10 Interesting Facts About Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch artist widely known for his vivid post-impressionist paintings and a tragic life story. A classic example of a tortured artist, Van Gogh lived for most of his adult life in poverty, battling with anxiety and mental breakdowns, but somehow managing to produce some of the best artwork of his era, such as “The Starry Night”, “The Painter of Sunflowers”, and “Café Terrace at Night”. He was largely unknown until after his suicide, but today he is a household name all across the world. In this article, we will give you 10 interesting facts that you might not know about Vincent van Gogh.

1. There were many Vincents in Van Gogh’s family.

Vincent Van Gogh, the nephew of artist Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh, the artist’s nephew, 1968.
Credit: Nationaal Archief // CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

While for many there is one and only Vincent van Gogh, it was not the case for his relatives. His older brother, who died a year before the artist was born, carried the same name, as did his grandfather and his uncle. The latter gave him his first job as an art dealer. Not long before his tragic death, another namesake was born, Van Gogh’s nephew, whose son went on to be a secret agent. This last Vincent van Gogh helped create the Van Gogh Museum by handing over the family art collection.

2. In his decade-long career, Van Gogh produced over 2,000 works of art.

Van Gogh Museum
Van Gogh Museum, the most visited museum in the Netherlands, 2016.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Vincent Van Gogh is famous for being a quick painter, but some may underestimate the true scale of this number. Although he did not sell just one painting in his entire life, he did not enjoy commercial success with his work. And while a lot of his 900 or so paintings have been saved, many were disposed of before he became truly popular. His own mother, not appreciating his talent, is said to have thrown away a few herself. What’s more, like other artists Van Gogh painted over his other works to save money on canvases, which means more can be discovered in the future.

3. Stolen Van Goghs are used for plea bargaining and often returned.

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen
The last painting to be stolen, “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen”, 1884
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Since 1975, over 34 works of Van Gogh have been stolen around the world. That is not surprising, considering that some of his paintings are worth over 100 million dollars. But today, most end up back where they belong – in museums and art galleries. In the Netherlands alone, 29 paintings have been stolen since 1988 – and every one of them was eventually returned, except for the last one. The reason is that they can only be sold for a tenth of the price on the black market and are deemed most useful for acquiring a reduced sentence, whether by the thieves or their buyers.

 4. Van Gogh’s first year in London was the happiest time of his life.

Van Gogh place of living in London
The place where Van Gogh lived in London in 1873-1874, now a private art center, 2016.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

After 4 years of working as an art dealer in the Hague, in 1873 Van Gogh was transferred to London, where he immediately took a liking to the English capital and later, the landlady’s daughter. His commute was a 5-kilometer walk that passed through London’s various strikingly different neighborhoods, forever imprinting on him both the artistic beauty and the social divide of the city. When his love was left unanswered, his spirits fell, and he was ultimately transferred to Paris in 1875.

5. As a starting missionary, Van Gogh was kicked out for being an ascetic.

The Potato Eaters
“The Potato Eaters”, 1885.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After losing interest in selling art, Van Gogh tried himself as an unpaid teacher in England, where among other things, he gave lectures on the Bible. Following a family tradition, he decided to become a minister but struggled to prepare for the exams and in 1879 went as a trainee missionary to Petit Wasmes in the Borinage mining district. Van Gogh was shocked by what he saw there and wanting to live like the poor miners, he gave up his lodging, food, and clothes. This led to the termination of his contract past the trial period on the grounds that he was “too extreme”.

6. The only woman Van Gogh ever lived with was a prostitute and a single mom.

Sien Nursing Baby, 1882.
“Sien Nursing Baby”, 1882.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Soon after unsuccessfully trying to pursue his first cousin in 1881, Van Gogh met a homeless pregnant prostitute, Sien, and her daughter, whom he let live in his apartment. For around 18 months, Van Gogh had somewhat of family life, until the money ran low and Sien had to go back to prostitution, after which he left. The letters to his brother Theo, the main source of information on Van Gogh’s life, reveal that he accepted his fate of being alone by age 35. Sien’s life ended the same way as his – by suicide, just over a decade after his own. 

7. Vincent Van Gogh’s mental health was nothing short of a disaster.

Van Gogh Painting Still Life with Absinthe
“Still Life with Absinthe”, 1887.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A hot topic of debate for medical researchers, the artist’s mental condition still remains an unsolved mystery. Van Gogh had a psychosis in 1888, which some today consider having originated from stress, alcoholism, and insomnia. While there is a hypothesis that his hallucinations were due to brain damage from possible lead poisoning, it is believed that they were due to withdrawal from absinthe and wine that he drank excessively in his later years. Some also speculate that possible consumption of digitalis to treat his diagnosed epilepsy may have affected his color perception and could be reflected in his work.

8. The story of Van Gogh’s left ear is different from what is widely believed.

Van Gogh Self Portrait with bandaged ear
“Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear”, 1889.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A well-known fact about Van Gogh is that during the aforementioned psychosis he lost his left earlobe after his friend Paul Gauguin’s decision to leave him and then gave it to a prostitute. According to recent sources, however, the news of his brother’s engagement might have served as the trigger, considering his monthly 100 francs (over 500 euros today) could stop coming. Moreover, his doctor’s sketches show that most of the ear was actually cut off, while other accounts point to the ear being handed to a maid at the hospital instead of the prostitute.

9. Arlesians pushed Van Gogh to admit himself to a mental institution.

Van Gogh's room in the asylum
Van Gogh’s room in the Saint Paul Asylum, 2011
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In a petition signed in 1889, several people in Arles proclaimed that Van Gogh was a “lunatic” who posed a threat to the community, “touching women” and “following them into their homes”. They suggested returning him to his family or admitting him to a mental institution as a necessary precaution. After an inquiry was conducted, the commissioner ruled in favor of Van Gogh’s incarceration. Even 100 years after the incident, the painter was not a popular figure in the town. Meanwhile, some claim that the petition signatures included forgeries and the whole ordeal was orchestrated by Van Gogh’s landlord.

10. Some of Vincent Van Gogh’s best works were created in the asylum.

Starry Night
“The Starry Night”, 1889
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the 53 weeks that Van Gogh voluntarily stayed at a monastery near Arles, he had produced 143 oil paintings and a comparable number of drawings, including such famous works as “The Starry Night”, “Irises”, and the three “Wheatfield with Cypresses” paintings. Despite several attempts at suicide, his stay there was the most prolific time of his career. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in July 1890, less than 3 months after leaving the asylum.

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