Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch post-Impressionist painter whose work had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art. His output includes portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, still lifes, olive trees and cypresses, wheat fields and sunflowers. Critics largely ignored his work until after his presumed suicide in 1890. His short life, expressive and spontaneous use of vivid colors, broad oil brushstrokes and emotive subject matter, mean he is recognizable both in the modern public imagination as the quintessential misunderstood genius.


Van Gogh was born to religious upper-middle-class parents. He was driven as an adult by a strong sense of purpose, but was also thoughtful and intellectual; he was equally aware of modernist currents in art, music, and literature. He was well traveled and spent several years in his 20s working for a firm of art dealers in The Hague, London, and Paris, after which he taught in England at Isleworth and Ramsgate. He drew as a child but spent years drifting in ill health and solitude and did not paint until his late twenties. Most of his best-known works were completed during the last two years of his life. Deeply religious as a younger man, he worked from 1879 as a missionary in a mining region in Belgium where he sketched people from the local community. His first major work was 1885’s The Potato Eaters, from a time when his palette mainly consisted of somber earth tones and showed no sign of the vivid coloration that distinguished his later paintings. In March 1886, he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. Later, he moved to the south of France and was inspired by the region’s strong sunlight. His paintings grew brighter in color, and he developed the unique and highly recognizable style that became fully realized during his stay in Arles in 1888. In just over a decade, he produced more than 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings. After years of anxiety and frequent bouts of mental illness, he died aged 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The extent to which his mental health affected his painting has been widely debated. The widespread and popular realization of his significance in the history of modern art began after his adoption by the early 20th-century German Expressionists and Fauves. Despite an widespread tendency to romanticize his ill health, art historians see an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence caused by frequent mental sickness. His posthumous reputation grew steadily; a romanticized version developed in the 20 years after his death when seen as an important but overlooked artist compared to other members of his generation. His reputation advanced with the emergence of the Fauvist movement in Europe and post WWII American respect for symbols of “heroic individualism” that was attractive to early US modernists and especially to the highly successful abstract expressionists of the 1950s; New York’s MOMA launched major retrospectives early in the rehabilitation of his reputation, and made large acquisitions. By this stage, his standing as a great artist and the romanticism of his life were firmly established.


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