March 30, 1883– Vincent van Gogh:
“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.“
He has been widely celebrated (to say the least) since his death in 1880 at 37 years old. I counted at least 15 films about him or where his work figures in the story line, including the Academy Award winning film Lust For Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas, Vincent (1986), Vincent & Theo (1990) with Tim Roth as Vincent, and Van Gogh: Painted With Words (2010) with Benedict Cumberbatch as the artist. There is also 2017’s Loving Vincent, the first fully painted animated film, made up of 65,000 frames of an oil painting on canvas, using the same technique as Van Gogh. It was created by a team of 115 painters. Loving Vincent was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and was also nominated for a Golden Globe and BAFTA.
You know his story; he was the handsome Dutch painter who died believing his life’s work was a failure. Supposedly, van Gogh sold only a single painting in his lifetime. He painted The Starry Night, but he was no star. He lived a life plagued by self-doubt, crippled by mental problems.
The Starry Night remains one of the world’s most recognizable works of art, but its creator didn’t even think it was very good, and the world’s initial response seemed to confirm that. Yet, in 1941, the painting became part of the permanent collection of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In 1973, an entire museum in Amsterdam opened, dedicated to housing his work.
The Starry Night was painted during van Gogh’s stay at Saint-Paul, an asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Van Gogh lived well in the hospital; he was allowed more freedoms than any of the other patients. He could leave the hospital grounds with an attendant; he was allowed to paint, read, and withdraw into his own room. He was even given a studio.
He suffered from paranoia and fits. He had hallucinations and thoughts of suicide as he plunged into depression. It was there that he began using the darker colors from the beginning of his career and The Starry Night is an example of that shift. Blue dominates the painting, blending hills into the sky. The little village lays at the base in the painting in browns, grays, and blues. Even though each building is clearly outlined in black, the yellow and white of the stars and the moon stand out against the sky, drawing the eyes to the sky. They are the attention grabber of the painting.
If it is true that van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, his works now command huge amounts of money at auction. A self-portrait from 1889 recently sold for $71.5 million in 2015. Yet, there are plenty of them around: van Gogh was prolific. With no formal training, he managed to produce more than 2,000 paintings. That is more than all the major Renaissance painters who used students and assistants for the work. When he was living in Arles from 1888-1889, a decade of swirling creativity, he produced at least 400 paintings and drawings; that’s a new work of art every day.
In Arles, van Gogh also wrote 200 letters, the shortest of them is six pages long. Each night, after a full day and evening of painting, he would write to his brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris, and fellow artists, describing details of his day, including sketches. He would even work into the night placing lit candles in his hat so he could continue to paint. In a letter to his brother, van Gogh writes: “Starry Night Over The Rhone was painted under a gas jet.”
In another letter to Theo, van Gogh observed:
“It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.“
Although I was always told in Art History classes that van Gogh killed himself, several articles I have read since have suggested that he may have been murdered.
In Van Gogh: The Life (2011) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, there is the claim that van Gogh was killed by a local teenage bully. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam still says that his death was a suicide, but a fascinating article by Naifeh and White published in Vanity Fair in 2014 featured a skeptical forensic specialist’s report that van Gogh could not have shot himself. He was unable to hold the gun that close to his body without leaving burn marks on his hands, plus the gun was never found, the easel and the painting he was working on were missing and the trip on foot that van Gogh claims to have taken from a wheat field to an inn where he was staying would be too long for someone with a fatal wound. There is also the argument that van Gogh’s paintings around the time of his death were bright and playful and the artist had written that he was against suicide in his letters.
On the flip-side, at that inn, he claimed that he wanted to die and refused medical help, telling Theo: “The sadness will last forever”.
Then, there is that missing ear; that’s how many people identify him in history. Actually, only a small piece of his left earlobe was cut off. According to a police report, van Gogh did give a part of his earlobe to a prostitute, but whether he cut the earlobe off himself is up for debate.
Van Gogh had been living with his friend, painter Paul Gauguin at the time of the incident, and Gauguin was a fencer. The two painters sometimes fought violently. Van Gogh claimed to have cut the earlobe off himself, but it might have been a cover up so as not to shame his friend. Van Gogh loved Gauguin more than Gauguin loved him, and Theo paid Gauguin to keep living in the house to keep track of his brother.
Van Gogh claimed he had no recollection of that night, but he wrote Theo:
“Luckily Gauguin is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous war weapons.“
Van Gogh was discharged from the hospital in Arles following the incident with his ear. However, he checked himself into the asylum, worried for his mental health. Theo wrote to his brother there:
“It pains me to know that you’re still in a state of incomplete health. Although nothing in your letter betrays weakness of mind, on the contrary, the fact that you judge it necessary to enter an asylum is quite serious in itself. Let’s hope that this will be merely a preventive measure. As I know you well enough to believe you capable of all the sacrifices imaginable, I’ve thought that there’s a possibility that you may have thought of this solution to encumber less those who know you.“
Van Gogh was not pleased with The Starry Night which he viewed as a failure. He noted that the painting “says nothing to me”. He did not include it in a package of canvases that he sent to Theo to sell.
Van Gogh was born and raised in Zundert, Netherlands. His father was a pastor of a Dutch Reformed church. Van Gogh had a brother that shared his name, Vincent, who died as an infant and was buried at the church. The grave is still there. There is a Vincent van Gogh Square with statues of van Gogh and Theo in the town.
Before he considered being an artist, van Gogh tried being a teacher and an art dealer, but he wrote to Theo, at Christmas 1881:
“Theo, I am so very happy with my paint box, and I think my getting it now, after having drawn almost exclusively for at least a year, better than if I had started with it immediately. For, Theo, with painting my real career begins. Don’t you think I am right to consider it so?“
Van Gogh suffered from a condition called Hypergraphia, a behavioral tic that causes a person to have an intense need to write or paint. He also suffered from epilepsy, which probably explains his famous brush strokes, some of them tore through the canvases. His form of epilepsy is associated with personality disorders including unstable sexual behavior, aggressiveness, and clingy conduct.
During his short lifetime, van Gogh was most likely bisexual. His affair with Gauguin, sexual or not, was volatile, to say the least. Gauguin’s writes about them in his memoirs.
Gauguin was a very charismatic and seductive person who flirted with every person he met, women and men. Van Gogh was drawn to him right away. During the time that they lived together in the Yellow House in Arles, Gauguin sometimes woke up in the middle of the night to discover van Gogh standing over his bed staring down at him. They visited the brothels together. After he was admitted to the asylum, van Gogh and Gauguin never saw each other again.
Van Gogh’s relationship with Gauguin seems proof to me that that he did have some degree of gayness, and that he probably had experiences with several men. Plus, he never managed to have a serious, lasting relationship with a woman. He always chose ones that would never work out. He wrote:
“For my part, I still continue to have the most impossible and highly unsuitable love affairs, from which as a rule I come away with little more than shame and disgrace. And in my own opinion I am absolutely right to do this.“
We can’t really be sure of his gayness, but I would still like to claim Vincent van Gogh as a Gay Icon. Don’t become angry with me and slice off a part of my ear.