Born in theNetherlands in 1853, Vincent van Gogh was the first of six children born toAnna Cornelia Carbentus and Rev’d Theodorus van Gogh, a Protestant minister.Sober and reserved, traits exacerbated by his unhappy time at boarding school,as a child van Gogh showed no natural inclination toward art. Aged 16, van Goghbegan to work in The Hague. Four years later, van Gogh was transferred to theGroupil Gallery, London, where he found an affinity for British culture,visiting art galleries and reading the works of British authors. Following arejected marriage proposal to his landlady’s daughter, Van Gogh suffered amental breakdown, and was shortly after fired from his job for telling clientsto not waste money buying ‘worthless art’. Van Gogh became deeply religious,and began teaching at a Methodist school. Van Gogh considered joining theclergy, but was denied entrance to the School of Theology after refusing tolearn Latin.
In winter 1878, van Gogh began work preaching and ministering to amining town where he aided the sick, earning him the sobriquet ‘Christ of theCoal Mines’, and drew portaits of the miners and their families. Displeasedwith van Gogh’s lifestyle, the church chose not to renew his contract, and vanGogh was forced to find another occupation. Despite having noformal art training, in 1880 van Gogh decided to pursue a career as an artist,with financial support from his brother Theo.
Painting helped van Gogh remainbalanced, and in ’85 he produced the painting considered to be his firstmasterpiece, a group portrait entitled ‘The Potato Eaters’. After moving,uninvited, into his brother’s Parisian apartment in 1886, van Gogh encounteredimpressionist art, and became enamoured by the vibrant colours. After studyingJapanese art, van Gogh dreamed about travelling to Japan, but never did so atthe insistence of close friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, instead moving toArles, in southern France, where he was known to prefer spending money onpaints over food. By December 1888, vanGogh was a regular turps drinker. Concerned, his brother Theo arranged forartist Paul Gauguin to monitor van Gogh. Less than a month later, van Gogh andGauguin had an argument, after which van Gogh famously severed his own leftear, which he gave to a prostitute.
After this unfortunate incident, van Goghwas put into the Hotel-Dieu hospital by the police. Visited by his brother, vanGogh suffered severe dehydration and violent seizures, but was expected torecover, according to doctors. In 1889, van Gogh was released. Alone anddepressed, van Gogh was again hospitalised soon after.
After the localpeople signed a petition denouncing him as a threat, van Gogh was moved to theSaint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he paintedpictures of the gardens. In 1889, van Gogh received an invitation to exhibithis work in Brussels. Van Gogh accepted, and sent six works, including ‘Irises’and ‘Starry Night’. In January 1890, Theoand his wife had a son, who they named after van Gogh. Later that same year,penniless and suffering severe mental health problems, van Gogh commitedsuicide via gunshot wound. Van Gogh’s portraitsare extremely well known, firstly for their use of colour and bold, dramaticbrushstrokes, but also the emotional insight into the subject, demonstratingthe ability of the painter to form deep bonds with those who chose to sit forhim.
The skilful composition of van Gogh’s portraits is most evident in theseveral paintings of the Roulin Family he did in Arles. Having the subject weara primary colour, with the background a contrasting colour, van Gogh selectedboth to generate a certain emotion from the viewer. In his second portrait ofArmand Roulin, van Gogh positioned nearly all elements to indicate sadness, hattipped down, using greens and blues shifted toward the dark side. His portraitof Camille Roulin, however, uses far happier colours, with the stark yellowbackground indicative of sunlight, reflective of the innocence and carefreequality found in young children like Camille.
The realism of vanGogh’s portraits differed vastly between each work, the artist preferring toget a feel for the subject before beginning a new work. While some portraitsare near-photographic representations of the subject, some give far more intoemotion, creating a portrait which provides profound insight into the subject.