(b Zundert, North Brabant, 30 Mar. 1853; d Auvers-sur-Oise, 29 July 1890).
Dutch painter and draughtsman, active for much of his brief career in France, with Cézanne and Gauguin the greatest of Post-Impressionist artists. His uncle was a partner in the international firm of picture dealers Goupil and Co. and in 1869 van Gogh went to work in the branch at The Hague. He was a good linguist, and from 1873 to 1876 he worked at the London and Paris branches. Initially he did well, but early in 1876 he was obliged to resign because of his erratic behaviour, caused by an unrequited passion for his landlady's daughter (or perhaps for the widowed landlady herself; the evidence is vague). This was the first of several disastrous attempts to find happiness with a woman. Throughout most of 1876 he was again in England, working as a teacher in Ramsgate, Kent, and Isleworth, Middlesex, and as an assistant to a Methodist minister, his experience of urban squalor having awakened a religious zeal and a longing to serve his fellow men. His father was a Protestant pastor, and van Gogh began to train for the ministry, but he abandoned his studies in 1878 and went to work as a lay preacher among the impoverished miners of the grim Borinage district in Belgium. In his zeal he gave away his own worldly goods to the poor and was dismissed for his literal interpretation of Christ's teaching. He remained in the Borinage, suffering acute poverty and a spiritual crisis, until 1880, when he found that art was his vocation and the means by which he could bring consolation to humanity. From this time he worked at his new ‘mission’ with single-minded intensity, and although he often suffered from extreme poverty and undernourishment, his output in the ten remaining years of his life was prodigious: about a thousand paintings and a similar number of drawings. The spontaneous, irrational side of his character has often been stressed, but he was a cultivated and well-read man, who in spite of his speed of work thought deeply about his paintings and planned them carefully.
From 1881 to 1885 van Gogh lived in the Netherlands, sometimes with his parents, sometimes in lodgings, supported by his devoted brother Theo (1857–91), a picture dealer in Paris who regularly sent him money from his own small salary as well as art materials and prints. Their correspondence is an extraordinarily rich source of information on van Gogh's life and art. Initially he confined himself to drawings, and they dominate the first half of his career. He experimented with various media, including waxy black lithographic chalk, which encouraged the bold, strongly outlined style he favoured in his early work. Later he preferred pen and ink, which he used with much greater spontaneity in rapid dots and flicks that pulsate with the same kind of life as the swirling brushstrokes that came to characterize his paintings. He took up oils in 1882 and in keeping with his humanitarian outlook he painted peasants and workers, the most famous picture from this period being The Potato Eaters (1885, Van Gogh Mus., Amsterdam). Of this he wrote to Theo: ‘I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamp-light have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour, and how they have honestly earned their food.’ In 1885 van Gogh moved to Antwerp on the advice of Anton Mauve (a cousin by marriage), and studied for some months at the Academy there. Academic instruction had little to offer such an individualist, however, and in February 1886 he moved to Paris, where he met Degas, Gauguin, Pissarro, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec. At this time his painting changed abruptly in style under the combined influence of Impressionism and Japanese woodcuts (see Ukiyo-e), losing its moralistic flavour and revelling in the beauty of colour. Unlike the Impressionists, however, he did not use colour for the reproduction of visual appearances, atmosphere, and light. ‘Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes,’ he wrote, ‘I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcibly.’ Of his Night Café (1888, Yale Univ. AG), he said: ‘I have tried to express with red and green the terrible passions of human nature.’ For a time he was influenced by Seurat's delicate pointillist manner, but he abandoned this for broad, vigorous brushstrokes.