Self-portrait (March 1887 - June 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum
From his inspirations to his bromances, discover some lesser known facts about this iconic post-impressionist painter
Born in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands, Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous artists of all time. His sunflowers are iconic, his cut-off ear legendary, and yet, during van Gogh’s lifetime, he was pretty much unknown and considered himself a failure.
Today van Gogh’s artworks sell for hundreds of millions of dollars and he’s a household name, but there are facts about his life and work that might still surprise you.
The potato eaters (1885) by Vincent van GoghThe Kröller-Müller Museum
1. He almost never became an artist at all
Imagine a world where we didn’t have the Sunflowers, or The Starry Night? This world wasn’t so far off. Originally, van Gogh planned to be a pastor and worked as a lay preacher in Borinage, Belgium. It was only on being sacked from this job that he decided that his future lay in painting. Indeed, van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was 27 years old, and he never received any formal training.
One Hundred Famous Views of Edo “Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake” (1857) by Utagawa HiroshigeShizuoka city Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art
2. Inspirations from the East
Van Gogh had varied inspirations, including Dutch genre painting and the realist paintings of Millet and his contemporaries, but he was particularly influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. In some cases he even made copies – albeit in his very expressive, idiosyncratic style – of prints by Hiroshige, Kesai Eisen and others.
Sunflowers (January 1889 - 1889) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum
3. A new work every 36 hours
Despite only working for 10 years – from the age of 27 up until his early demise at 37 – van Gogh was incredibly prolific. He produced more than 900 paintings and many more drawings and sketches, which works out at nearly a new artworks every 36 hours. Phew!
Autograph letter, dated 17 October 1888, to Paul Gauguin (1888) by Vincent van GoghThe Morgan Library & Museum
4. A man of letters
As well as creating hundreds of artworks, van Gogh wrote almost as many letters and postcards. These often included the first sketches of many of his most famous masterpieces.
Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (1888) by Vincent van GoghHarvard Art Museums
Van Gogh had several close relationships with other artists, including fellow painter Paul Gaugin. Van Gogh, Gaugin and Emile Bernard planned to form a close-knit artists' community in the south of France, where they intended to live and paint together.
Instigated by van Gogh, the three artists exchanged self-portraits.
Self-portrait with grey felt hat (September 1887 - October 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum
6. He was his own model
An unknown and impoverished artist, van Gogh didn’t have money to pay for models, so he painted himself instead. His other cost-saving tricks included painting over his artworks instead of buying new canvas. How many more masterpieces are we yet to find hidden under other paintings?
The Starry Night (1889) by Vincent van GoghMoMA The Museum of Modern Art
7. A failure?
When van Gogh painted his most famous painting, The Starry Night, he didn’t even think it was any good. In fact, van Gogh considered himself and many of his paintings to be failures, and it's rumored that he only ever sold one painting in his lifetime. If only we could go back in time and show him how well-loved he would be over 150 years on.
Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette (January 1886 - February 1886) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum
8. He cut off his own ear following an argument with Gaugin
It's well known that van Gogh cut off his own ear in 1888, but do you know why?
The circumstances in which van Gogh cut off his ear are not exactly known, but many experts believe that it was following a furious row with fellow painter Paul Gaugin at the Yellow House in Arles.
Some historians even believe that Gaugin cut off his friend's ear, and that the pair conspired to blame it on van Gogh so that Gaugin could escape the police.
Afterwards, Van Gogh allegedly packaged up his removed ear and gave it to a prostitute in a nearby brothel.
Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890) by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, b.1853, d.1890)Cincinnati Art Museum
9. Tragically, he took his own life
Van Gogh suffered mental health issues for many years. In April 1889 he voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy, where he spent a year. It was from his window here that he created some of his most well-known paintings, including The Starry Night.
After leaving the asylum, van Gogh moved to Auvers, a village near Paris, to be closer to his brother Theo. But his mental health continued to deteriorate and, on July 29, 1890, he shot himself in the chest. He would die two days later; his last words to his brother were ‘the sadness will last forever’.
Poppy field (June 1890) by Vincent van GoghKunstmuseum
10. An inspiration for centuries
Not only have Vincent van Gogh’s artworks come to define post-impressionism and provided endless inspiration for artists, but his tragic life story has also captured the hearts of countless musicians, writers and filmmakers too. Don McLean’s 1971 hit song “Vincent” is inspired by van Gogh’s unique perspective on the world. He sings, 'they did not listen, they did not know how… perhaps they’ll listen now'.
Irises (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum
This year also sees the release of Loving Vincent, an animated feature film in which each frame has been painted by hand. The film features 65,000 frames made by 125 painters over the course of 6 years.
Explore more on Vincent van Gogh:
- Van Gogh: From Self-Portraits to Street Art
- Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Own Ear?
- Last Works: New Experiments
- See all of van Gogh’s works