Sunday, March 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Vincent

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, born in Zundert, Holland (1853). He painted sunflowers, starry nights, wheat fields, and self-portraits, and his work was just beginning to be acknowledged when he committed suicide at the age of 37. When he was 20, he went to work for an art dealer in London, then went off to Brussels to study to become an evangelist, and then went as a missionary to the coal miners in southwestern Belgium. One day he decided to give away all of his worldly goods and live like a peasant. But his religious superiors thought he was having a nervous breakdown. They kicked him out of the mission, and he had to go home.

It was then that he started to draw and paint. He taught himself with art books and by studying the masters. He was especially interested in painting the daily life of peasants, and he began a collection of clothing that had been worn by fishermen, miners, and other laborers.

For the next 10 years, from 1880 to 1890, he painted fast and furiously. He eventually settled in Arles, in southern France, where he said he could "look at nature under a brighter sky." It was in Arles that he began to develop the style he became known for, in which the images of flowers and trees and landscapes are exaggerated by extremely rough brush strokes and vivid colors. He believed that his paintings should convey the mood he was in when he painted them, and he painted extremely quickly so that his mood would not change before he finished. To get the job done, he often squeezed tubes of oil paint directly onto the canvas.

His brother Theo was an art dealer, and for years he had supplied Van Gogh with a small monthly stipend. In return, Van Gogh gave his brother every canvas he painted. He wrote thousands of letters to Theo. "How much sadness there is in life," he wrote. "The right thing is to work." He moved to a small town north of Paris and painted feverishly until insanity overtook him. He cut off part of his own ear and was placed in an asylum at St. Rémy. One of his greatest paintings, Starry Night (1889), was painted while he was confined there. He left the asylum for good in the spring of 1890. In July, just as he was starting to receive favorable attention for his work, he committed suicide. Shortly before he died, he wrote "I feel a failure."

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