Perhaps the only way to disentangle, for yourself, the real Vincent Van Gogh from the creation of so many others, is to study the great mass of work he has left behind. Locally, his art is on display at museums including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and New York’s, Metropolitan Museum, and Museum of Modern Art. In addition to his art, some 600 of Van Gogh’s letters survive, all translated into English. Most are written to Vincent’s beloved and devoted brother, Theo, his sole supporter all his adult life, both financially and emotionally. Vincent’s correspondence describes a tortured life. With a passion for life great as young man ever had, he failed miserably in love, friendship, career, and in the three relationships to which he was most devoted; his Calvinist minister father, his church, and his god. In 1880, at the age of 26, Van Gogh suffered his first nervous breakdown. After a period of desperate wandering, he wrote to his brother, “In spite of everything, I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.” Vincent would turn that which had caused him so much suffering, his overfilled heart, toward canvas.
In a period of ten years, most of which he was ill, Van Gogh would produce some 800 paintings and a similar number of drawings. His early work depicts humble subjects, peasants mostly, with a gentle hand that at times rivals his idol, Jean Francois Millet. His middle years are portraits, room settings, and “still lifes” of flowers with such intensity it seems the artist had captured a piece of the sun and used in his palate. In his last years, after admitting himself into sanitarium in St. Remy, the sun went inside Vincent, and he created perhaps his finest work. No artist with so much belief in himself, ever endured such failure. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life time. He suffered from an illness characterized by numerous attacks of depression. And he suffered from ill-fated luck.
When lucid, in good health, Vincent Van Gogh could produce a masterpiece in a single day. To our loss, those days were too few. Heartbroken to learn that his brother was ill, and suffering in his business, Van Gogh took his own life at the age of 37. He would be a burden no more. A hundred years following the death of Vincent, and his brother Theo, who was buried beside him a year later, his painting of Iris’s would sell for a record price of $75,000,000.