Gogh found stints as a school teacher, a bookshop clerk, and a call to be a preacher, and after failing as a missionary, found himself unemployable and mired in depression. Encouraged by the urging of his brother, Van Gogh decided to find happiness in becoming a painter.
“I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.” ― Vincent van Gogh
During his ministry he was inspired and drawn to art while sketching Belgian miners. His brother become his benefactor, and Theo provided Vincent the funds to live and study for the rest of his life. A voracious reader, Van Gogh was mostly self-taught, and studied the techniques of the exciting new styles of the time. Doomed and unrequited love affairs, and his temperament interfered with any attempts to be an art student. For a short time he studied with an influential painter from the Hague School, but he couldn’t stay in one place long enough to become part of the inner circle of artists. Later on he was a student in Antwerp at the Academy of Fine Art, but left again after a few months after disagreements with his instructors. Van Gogh managed to excel in many styles from etching to watercolours, to pencil and oils, and painted best in the countryside or in the company of his brother.
“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke” ― Vincent van Gogh
In the French countryside in a disastrous bid for community with another artist, Van Gogh agreed to share a home with Paul Gauguin. It did not end well. In 2007, Martin Gayford wrote a book about the famous roommates, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles. It was living with Gauguin, where he famously sliced off a piece of his ear. Gauguin ran off on Christmas day and the men never spoke again. The turn of events are documented in several famous Van Gogh paintings, Vincent’s Chair, Gauguin’s Chair, and Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.
“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.” ― Vincent van Gogh
After the falling out with Gauguin, Van Gogh had a severe breakdown. He lived the rest of his life in and out of mental hospitals, until his suicide in 1890 at age 37. Despite his struggles he remained amazingly prolific and produced over 70 works in the months before his death.
Theo died months after his brother, and Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, a widow with an infant son named Vincent, set about making her brother-in-law famous. At the time of his death, Van Gogh had just completed some of his most famous works, and some of the canvases weren’t even dry yet. She went on to get his works exhibited and his letters published.
“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” ― Vincent van Gogh
There are many things we can learn from Vincent van Gogh. Take your inspiration from many things. Keep learning, and studying. Always be practicing. Be as prolific as possible. Great art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, to thrive we need to find community. Reach out no matter how small, and find an audience for your work. Someone had to be around in Van Gogh’s life to find a home for his paintings. He was lucky it was someone who carried about him, and his reputation as an artist. We don’t always know where our path will lead us. If something fails, it’s not the end of the world, it just wasn’t meant to be.
“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.” ― Vincent van Gogh
Author Bio: Tara Collum
Tara Collum lives in Toronto and grew up in Muskoka. She is the volunteer social media coordinator for the Death Row Support Project @COB_DRSP and co-writes a web serial at splitsvilleblog.wordpress.com. She is all about tea, books, mumblecore, music, long walks, and self-improvement. Follow Tara on twitter @99percentsun
- The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh, Edited by Mark Roskill. Flamingo: An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2000
- Van Gogh by Josephine Cutts and James Smith. Parragon Publishing, 2002