Despite the modern demand for Vincent van Gogh paintings, the early years of van Gogh (1853-1890) offered nary a hint of his future popularity.
Born in Groot-Zundert, Holland, and the son of a Calvinist pastor, he dropped out of school in 1869 to work for an art dealer; he was fired seven years later. He then spent two years as a lay preacher working with impoverished miners; he was denied ordination because he was considered "overly passionate" by Calvinist authorities.
At the age of 27, he resolved to become an artist. Beginning at this juncture and for the rest of his life, Vincent van Gogh received emotional and financial support from his brother, Theo.
Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower. Oil on canvas, 1850. 40" x 32.5". Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
This included frequent letters between the two, providing not only insights into the specific intentions and contexts of Vincent van Gogh paintings, but also into Vincent's volatile mental health.
From 1883 to 1885, he lived at his father's vicarage in Nuenen, Holland, where he created one of his most famous paintings, The Potato Eaters.
The realistic art and peasant imagery of Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) was hugely influential as he conveyed in a letter to Theo:
"While I was doing it I thought again about what has so rightly been said of Millet's peasants - ‘His peasants seem to have been painted with the soil they sow'".
Van Gogh also admired Jozef Israels, a painter of fishermen and peasants whom he described to Theo as the "Dutch Millet".
Jozef Israels, Peasant Family at Table. Oil on canvas, 1882. Approximately 28" x 41". Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Inspired by Millet's The Sower and Israels' Peasant Family at Table, Vincent created Potato Eaters, which echoes Israels' work of art.
Van Gogh's painting, however, has darker hues, an impasto paint texture, and more influence from Rembrandt's tenebrism (a painting style employed by Caravaggio and followers in which a few objects are brightly lit while the majority are in heavy shadow).
Its perspective is askew - look how abruptly the ceiling beams recede - and reveals van Gogh's technical naivete. Or is it genius?
The Potato Eaters. Oil on canvas, 1885. Approximately 32" x 45". Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The peasants' gnarled hands and fingers evince severe arthritic pain, while the folds and wrinkles in their tattered clothing seem to restrain some unwieldy, internal force. On the wall, the Crucifixion picture and clock seem poised to jump off the wall rather than to remain attached.
This explosive energy is a heartfelt but unsentimental contrast to its solemnity and tranquility, in which these peasants have nothing but coffee and potatoes to eat after a physically taxing day.
He was pleased with Potato Eaters, writing to Theo that
...in contrast to a great many other paintings, it has rusticity and a certain life in it. And then, although it's done differently, in a different century from the old Dutchmen, Ostade, for instance, it's nevertheless out of the heart of peasant life and - original.
Tragically, his painting career was intermittently interrupted by an unspecifiable mental illness; the physician who admitted him to a psychiatric hospital in 1888 noted that his patient had "acute mania with hallucinations of sight and hearing." His failure to achieve financial stability was profoundly troubling - in spite of the exclusivity of van Gogh artwork today, some art historians claim he sold only one painting, Red Vineyard at Arles, during his lifetime; further, he had no patrons, and he was forced to remain financially dependent on Theo.
Art historians have long claimed that Vincent died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1890, in spite of having recently received a postive review from the art critic Alberet Aurier.
That dismal demise may not be true: a new book written by two Pulitzer Prize winners, Van Gogh: The Life (Smith and Naifeh), makes a convincing case that Vincent was shot by local teenagers.
Red Vineyard in Arles. Oil on canvas, 1888. Pushkin Museum.
What is certain is that his impact on art history is incalcuabale.
After painting for only one decade, we have 1000 van Gogh paintings - of which 70 were made in his final 70 days.
Even with his abreviated life, poverty and mental illness, Vincent inspired Fauvists, Expressionists and legions of famous painters including Gauguin (1848 - 1903), Matisse (1869 - 1854), Maurice Vlaminck (1876 - 1958), Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876 - 1907), and Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992).
Van Gogh paintings are some of the most cherished (and expensive) in the history of painting - that's one thing about him that remains certain.
Explore more Vincent van Gogh paintings here.
Explore the complete collection of van Gogh letters written to, and received from, Theo, and letters Vincent van Gogh wrote to famous painters and friends like Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.
Are you a fan of famous paintings?
So are the folks at Masterpiece Cards. We took 23 leading art history books (some 17,000 pages!) and researched which painters and paintings were talked about most during the six centuries covered.
From the opinions of these 40 art historians, we selected the top 250 famous paintings and made them into a set of information-packed Cards.