Art · Books · World

A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters

“In the morning it was so beautiful on the road to Turnham Green – the chestnut trees and the clear blue sky and the morning sun mirrored in the water of the Thames; the grass was sparkling green and one heard the sound of church bells all around.”

Vincent had been an art dealer in The Hague at 16. He fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, who was secretly married to the previous lodger. He grew lonely and religious, was transferred to Paris at 22, was fired at 23, moved to England as an unpaid supply teacher, which is where he wrote this letter from to his beloved brother Theo.

Soon after, he followed the proprietor of the boarding school to Middlesex, had a falling out, became a Methodist minister’s assistant, worked at a bookshop where he translated passages from the Bible to English, French and Dutch because he was bored, decided to become a pastor at 24, failed a theology exam in 1878, became a missionary in Belgium at 26 and said wrote this to Theo in 1880:

What the molt is for birds, the time when they change their plumage, is what adversity or misfortune is for us humans, a difficult time.

Does what happens inside show on the outside?
There is such a great fire in one’s soul, and yet nobody ever comes to warm themselves there…

05540ddfc943fd10f329ffdcccc5d18eHe spends much of his time talking about figures, constantly criticizing his own work, practicing and copying great artists, observing the world around his with a keen eye and sharp pencil. He even goes to a local veterinary school “to get hold of the anatomical illustrations” of various animals so he can draw them better.

But I hope that these thorns will produce white blossoms in their day

In 1881, at 28, Vincent proposed to Kee, his recently widowed cousin who was seven years his senior and had an eight year old son.

“nooit, neen, nimmer,” she replied. No, nay, never.

Poor Vincent and his heart filled with passion!

Vincent’s unflinching dedication to his craft is an inspiration.

I feel and know for sure I will make progress. But it is only by working hard; “not a day without a line,” as Gavarni said.

In October 1881, Vincent finally felt like he was getting somewhere with his art. Funnily enough, this is what he says:

The battle with nature sometimes has something of what Shakespeare calls the “taming of the shrew”. In many things, but certainly in drawing, I believe that holding on tight is better than giving up.

Do you ever feel like History is just one big blob of The Past? Like everything before your Watercolors Van Goghlife happened in an almost coexisting parallel whole, so it’s strange to think of a great painter like van Gogh referring to a great playwright who had been dead about two and a half centuries before he was born! Vincent probably regarded Shakespeare like you or I, a famous name, to be read and quoted but not quite flesh and blood, hopes and dreams, emotions and frustrations, exactly like us.

Vincent was spending quite a lot of time at Mauve’s, a cousin who was a successful painter and one whom Vincent hoped to emulate. Mauve seems to have supported Vincent a great deal, encouraging him to experiment with sketching and watercolours.

Mauve says that the sun is beginning to shine for me, but it is still hidden in the mists.

Vincent went to visit his parents for Christmas and argued with them over his continued pursuit of his cousin Kee, to which they said his “persistence is disgusting”. He also fell out with Mauve  over the direction of his work and moved to The Hague by early 1882. There he met Sien, a pregnant alcoholic prostitute with a five-year-old daughter.

Explaining his situation to Theo, Vincent remarked that since he was getting nowhere with Kee and as he wanted to help Sien, he “must set about it more seriously”. He wanted to marry her, but it would seem that Theo talked him out of it.


What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an eccentric, or a disagreeable fellow… the lowest of the low.

… I would like to show through my work what is in the heart of such an eccentric, such a nonentity.

zeegezicht-bij-scheveningen“There was so much wind that I could hardly keep upright and could barely see anything because of the blowing sands.” – Vincent liked to paint out in the open. A classic impressionist technique.

There is something infinite about painting-

By September 1882, at 29, Vincent was getting himself quite a reputation for being a mad, eccentric painter. I almost imagine him as a mad scientist, attacking the streets armed with pad and pencil, leaving behind a flurry of alarmed onlookers.

I am so covered in paint that some has even got onto this letter.

Whether as an aspiring minister or painter, sensitive Vincent had a soft spot for the poor, the downtrodden. He was attracted to helping people out of their misery, which is perhaps why he took to Sien too. “… as the lottery leaves both of us completely cold. But this little group of people – and their expression of waiting – touched me, and while I drew it began to get a greater, deeper meaning for me than at first.”

In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but rich because I have found my métier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life.

Isn’t that what we are all looking for? Happiness, something to live for.

At 30, Vincent in possibly a strange mood, wrote to his brother saying that he thought his “physical body will last out for a certain number of years… say, between six and ten.”

After wandering through many cities, jobs and loves, Vincent ended up in Drenthe. He seems to have found peace there, if briefly.

Coming events cast their shadows before, says an English proverb.

Living alone, desperately trying to hone his craft to such an extent that he could sell it without stooping to paint portraits for rich patrons indoors, the bread and butter for painters in those days, unlucky in love and dependent on his brother’s goodwill, that was Vincent in the winter of 1883. In the end, his loneliness drove him back to his parents.  Taking care of his mother after she had broken her leg led to somewhat of a reconciliation after their long months of rancour over Kee and Sien.
Theo, as an art dealer, mentioned to Vincent the new-age artists who were taking the Parisian world by storm: The Impressionists.vincent_van_gogh_-_avenue_of_poplars_in_autumn_-_google_art_project

… a lane of poplars with their yellow autumn foliage, where the sun makes occasional bright patches on the fallen leaves on the ground, alternating with the long shadows cast by the trunks. At the end of the road, a little farmhouse with the blue sky above shining through the autumn leaves.

By the end of the year, Vincent had moved to Antwerp, when public opinion had turned against the eccentric painter after one of his models, an unmarried girl, had become pregnant. “Antwerp is certainly a very strange and beautiful place for a painter. My studio is quite bearable, particularly because I have pinned a set of Japanese prints on the wall…”

rainHe enrolled in an art school while there but disagreed with the teacher, who was focussed on classical drawing while Vincent preferred to exercise his self-taught creativity. He eventually quit and moved in with Theo. “Don’t be cross with me for arriving so suddenly…”

In Paris Theo introduced Vincent to Impressionists like Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. He seems to have added bright colours to his palette, inspired by brilliant Japanese art.

As for me – I can feel the desire for marriage and children slipping away… And there are times when I already feel old and broken…

I hope to progress to a point where you can show what I do confidently without having to compromise yourself. And then I’ll move away somewhere down South so I can get away from all these painters who disgust me as men.

1888-11-1A year later, Vincent stayed true to his word. He moved to and fell in love with scenic Arles in southern France.

The countryside here seems to me to be as beautiful as Japan in terms of the limpidity of the atmosphere and the brightness of the colours.

“I’m having a lot of trouble painting because of the wind, but I fasten my easel down with pegs knocked into the ground and carry on working; it’s too beautiful not to.”

I must also do a starry night with cypress tress or perhaps over a field of ripe wheat…


“A meadow full of very yellow buttercups, a ditch with irises with green leaves and purple blooms, the town in the background, a few gray willow trees, and a strip of blue sky.”

How keenly Vincent observed the world!

A small town surrounded by countryside filled with yellow and purple flowers – you can imagine, very much a Japanese dream.

“I’m totally convinced of the importance of remaining here in the South and of the need to exaggerate colour even more-”

Vincent, when writing to John Russell from Paris talks about the painters that he met in his time there – Manet, Bernard and Gauguin, who are friends and Monet, whose paintings Theo greatly admires and sells. Vincent longs for his friends, especially Paul, to join him in the wondrous South.

The sunflowers are progressing;

Vincent frequented a night café, which was a good place for the homeless to stay warm at night. The “night prowlers” he calls them.

I often think that night is more alive and more richly colored than day.

By the end of 1888, after months of pleading, Vincent had finally got Gauguin to come South to Arles.

“Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a very fine picture by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase but – he prefers mine.” [Monet’s and van Gogh’s sunflowers and Gauguin’s painting of Vincent painting his sunflowers]

Vincent excitedly set up an extra bed for Gauguin and making his two chair paintings: Van Gogh’s Chair and Gauguin’s Chair. Things were off to a solid start when they began painting together, but they soon started quarrelling because Vincent wanted the haughty Gauguin to treat him as an equal. He made matters worse because he feared that Gauguin would desert him.

One rainy night, the two of them were shut up in the Yellow House toget1024px-vincent_van_gogh_-_self-portrait_with_bandaged_ear_2818892c_courtauld_institute29her. Gauguin claims that Vincent grew very agitated at the prospect of his leaving and came at him with a razor. Gauguin left The Yellow House that night, never to return. Vincent mutilated his ear with a razor and had it delivered to a woman at a brothel that the two of them frequented. He was found the next morning by a policeman and taken to the local hospital where in his waking moments he asked to see Gauguin. Gauguin notified Theo and left town, telling the officer that his presence would only agitate Vincent further. Theo, who had just proposed to his future wife, jumped on a train to Arles on Christmas Day, rushing in to see his brother. Vincent didn’t attend Theo’s wedding.

His neighbours wanted “le fou roux” (the mad redhead) out of their vicinity. Suffering further lapses, Vincent decided to go to an asylum in Saint Rémy.


I now have a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry night.

“The cypresses continue to occupy my thoughts… I’m amazed that they haven’t yet been done in the way that I see them.”

They have beauty of line and proportion like that of an Egyptian obelisk.

In 1889, at 36, Vincent exhibited his art in Paris to favourable reviews from critics and fellow artists, that he couldn’t accept despite Theo’s reassurances. vincent_van_gogh_-_almond_blossom_-_google_art_projectHe was also getting tired of his time alone and missed his friends from the North.
A few months later, Theo had a son whom the couple named Vincent. The proud uncle immediately set about painting the almond blossoms to commemorate the birth of his namesake. He exhibited his work in Brussels to even greater acclaim and the only painting that he sold in his lifetime. He moved North to Auvers and became good friends with his doctor and amateur painter, Dr. Paul Gachet. He continued to paint his ‘translations’, his reproduction522 of the works of famous painters in oil paints, in his inimitable style. In the seventy days that he stayed in Auvers, Vincent produced seventy paintings.

“Dr. Gachet says that he thinks it very unlikely that it will return and that everything is going very well.”

Sad yet gentle, but clear and intelligent – that’s how many portraits ought to be painted


“The flowers are an avalanche of roses against a green background and a very large bunch of violet-coloured irises against a yellow background and against a pink background.”599px-van_gogh_-_country_road_in_provence_by_night

“I still have a cypress tree with a star from down there, a last attempt – a night sky with a lacklustre moon, a slender crescent barely emerging from the opaque shadow cast by the earth – a star of exaggerated brightness if you like, shining soft pink and green in an ultramarine sky with clouds scurrying across. At the bottom of the road lined with tall yellow canes, behind them the blue foothills of the Alps, an old inn with windows illuminated orange, and a very tall cypress tree, very straight and very sombre.”

His words, like his brush strokes are in full colour, bright, passionate, emotional, frenzied, and poetic.

I tell you again that I shall always consider you to be other than a mere dealer in Corots, that through me you have your part to play in the actual production of certain canvases, which even in the midst of this disaster retain their calm.

– Unfinished draft of a letter from Vincent to Theo found on his body when he shot himself on 27th July 1890.

Heartbroken, Theo followed him to the grave a few months later. The brothers were buried side-by-side.

Vincent van Gogh’s story tugs at my heart strings.

Why care about a man dead over a century ago? Because his story is a familiar one. Van Gogh is perhaps the greatest painter known today. Yet, he died of hopelessness, guilty for living off his brother who loved him beyond measure. A man of great passion who couldn’t find someone to love. His life serves as a reminder that how ever insignificant you may think you are, you make a difference to someone’s world, more than you can possibly imagine.

7 thoughts on “A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters

  1. To realise that Vincent Van Gogh was just as human as any of us was weirdly humbling to me. He went through so much in his life as he pursued the thing that mattered most to him, not for greatness but only because he loved it.
    A brilliantly written article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Humbling” – I like that! Yes it is 🙂
      The ultimate “do what you love because life is too short to live it any other way”.
      Thank you! ^_^


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