Despite living a life that was in many ways more modest than most of ours, Van Gogh the painter has become a larger than life figure. His paintings have sold for such high prices, and stories like the removal of one of his ears have completely overshadowed the real person and the true nature of his body of work. Obviously no list can completely convey the entirety of a human being, but it will address a few of the common misconceptions and expand our knowledge of the man and work.
10. Massive Body of Work
How many of Van Gogh’s paintings has the layperson seen? Probably they’ve only seen Starry Night, a sunflowers painting or two, and a few self-portraits. Certainly they haven’t seen enough to get the impression that Van Gogh actually left behind a body of eight hundred and seventy paintings. On top of that there were more than one thousand one hundred drawings, something he often did on days where it was too windy for paint or there just wasn’t the money for a canvas handy. Unlike most artists who would do a sketch as a rough draft for a painting, Van Gogh would usually do a drawing as a second attempt at a particular piece of art, as if the idea of an image were more important to him than the composition of the piece. It was such a prolific output that for a two month period, he was doing a painting a day.
9. Very Late Bloomer
Most visual artists find their passion fairly early in their childhood. You learn they often would almost compulsively draw or paint so that they could have a style by the time they were eighteen. Van Gogh by contrast was twenty–seven when he decided to become an artist, curiously after he’d already failed in a career as an art dealer. What’s more, although he did take drawing classes, he didn’t bother with formal painting education, deciding instead to study other artist’s technique. Considering that he passed away at the age of only thirty-seven, that means he was creating eighty-seven paintings a year. That would be very prolific even for today with all the digital equipment that’s available to simplify and cheapen the process. Art historians have claimed that this was the thing that held him back from greater recognition during his lifetime, as he was acclaimed shortly after his passing. There just wasn’t time enough for word of mouth and prestige to build up during his truncated career.
8. As a Teacher
At age twenty-three, Van Gogh took an unpaid (except for lodging) job as a teacher at William Stokes’s boarding school in Ramsgate, U.K.. There were only twenty-four students in the school, whose ages ranged between ten and fourteen years, which Van Gogh admitted in a letter to his parents wasn’t many. He still found it frustrating how hard it was to drill the lessons into the children’s heads instead of just parrot them to the kids. He also was angered when he saw William Stokes send kids to bed without dinner or tea even though they seemed generally well-behaved. During this period he developed a love of the beach that compelled him to take his students there even during severe storms. Whatever his feelings about the experience, Van Gogh was let go from the position after only two months.
7. Puritans Going to Church
During his stay in the UK which began in 1873, Vincent saw a painting which was to become not only his favorite but one which art historians believe shaped much of the rest of his life. It was a George Henry Boughton painting from 1867 originally entitled The Early Puritans of New England Going to Church. To Vincent, it wasn’t just an artistic experience to see, but a religious one. To him it was an experience which connected art which spoke to the common people with the spirit in a particularly moving way. It’s no coincidence then that it was after the end of his career as an artist that he decided to become a painter. Speaking of which…
6. Fired from the Clergy for “Excessive Zeal”
In his final attempt at a regular career before the one which would immortalize him, Van Gogh worked as a preacher for coal miners in Borinage, Belgium after also dabbling in it while in the UK. This was hardly surprising as that had been his father’s profession before him. Surviving accounts of his sermons began with the phrase “Our life is a pilgrim’s progress.” Characteristically, he apparently got far too into the career despite the fairly squalid conditions. He was noted to be extremely kind and dutiful, but not very good at speaking eloquently. After eighteen months, his excessive zeal was cited as a reason for not renewing his contract, along with problems organizing services.
5. Brothel Regular
Despite his seemingly pious outlook, Vincent van Gogh wasn’t just someone who sneaked off to the brothels. He actually wrote about his habits to his brother Theo, among others, sometimes using profane language. He had a system where he believed that it was optimal to visit the brothel once every fifteen days (when Theo sent him enough money) to maintain his physical vigor but more than that would soften the mind and lower the quality of his work. Of course, linking sexual activity with diminishing the mental faculties wasn’t so much out of step with the times. Still, Van Gogh’s specific time system seems pretty unusual even in that context, not that it prevented him from catching social diseases such as gonorrhea, which at one point put him in the hospital for three weeks.
4. Issues with Impressionism
All the most famous and expensive Van Gogh paintings come from the period after he’d been to Paris in 1886 and been supposedly influenced by the Impressionist movement. However, it was not as if the visit was a sudden revelation to a naive artist that instantly won him over. Even in 1884, when he was up in the Netherlands painting dark and moody peasant pieces like his 1885 masterpiece The Potato Eaters, his brother Theo was writing him letters that implied he thought of his Vincent’s work at being influenced by the Impressionists. In writing, Van Gogh had issues with the association, saying that he didn’t know what it meant, hadn’t seen any of it, and didn’t feel any need to see it. Goes to show just how good it can be for us to embrace new things.
3. Actually Might Not Have Cut His Own Ear Off
Recent historical investigation has given reason to suspect that the Van Gogh’s famous self-mutilation, connected with the departure of his Impressionist muse Paul Gauguin from his life, wasn’t really self-inflicted. It was believed that what actually happened was Van Gogh and Gauguin were arguing, Vincent provoked Gauguin to draw his fencing sword, and he (likely accidentally) struck Vincent on the ear. The main evidence of this is in correspondence. Vincent claimed that the incident had a “pact of silence” that came with it. Theo later wrote at another time how handy it was that Gauguin didn’t have a gun. Even more suggestive was when Gauguin called Vincent “A man with sealed lips.” Another aspect that people seem to have the wrong impression about was that when he gave the portion of ear lobe to Rachel at the brothel, it wasn’t a crazed gift. He told her “guard this carefully.”
2. Lead Poisoning
A big contributor to Van Gogh’s numerous psychological problems was very likely his habit of ingesting the neurotoxin lead by sucking on his brushes because of the somewhat sweet aftertaste of his lead paint. Others claimed that he only did that as a means to hold his brushes instead of suck on them for any flavor, but either way the point remains that he was exposed to dangerous amounts of the substance. For better or worse, poisoning from the substance was also believed to have influenced his style. The sort of luminescent look of some of Van Gogh’s paintings during his later period, with halos appearing around all sorts of objects, is consistent with the effect lead poisoning has on vision. He was also known to nibble on paint chips with a particular preference for yellow and other bright colors. This must have been greatly exacerbated by a habit he developed towards the end where he would, as he wrote in a letter to Theo, “pick filthy things up and eat them.”
1. Sold More than One Painting
Part of the mystique of Vincent Van Gogh as a tragically struggling and under-appreciated artist is that he only sold one painting during his lifetime, or more accurately that his very loyal and patient brother/dealer Theo did. That painting was the 1888 work The Red Vineyard in 1890, and it sold for all of four hundred francs, which was the equivalent of about $100.00 at the time. But here’s the thing about that: He actually was a bit more successful than that. It’s known that he also sold at least one other painting in the UK. Of all things, it was one of Van Gogh’s self–portraits that sold. You wouldn’t think that a self-portrait from an obscure painter would be a very commercial product, but apparently there was something in that one which appealed to London art dealers named Sully and Lori. In terms of number of sales, Van Gogh actually was more successful with his drawings. Not enough that he was able to become self-sufficient as a painter instead of depending on his brother Theo, but it wasn’t as tragic as art history would like to claim it was. If nothing else, it indicates to the casual fan that Van Gogh’s drawings are as worth a look as his paintings.
Dustin Koski is one of the co-writers of the upcoming fantasy novel Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong.