The decision that shaped van Gogh’s, and art’s, future


Vincent van Gogh’s life was awash with misfortune, from mental illness to inability to hold a job to the fact that during his lifetime he sold but one of the more than 900 paintings he created. Even today, this artistic giant is known by many for but a single work – Starry Night – despite having produced a wide array of images during his relatively brief career.

While van Gogh’s difficulty with mental illness is relatively well documented, as is its impact on his work, his struggle to find a job and the bearing it had on his art career is perhaps less well known, according to Alastair Sooke, art critic of The Daily Telegraph.

By age 25, van Gogh had failed in stints at art dealerships in The Hague, London and Paris; teaching jobs in England; and a spell in bookshop in The Netherlands. He then attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the ministry, but this too proved a flop, and his family began to wonder if there was hope for the 25-year old, according to Sooke, writing for the BBC.

In was then that an event critical to van Gogh’s career as an artist occurred. In 1878, still bent on becoming an evangelist, he left for the depressed Belgian coal mining district of the Borinage, to the west of the city of Mons. His goal was to establish himself as a lay preacher to the working class.

Van Gogh efforts as an evangelist in Borinage were hampered by a number of factors. Not being gifted with a golden tongue, his talks were sparsely attended, at best. His ability to connect with locals was hindered by the fact that the latter spoke “Walloon French,” which van Gogh struggled to understand, while his own French sounded overly stilted to the blue-collar coal miners and their families.

After just six months in the region, authorities terminated his trial appointment as an evangelist.

Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves after Millet, Vincent van Gogh, 1889.

Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves after Millet, Vincent van Gogh, 1889.

“Yet it was at this rock-bottom moment that Van Gogh, now 26, tentatively started to draw. His religious zeal dissipated and instead he focused on training as a draughtsman,” according to Sooke.

While van Gogh would only stay in Borinage until 1880, it was here that he would not only decide to become an artist, but also find many of the scenes that would become subjects of his later works.

“… his experiences in the Borinage seem to have set the template for many subjects and motifs that would continue to fascinate him as an artist over the next decade, until his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest in the summer of 1890,” according to Sooke.

In the summer of 1880 he left the Borinage and struck out for Brussels, to study life drawing at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts.

What stuck with van Gogh from his time at Borinage were friendships with poor, working-class people, said Sjraar Van Heugten, who has curated Van Gogh in the Borinage, a new exhibition at Beaux-Arts Mons.

“The people were poor and illiterate, and their work was hard and dangerous. Yet for van Gogh, there was some kind of bigger truth in their simple way of life,” he said. “After he became an artist, he chose to find his subject matter there. Like artists that he admired, such as Jean-François Millet, he wanted to portray the life of working-class people, and he remained interested in doing so certainly for the first half of his career. Really, it stayed important to him forever.”

Everyday reality, the rural poor and simple nature were particular motifs that van Gogh encountered in the Borinage that would later feature prominently in his art.

The time that van Gogh spent in the Borinage was crucial for his development as an artist as it laid foundations upon which he could build as a painter.

“The remarkable thing about his early career in the Borinage is that van Gogh made choices that he would stick to for the rest of his life,” Van Heugten said. “From the early beginnings until his last days, he remained completely loyal to a basis of subject matter – and this allowed him to go very far in experimenting with style and colour, so that he could become the modern artist we remember today.”

(Top: Rue à Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent van Gogh, 1890.)


9 thoughts on “The decision that shaped van Gogh’s, and art’s, future

  1. Alastair Sooke is a very good presenter of the arts. Van Gogh is one of my favourites. I have been to the asylum in St Remy de Provence where he stayed. Also to the museum dedicated to him in Amsterdam. He was a genius, but a flawed one. I think he must have been difficult to live with, he was driven by his art: nothing else mattered, he lived as a pauper all his short life, tormented by not being able to paint the sky correctly, or the sun. Yet this is what we remember him for. The current art school trained young artists never had it so good. Who said that one must suffer for their art? Van Gogh definitely did.

    • Wow, isn’t that the truth. Would van Gogh have been as good if he hadn’t endured what he did? I don’t think so. Would I want to endure what he did to become a great artist? No way. His must have been a lonely life, but he certainly left a wonderful legacy.

  2. His ‘Potato Eaters’ bears out your point….but – from memory – all his life he had some sort of safety belt – his brother Theo working with a major art dealer, the offer of places to stay….and how many young men, seemingly failures and without connections are accepted by the Beaux Arts?
    Not to denigrate his art in any way, but to indicate that he was not on his own.

    • Just the fact that his father worried about checking him into a mental institution at age 25 would indicate that he more of “safety net” than most 135 years ago, I suppose. And, again, how does one survive by selling just one painting over the course of a decade? I suppose I didn’t think that one out.

  3. I am always fascinated by details about artists, musicians and writers. These are not well paying jobs, unless one is fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I enjoy so much of Van Gogh’s artwork, have enjoyed particularly his fields of wheat, his sunflowers and the way he draws people, particularly women. They all show such depth and meaning, which the presentation in the program may have highlighted but your review was so well written. Thanks for sharing this, to me who is a part time artist! Smiles, Robin

    • Thank you for your kind words. I have great respect for artists; to be able to capture even a small part of the beauty of the world is a true gift. Van Gogh was an amazing artist; it’s unfortunate that he suffered as he did, but perhaps that’s what made him the artist he was.

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