There are some figures throughout history that I just want to put into my pocket. Whether that’s because they’re just too precious for words or my mama-bear instincts kick in and I want — nay, need — to protect them at all costs, depends entirely on who they are and how their world treated them. And one of the biggest ones that triggers my mama-bear tendencies is the famous but troubled Dutch Post-Impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh.
Born on March 30th, 1853 in Groot-Zundert in the Netherlands to a minister father and a prosperous but strict mother, Vincent was the eldest of six siblings, but over the course of his life was closest to and most supported by his brother, Theo. While he showed interest in art at an early age, Van Gogh had an unhappy childhood, spending much of his teen years getting shipped off to distant schools which left him feeling terribly lonely.
After a few years of training, Van Gogh got a position with an art dealers' house and moved to London in 1873 for a year. Many conclude this was one of the artist’s happiest years in his life, as he was good at his work, making more money than even his father, and fell in love for the first time with his landlady’s daughter (these affections were unrequited). After transferring away from London and working in a Parisian branch of the dealership in 1875, Van Gogh was fired from his job after quarreling that they were commodifying art.
Over the course of the next few years and moving through multiple countries, Van Gogh went through a string of jobs and also strived to follow a path to ministry. Alternately working as a supply teacher, minister’s assistant, teaching in a Methodist boys’ school and working at a bookshop, the future artist both studied under his minister uncle and took but failed entrance exams (as he didn’t want to take the Latin section as it was a dead language.)
By 1880, Van Gogh was living and drawing those around him in Cuesmes, Belgium, his brother Theo (now an art dealer himself) encouraged him to take up art more seriously and offered financial support while he did so. By 1886, Vincent showed up and crashed at Theo’s tiny apartment in Paris.
Van Gogh’s time in Paris was important, as it led to both important connections in the art world as well as additions to his style. This was his first exposure to Impressionism and when he started to add brighter, more contemporary colors to his palette. It was also during this time when he struck up two important connections: Henri Toulouse-Latrec, a painter who also did studies of their Montmartre neighborhood, and Paul Gaugin, one of the artists Theo represented. Many of these artists would pose for each other to save money on models, but Van Gogh often did self-portraits as well. But Paris wore out the artist and found him wanting something different as a form of inspiration. Fascinated with Japanese woodblocks, Van Gogh yearned to travel there, but Toulouse-Latrec pointed out that the light in Arles was nearly identical to the light in the woodblocks. So in 1888, he pulled up stakes and moved to the provincial village in the south of France.
While Van Gogh always had a high output of work, it was in Arles that he was perhaps at his most prolific and produced more than 200 paintings during this time, many of them now considered to be masterpieces. Van Gogh also dreamed of making Arles into an artistic haven and starting a collective, with Gaugin heading the group, and pleaded with him over many letters to come visit. Theo grew concerned about his brother’s mental health and bribed Gaugin to go to visit his brother for a time, which the painter wanted to use to return to his artistic inspiration, St. Martinique. While the two artists had some productive moments during his two-month visit, including painting as well as frequenting local brothels together, tensions mounted and came to a head during an explosive argument. The content of the fracas remains unclear, but apparently, as Gaugin left, he turned around and saw Van Gogh with a razor in his hand. Van Gogh removed at least part of his right ear and gave it to a sex worker that same night — he remembers little of this manic episode. Though Gaugin continued to correspond with him for the duration of Van Gogh’s life, they never met again.
This breakdown led to Van Gogh checking himself into a mental health asylum, Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, in May 1889, where he continued to paint at a feverish pace. The painter took inspiration from the gardens and flowers in his surroundings and views from his window, which included what is perhaps one of the most famous paintings of all time, Starry Night.
Unfortunately in 1890 after Van Gogh was released to the care of a doctor in Auvers, it is believed that he attempted to die by suicide and shot himself in the chest in a field near his quarters. Within two days, he died from an infection in his brother’s arms at the tender age of 37, having only sold one painting during his lifetime. Theo, weakened by tuberculosis and heartbroken at this loss, followed Vincent into death within a year.
As far as his bisexuality, it is commonly believed amongst both art historians as well as medical historians that Van Gogh was bi. He is noted to have professed love to at least three different women in his life and often frequented brothels to have his needs met, befriending and often living with sex workers. Though it’s unclear whether his relationship with Gaugin had a sexual component to it, it seems likely (#AndTheyWereRoommates.) Van Gogh displayed a similar intensity and desire to connect with him as he did with the female lovers in his life. Gaugin was known to flirt with both men and women and did note that there were moments during the time they lived together when Arles would wake up to Vincent staring at him. This may have lent an extra layer to the intensity of their final confrontation. Sadly, Van Gogh’s rumored bisexuality was also one of the reasons he was often ostracized or seen as a threat by the villagers in Arles.
While it is still unclear what the exact roadmap was of Van Gogh’s mental health, it’s clear that its lack of balance took a heavy toll on his temperament and quality of life. Suffering depression or melancholy as a youth, in his prime the artist seemed to have bouts of paranoia and hearing voices, as well as what looks like to modern eyes a case of bipolar disorder. Other modern medical minds also debate whether Van Gogh suffered from epilepsy in his lifetime and/or showed signs of Geschwind syndrome, one of those symptoms including hypergraphia, or the intense need to write or paint (in addition to his prolific artistic output, he wrote to his brother Theo incessantly). We can also infer from family records that he may have also been autistic. Van Gogh was also known for mixing his paints in his mouth, which contained lead.
No matter what the actual illnesses were, they disrupted Van Gogh from living a loving and accepted life — deep bouts of loneliness and isolation due to his passionate rantings or misunderstood art or output often attributed to his mental health, often making it worse. I often wonder what a modicum of sustained compassion and understanding would have done for the misunderstood artist.
While he did not enjoy success or recognition during his all-too-short life, his sister-in-law, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, tirelessly campaigned to have his work exhibited and his letters to Theo published to help buyers better understand his work. Her efforts were not in vain, as she landed a big showing of his work in 1901 which snowballed into the greater legacy and renown that his works enjoy today.
Vincent Van Gogh is often held up as the tantamount tortured artist, and there’s a lot of truth to that statement. Van Gogh strived to get to the truth of his work, feverishly working towards bursts of expressions with his brushstrokes unlike anything the world had ever seen. His work remains fiendishly popular today and hangs in the most esteemed museums around the globe. While he was misunderstood in his own time even by his own mind, that does not diminish his work but rather enhances it for the beauty and power it unleashes on its canvases. His mistreatment and ostracization remain to this day a reminder that everyone, artist or otherwise, deserves both access to compassionate mental health care as well as loving and patient societal inclusion. He was a master of color, light, and passion, decades before his time. And he was bi.