Vincent Van Gogh

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”


About Vincent Van Gogh

The oldest of six children, Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853. Quiet and serious, he grew up in the village of Groot-Zundert in the Netherlands, where his father was a minister at a church. His mother visited sick people in the village and gave sewing and knitting lessons. Vincent’s parents wanted their children to grow up to be good people. They also wanted them to have every chance at success.


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Although they were not very wealthy, Vincent’s parents sent several of their children, including him, to boarding school. Vincent went to two different boarding schools; he never graduated, but he did learn to draw. He also studied French, German, and English. Languages were one of his best subjects.
Vincent and his younger brother, Theo, were very close with one of their uncles whose name was also Vincent. They called him Uncle Cent. Uncle Cent was a partner in an art dealing business, and he helped Vincent and Theo get jobs there as well. Vincent started working for the business when he was sixteen, first at the Hague (the capital of Holland), then in London, and finally in France. Doing this work, Vincent learned to love art. But he didn’t feel like it was the right job for him. Vincent wanted to help people who had less than he did. So he started studying to become a preacher and lived and worked among poor miners. But it turned out that wasn’t the right thing either. Finally, when he was twenty-seven years old, Vincent discovered once and for all what he was meant to be—an artist.
With no prior training in art, Vincent knew he had a tough road ahead of him. Fortunately, Theo agreed to help him while he pursued his new career. Over the years, van Gogh would take some lessons in painting, but mostly, he taught himself by looking at art, copying it, and experimenting on his own.
Vincent’s first paintings were of the same peasants he had wanted to help earlier. These paintings used dark colors and looked rough. He thought that this was the best way to portray people who lived very hard lives. But in 1886, Vincent moved to Paris, where his art changed almost completely. There, seeing the work of other artists who were interested in light, color and movement, Vincent began to paint outdoors, using brighter colors, broken brushstrokes, and dots. Vincent also saw Japanese prints called ukiyo-e. He liked their bold designs and flat areas of color and borrowed these things in his work too. While in Paris, Vincent started painting different subjects—things like cafes, country landscapes, still lifes, and portraits of himself (twenty-eight of them!).
Another important event in Vincent’s life as an artist was his move to the small town of Arles in the French countryside. Vincent was enchanted by the light and colors he saw there and felt a deep connection to nature. His work became even more vivid and active. He expressed feelings in his work and created a sense of energy using complementary colors, flowing lines, quick brushstrokes, and thickly applied paint. Sometimes he put so much paint on a canvas that it would take weeks to dry. After several months in Arles, Vincent moved to the “Yellow House.” He invited his friend Paul Gauguin, another artist, to join him there and the two worked side by side.
Around that time, Vincent started to get very sick. He had always been eccentric, but now he was behaving in ways that made people worry. Some people think that Vincent had epilepsy, a problem with the brain. Others think he may have had an inner ear disease that made him dizzy. But everyone agrees that Vincent also had an illness in his mind. He was often anxious and depressed. It got so bad that Vincent had to check himself into a special hospital. Even in the hospital, though, he continued to paint, first looking at the landscape through the window of his room, later wandering the grounds nearby. In fact, it was during this period that Vincent created one of his most famous works, The Starry Night. Partly painted from what he saw, partly from imagination and memory, The Starry Night is alive with swirling lines and bursts of brilliant color and light.
In the ten years that he painted, Vincent produced almost 900 paintings and hundreds of prints and drawings. But he only sold one painting during his lifetime. Vincent found joy and comfort in painting. He hoped that someday people would be able to see in his paintings what he felt in his heart.

Licensed Images Information

A Pair of Shoes | 1886 Oil on canvas | 15 x 17 ¾ inches | Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
Starry Night | 1889 Oil on canvas | 29 x 36 ¼ inches | Museum of Modern Art, New York
Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles | 1889 Oil on canvas | 22 1/2 x 29 inches | Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Les Alyscamps, Falling Autumn Leaves | 1888 Oil on canvas | 28 ¾ x 36 ¼ inches | Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo
Portrait of Doctor Gachet | 1890 Oil on canvas| 26 ¾ x 22 ½ inches | Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Complementary Colors

There are three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue. These colors cannot be made from any other colors. However, every other color is made from them! For example, we mix red and blue to make purple and blue and yellow to make green. Because of this, all colors are related to one another in some way. A color wheel shows how all the colors of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—are related. Complementary colors are color opposites. They appear across from one another on a color wheel. These colors, when placed side by side, make one another look extra bright! Vincent van Gogh knew the powerful visual effect that complementary colors could have. He often used blue and orange, purple and yellow, or red and green next to each other in his paintings.

Activities and Questions

  • How are you feeling? Draw a picture that expresses it!
  • Go outside and draw a landscape that you see. Now go inside and try drawing that same landscape from memory. Compare the two pictures.
  • Look out your window and draw something you see while it’s light out. Draw the same thing once it gets dark. Compare the two pictures.
  • Play with color! Try making a picture that uses pairs of complementary colors.
  • Make a picture using only short lines and dots of color.
  • How do you think someone decides to be an artist? What kinds of things might an artist like to do or think about?
  • Vincent van Gogh said, “If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” What do you think he meant by that? Where do you find beauty?