If you know of Vincent van Gogh, it’s likely because of his paintings characterized of vibrant colors. The paintings most people know of van Gogh’s are of flowers in a vase, wheat fields, trees, and farmers in fields.
What you may not know is that van Gogh’s life tragically ended before his time. For the first 32 years of his life, he was trying to figure out — like many of us — what to do with it. And how to pay the bills.
It was only five years before his death that he started to figure things out for himself. His life can teach us all a thing or two, especially if you’re feeling depressed or suicidal.
Understanding van Gogh’s Short Life
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in the southern part of the Netherlands. His father was a minister and his family included one younger brother and three sisters. At 15 years old, he left school and within a year and with the help of his uncle, was working at an art dealer. He worked there for about seven years before he was fired. He didn’t believe art should be bought and sold as a commodity, a position at odds working for an art dealer.
After a short stint working as a supply teacher, he spent some time trying to become a minister after his father. He tried to do that for about four years, but eventually gave that up as he apparently did not quite fit in with the profession.
At 27 years old, he was still trying to figure out his life. Like many, he was fired and took a wrong turn or two down career paths that didn’t work out.
Pursuing a Passion: Art
Encouraged by his younger brother Theo, he took up a formal study of art in Brussels. While he had been drawing as a hobby throughout his life, he never really considered it seriously as a career. After some time studying and painting, in the spring of 1885, at age 32, he completed The Potato Eaters, what most consider his first major work.
For the first two years, his paintings were nothing much to get excited about. Many of these works were darker, using muted palettes. The brush strokes, unremarkable. He could’ve easily been one of the many forgotten artists of the 19th century had he stayed with this style.
But in 1887, you could begin to see the first hints of his use of color expanding. And when he moved to Arles in 1888, van Gogh’s genius started to come through in bright hues of yellow, mauve and deep blue.
In October, 1888, fellow artist Gauguin came to stay with van Gogh. After the two lived and worked together for nearly 2 months, Gauguin was ready to leave, which apparent upset van Gogh. van Gogh famously lopped off his left ear in what apparently was an acute psychotic episode. He was hospitalized and spent much of early 1889 between his home and the hospital in Arles.
In May 1889, van Gogh entered the hospital at Saint Paul-de-Mausole in Saint Remy in an attempt to overcome his malady. What his malady was we do not exactly know, but he suffered from hallucinations and delusions, and from moods of “indescribable anguish.” It may have been what we now call depression with psychotic features, a form of bipolar disorder, or some mild form of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. Whatever it was, it caused him to experience extreme emotional upheaval and bouts of loneliness.
He lived there in and out of the hospital for nearly the next year, while continuing his painting. Despite his emotional turmoil, some of his best-known works are from this period.
In May 1890, van Gogh moved once again, this time to be closer to his new physician, Dr. Paul Gachet. During his stay in Auvers-sur-Oise, he painted 70 more works. Sadly, his condition — which improved from time to time, only to come back worse the next time — gradually worsened. It culminated in van Gogh shooting himself in the chest, while walking in one of the beloved wheat fields he often painted. He didn’t die immediately — he lived for a few days after the fateful shot on July 27. But because the doctors could not remove the bullet, he eventually passed away due to an infection from the gunshot wound.
Learning from van Gogh
In just those last 10 years of his life, van Gogh produced over 2,000 works of art, including nearly 900 oil paintings which he is best known for. Much of his best work arguably occurred while he was in the throes of trying to cope with his mental condition.
Yet during his short lifetime, he sold only a single painting. It’s no wonder he thought he didn’t have much to live for.
Had he lived just another 10 years to reach age 47, we likely would’ve seen the same kind of output — thousands of beautiful paintings done in a vibrant, colorful style that has never been replicated without simply being duplicated.
Van Gogh’s paintings are some of the most beautiful and emotional paintings in the world. When seen in person, you want to reach out to touch the heavy layering of swaths of paint on the canvas. With his signature swirls, these effects work to create a sense of movement within the painting, bringing nature — one of his favorite subjects — to life. It is both mesmerizing and moving.
What does van Gogh’s life teach us? It teaches me that no matter how little we think of ourselves and what tiny contribution we’re making to the world, we may not know the truth of our value. We can be too close to the subject — ourselves — to understand why we are important in this world. Or why our lives are worth another day on this Earth.
You may not be the next van Gogh. Or you may be someone who exceeds him in every way. But you’ll never know what your life will be if you don’t choose to carry for another day.