Vincent was born in Zundert, Netherlands. Son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Theodorus van Gogh, a Protestant minister, a profession that Vincent found appealing and to which he would be drawn to a certain extent later in his life. His sister described him as a serious and introspective child.
At age 16 Vincent started to work for the art dealer Goupil & Co. in The Hague. His brother Theo, four years his junior and with whom Vincent cherished a lifelong friendship, would join the company later. This friendship is amply documented in the vast amount of letters they sent each other. These letters have been preserved and were published in 1914. They provide a lot of insight into the life of the painter, and show him to be a talented writer with a keen mind. Theo would support Vincent financially throughout his life.
In 1873, his firm transferred him to London, then to Paris. He became increasingly interested in religion; in 1876 Goupil dismissed him for lack of motivation. He became a teaching assistant in Ramsgate near London, then returned to Amsterdam to study theology in 1877.
After dropping out in 1878, he became a lay minister in Belgium in a poor mining region known as the Borinage. He even preached down in the mines and was extremely concerned with the lot of the workers. He was dismissed after 6 months and continued without pay. During this period he started to produce charcoal sketches.
In 1880, Vincent followed the suggestion of his brother Theo and took up painting in earnest. For a brief period Vincent took painting lessons from Anton Mauve at The Hague. Although Vincent and Anton soon split over a divergence of artistic views, influences of the Hague School of painting would remain in Vincent's work, notably in the way he played with light and in the looseness of his brush strokes. However his usage of colours, favouring dark tones, set him apart from his teacher.
The Potato Eaters (1885)In 1881 he declared his love to his widowed cousin Kee Vos, who rejected him. Later he would move in with the prostitute Sien Hoornik and her children and considered marrying her; his father was strictly against this relationship and even his brother Theo advised against it. They later separated.
Impressed and influenced by Jean-François Millet, van Gogh focused on painting peasants and rural scenes. He moved to the Dutch province Drenthe, later to Nuenen, North Brabant, also in The Netherlands. Here he painted in 1885 The Potato Eaters (Dutch Aardappeleters, now in The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam).
In the winter of 1885-1886 Van Gogh attended the art academy of Antwerp, Belgium. This proved a disappointment as he was dismissed after a few months by Professor Eugène Siberdt. Van Gogh did however get in touch with Japanese art during this period, which he started to collect eagerly. He admired its bright colours, use of canvas space and the role lines played in the picture. These impressions would influence him strongly. Van Gogh made some paintings in Japanese style. Also some of the portraits he painted are set against a background which shows Japanese art.
Sunflowers painted at Arles, 1888 (Neue Pinakothek, Munich)In spring 1886 Van Gogh went to Paris, where he moved in with his brother Theo; they shared a house on Montmartre. Here he met the painters Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Emile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin. He discovered impressionism and liked its use of light and colour, more than its lack of social engagement (as he saw it). Especially the technique known as pointillism (where many small dots are applied to the canvas that blend into rich colors only in the eye of the beholder, seeing it from a distance) made its mark on Van Goghs own style. It should be noted that Van Gogh is regarded as a post-impressionist, rather than an impressionist. Van Gogh also used complementary colors, especially blue and orange, in close proximity in order to enhance the brilliance of each (see color).
Cafe Terrace at Night (1888)In 1888, when city life and living with his brother proved too much, Van Gogh left Paris and went to Arles, Bouches-du-Rhône, France. He was impressed with the local landscape and hoped to found an art colony. He decorated a "yellow house" and created a celebrated series of yellow sunflower paintings for this purpose. Only Paul Gauguin, whose simplified colour schemes and forms (known as synthetism) attracted van Gogh, followed his invitation. The admiration was mutual, and Gauguin painted van Gogh painting sunflowers. However their encounter ended in a quarrel. Van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown and cut off part of his left ear, which he gave to a startled prostitute friend. Gauguin left in December 1888.
One of Vincent's famous paintings, the Bedroom in Arles of 1888, uses bright yellow and unusual perspective effects in depicting the interior of his bedroom. The boldly vanishing lines are sometimes attributed to his changing mental condition. The only painting he sold during his lifetime, The Red Vineyard, was created in 1888. It is now on display in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Russia.
The Red Vineyard (1888)Van Gogh now exchanged painting dots for small stripes. He suffered from depression, and in 1889 on his own request Van Gogh was admitted to the psychiatric center at Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy de Provence, Bouches-du-Rhône, France. During his stay here the clinic and its garden became his main subject. Pencil strokes changed again, now into swirls.
In May 1890 Vincent left the clinic and went to the physician Paul Gachet, in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, where he was closer to his brother Theo, who had recently married. Gachet had been recommended to him by Pissarro; he had treated several artists before. Here van Gogh created his only etching: a portrait of the melancholic doctor Gachet. His depression aggravated, and on July 27 of the same year, at the age of 37, after a fit of painting activity, van Gogh shot himself in the chest. He died two days later, with Theo at his side, who reported his last words as "La tristesse durera toujours" (French: "The sadness will last forever"). He was buried at the cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise; Theo, unable to come to terms with his brother's death, died 6 months later and, at his wife's request, was buried next to Vincent.
It would not take long before Vincent's fame grew higher and higher. Large exhibitions were organised soon: Paris 1901, Amsterdam 1905, Cologne 1912, New York 1913 and Berlin 1914.