Famous Bis: Vincent Van Gogh

By Jennie Roberson

May 18, 2022



Photo credit: Image/The Starry Night (1889)

There are certain figures from history that I just want to put into my pocket. Whether that’s because they’re simply too precious for words or my mama-bear instincts kick in and I want — need — to protect them at all costs, depends entirely on who they are and how the world treated them. In the case of famous but troubled Dutch Post-Impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh, my maternal ursine instincts kick into high gear.

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. Over the course of his life, however, he 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 isolated and lonely.

Portrait by Van Gogh, he is wearing a white small curved hat and a blazer. He has a beard as well.
Image/Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

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 scholars conclude this was one of the happiest years of his life. He was good at his work, made more money than even his father, and fell in love for the first time with his landlady’s daughter (these affections were unrequited). After leaving London to work in a Parisian branch of the dealership in 1875, Van Gogh was fired for quarreling that they were commodifying art.

Over the course of the next few years, Van Gogh moved across multiple countries, passing through a string of jobs. Alternately working as a supply teacher, a minister’s assistant, teaching in a Methodist boys’ school, and working at a bookshop, the future artist studied under his minister uncle but failed the entrance exams to the University of Amsterdam’s theology program.

By 1880, Van Gogh was living in Cuesmes, Belgium, and drawing those around him. He resided with his brother Theo (now an art dealer himself), who encouraged Vincent to pursue his art more seriously and even offered to financially support Vincent while he did so. Van Gogh eventually took his brother up, crashing at Theo’s tiny Parisian apartment in 1886.

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, though Van Gogh often did self-portraits as well. But Vincent found Paris tiring and sought a different form of inspiration. Fascinated with Japanese woodblocks, Van Gogh yearned to travel to the Far East, but Toulouse-Latrec pointed out that the light in Arles was nearly identical to the light in the woodblocks. So in 1888, Van Gogh pulled up stakes and moved to the provincial village in the south of France.

A darker tone self portrait by Van Gogh, he is looking sternly into the viewer.
Image/Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

While Van Gogh always had a voluminous output, it was in Arles that he was perhaps at his most prolific, producing more than 200 paintings during this span, many now considered to be masterpieces. Van Gogh also dreamed of making Arles into an artistic haven and starting a collective with Gaugin at the head, 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. 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 specifics of the fracas remains hazy, but we are told that 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 prostitute that same night — though he later remembered little of this manic episode. Gaugin continued to correspond with him for the duration of Van Gogh’s life, but they never met again.

This breakdown led to Van Gogh checking himself into a mental asylum, Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, in May 1889, where he continued to paint at a feverish pace. He took inspiration from the gardens and flowers on the institution’s grounds, as well as the views from his window, which included one of the most famous paintings of all time, Starry Night.

In 1890, after Van Gogh was released to the care of a doctor in Auvers, it is believed that he attempted suicide by shooting 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.

It is commonly believed among 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, befriending and often living with sex workers. Though it’s unclear whether his relationship with Gaugin had a sexual dimension 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. For his part, Gaugin was known to flirt with both men and women and wrote that there were moments during their time living together when he would wake up to find 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 shunned by the villagers in Arles.

While the exact roadmap of Van Gogh’s mental health remains uncertain, it’s plain that his psychological struggles 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 symptoms consistent with what we would now describe as bipolar disorder. Other modern medical minds debate whether Van Gogh suffered from epilepsy and/or showed signs of Geschwind syndrome, one of whose symptoms include 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. To add to that, Van Gogh was also known for mixing his paints in his mouth, which contained lead.

Regardless of what Van Gogh’s official diagnoses would have been, they prevented him from living a loving and accepted life. Given his deep bouts of loneliness and isolation, I’m often left wondering 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 tragically short life, his sister-in-law, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, tirelessly campaigned to have his art 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 quintessential tortured artist, and there’s much truth to that. He strived to find truth in his work, feverishly working through bursts of expression with brushstrokes unlike anything the world had ever seen. His art remains fiendishly popular today and hangs in the most esteemed museums around the globe. While he was unappreciated in his own time, even by his own mind, that does not diminish his work — if anything, knowing that the beauty and power his art unleashes on its canvases were overlooked only enhances it. His mistreatment and ostracization remain to this day a reminder that everyone, artist or otherwise, deserves compassion, help, and inclusion. He was a master of color, light, and passion decades before his time. And he was bi.

Image/Vincent Van Gogh (1889)