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.
“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.)