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Vincent van Gogh - Everything You Should Know

Why is Vincent van Gogh one of the most famous artists in the world? His style and vibrant use of colour is just as beautiful as it is memorable. But what has made his artwork stand out so much? Who was the man behind the brush? These are some of the questions we’ll be answering in this blog!

Not a reader? No worries - we have a great YouTube video that tells the story of Vincent van Gogh’s life, accompanied by a digital drawing tutorial of the artist!

Who is Vincent van Gogh?

Self Portrait by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh is the most well-known post-impressionist artist. He was born in Groot-Zundert, Holland on March 30, 1853. Van Gogh was raised in a very religious household, so as a child, he believed he would become a priest. It took almost 20 years for him to learn that his true calling was in the arts. You may recognize his most famous paintings, such as The Starry Night, Self Portrait, and Sunflowers!

Sunflowers (left) and Starry Night (right) by Vincent van Gogh

Early Life

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh had many interesting occupations before he became the famed artist we all know today. He worked as a clerk in a bookstore, an art salesman, and a preacher in the Borinage - a mining district in Belgium. Interestingly, he was excused from this position for being too enthusiastic.

He decided to stay in Belgium to study art. He was determined to give happiness by creating beauty, putting his enthusiasm to good use. Strangely, his artwork at the time was somewhat gloomy and used very dark, sharp palettes, like the example of The Potato Eaters above. His brother had a large impact on his art, since he funded most of his work and tried to sell his art.

Van Gogh’s Art Style

(From top left to bottom right) A Forge by Fernand Cormon, Water Lilies by Claude Monet, Peasants Houses Eragny by Camille Pissaro, Self Portrait with Halo and Snake by Paul Gauguin

In 1886, van Gogh moved to Paris and studied with Fernand Cormon, a historical painter who also ran an art school. There, he met Camille Pissarro - a French impressionist, Claude Monet - the founder of impressionist painting, and Paul Gauguin - a post-impressionist painter. He was inspired by all of their work and tried to imitate their styles, but was unsuccessful. Instead of copying their styles, van Gogh brightened his palette, as influenced by his peers, but developed his own bold and unconventional style that he’s so well known for today. From expressive, rhythmic lines to bold colours to thick painterly strokes, van Gogh’s style is one of the most recognizable.

Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh

Instead of copying what he saw in the real world, van Gogh used colours to express his feelings. Often that meant that he worked with limited colour palettes, instead of all the colours available to him. In his Sunflowers painting above, we can see that he worked with a largely monochromatic colour palette, using a variety of yellows. Sunflowers were also a symbol that he used to express gratitude more than once in his paintings, which explains the light colour palette. He also had an interest in complementary colour schemes and the contrast that could be made through colours. This is usually seen in van Gogh’s use of blue and yellow-orange in paintings like Café Terrace at Night, Irises, Wheatfield with Crows, and many more.

Take a Look at how van Gogh’s painting style changed over time:

Dune with Figures by Vincent van Gogh


Van Gogh’s paintings started off showing scenes from everyday life. Just like this painting, they show regular people and were usually painted with neutral colours.

Cottages by Vincent van Gogh


This is painted in a neutral colour palette and is quite true to a real-life landscape.

Weaver by Vincent van Gogh


During this year, van Gogh began painting the everyday scenes of craftsmen, specifically weavers, in his town.

View of Paris by Vincent van Gogh


In this work, we begin to see van Gogh’s brushstrokes become more expressive as they drift through the clouded sky.

Factory at Asnieres by Vincent van Gogh


This painting really starts to develop the familiar brushwork that van Gogh is known for. There’s also a great attention to colour and the way complementary colours work together.

Café at Night by Vincent van Gogh


Similar in paint application, this artwork begins to show van Gogh’s drive to paint from what he feels instead of what he sees. Some proportion is off and the figures are faceless, but these are features that develop his style.

The Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh


This is the year when van Gogh made some of his most famed works. His style here is consistent in paint application and attention to colour, making his work easily identifiable.

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh


The year of van Gogh’s death, we can see just how much his artistic style changed over time. From neutral colour palettes to vibrant and expressive colours, van Gogh’s art went from painting the world around him to painting what was in his mind.

Van Gogh and Gaugin

The Yellow House by Vincent van Gogh

In 1888, at the age of 35, van Gogh attempted to found his own school of art with friends, and created a living space for them called “The Yellow House”. Only Gauguin joined him, but van Gogh was difficult to work with due to his nervous temperament. During this time, his mental health drastically declined due to painting all day and spending his nights engaged in conversation.

What Happened to His Ear?

Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe by Vincent van Gogh

On Christmas Eve 1888, van Gogh snapped under his own mental strain, and after an argument with Gauguin, he supposedly chased him around the house with a razor. This is said to have resulted in van Gogh cutting off his own left earlobe. A later analysis by 21st century art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans instead state that it was Gauguin that severed van Gogh’s ear, and it was with a sword. In the end, it was van Gogh who took responsibility, and was hospitalised while Gauguin left for Paris. After spending two weeks in the hospital, Van Gogh was sent back home. During this time, van Gogh painted his famous self portrait, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe.

Mental Health

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Although van Gogh was released from the hospital two weeks after severing his ear, he readmitted himself to a mental institution in 1889 due to his deteriorating mental health. During his time there, he painted some of his most well known works such as The Starry Night, The Garden of the Asylum, Two Cypresses, and The Alpilles with Olive Trees in the Foreground. These were all painted with his fear of losing touch with reality. The only sources of reference he had were his cell and the asylum garden, so he often worked from memory.

Van Gogh’s Legacy

Wheat Field with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh

Throughout his lifetime, van Gogh painted 800 oil paintings and created 700 drawings, though he was only ever able to sell a single painting while he was alive. Although he was not famous in the slightest while he lived, his fame and notoriety grew significantly during the 20th century. His work has more recently been praised for how ahead of its time it was. He painted the pain of peasants and struggling people, a subject matter that was unheard of and unconventional during his time. Unfortunately, his art wasn’t widely exhibited and he was limited by his mental health struggles. Van Gogh died at the very young age of 37, but his legacy has gone on, making him one of the most influential artists of all time.

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centred around Vincent van Gogh, visit these quick and easy resources!

If you’d like more worksheets related to art, check out our teachers pay teachers page where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we break down art history and more!

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