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The Sad Story Behind Vincent Van Gogh – Art, Failure & Mental Illness

Van Gogh’s art was not acknowledged during his lifetime. In fact, throughout his entire career as an artist, he only sold ONE painting. He died penniless. He only gained acknowledgement as a painter after his death.

Decades later, Van Gogh’s fame and commercial success grew all around the world. Amazingly, today Van Gogh’s artworks are sold for record-breaking sums and are sold in the most prestigious art auctions!

Van Gogh’s Childhood Years

Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born in 1853 into a religious family in the southern part of Holland. As a child, Van Gogh showed no artistic inclination. However, as a child he already exhibited unstable moods. 

Vincent Van Gogh Self Portrait
Self portrait -Vincent Willem van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A complete failure in his life time 

Van Gogh’s first job was as an art dealer. However, he wasn’t successful and was fired. He then worked briefly as a school teacher in England. When that didn’t work out, he started working in a bookstore back in the Netherlands.

At a later stage, Van Gogh became devoutly religious and tried to pursue a life in the clergy. However, the church dismissed him because of his overly enthusiastic commitment to his faith.

Later, Van Gogh decided to be an artist. However, in his life time, Van Gogh made no money from painting. He was financially supported by his brother, Theo Van Gogh, for his entire life.

Sunflowers - iconic Van Gogh art
Sunflowers – Van Gogh art [Public domain]

Van Gogh’s Art Career

At the age of 28 and after not finding himself, he decided to devote himself to art. He had no formal training and was primarily a self-taught artist.

His younger brother Theo, who was an art dealer,  believed in Vincent’s artistic abilities and encouraged him to paint. Theo in fact, supported him both finacially and emotionally. 

In 1886, van Gogh went to live with Theo for two years in Montmartre, the artistic neighborhood of Paris. It was during this time, that Van Gogh met the impressionists, Monet, Pissarro, Degas and Seurat , who profoundly influenced him. Inspired by the impressionists, he started painting with bright colors and experimenting with crude brush strokes.

Painting of Montmartre by Van Gogh
Montmartre – Van Gogh art [Public domain]

Van Gogh & Paul Gaugin’s Collaboration in Arles

The majority of Van Gogh’s best-known works were produced during the final two years of his life.

In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived and worked together in Arles in the south of France. Van Gogh rented four rooms in a building nicknamed the “Yellow House”.

Despite enormous productivity, Van Gogh suffered from mental instability, including epilepsy, psychotic episodes and bipolar disorder.

Gauguin only stayed nine weeks and left quickly after a particularly violent fight in which Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor and then cut off part of his own right ear.

Van Gogh’s period in the Mental Asylum

In 1889, Van Gogh voluntarily commits himself into a psychiatric institution in Saint-Remy, near Arles. After a few weeks, his mental state improves and he is allowed to resume painting. Ironically, it is during this period that he is most productive. During his one year at Saint-Remy, Van Gogh created over 100 works, including the famous “Starry Night” (1889).

Vincent Van Gogh painting
Starry Night – iconic Van Gogh art work [Public domain] Wikimedia Commons

Although the conditions in the mental asylum were difficult, Van Gogh was very prolific. Everything he saw inspired him to paint.

During his supervised walks in the asylum’s gardens, Van Gogh felt inspired to capture the beauty of the olive and cypress trees, irises, and other flora that grew there. These were subjects of many of Van Gogh’s landscapes. He also painted the surrounding fields and Alpilles mountains.

Irises - painting by Vincent Van Gogh
Irises – Van Gogh painting Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

The Influence of Dr. Gachet on Van Gogh

When Van Gogh left the asylum, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise not far from Paris, to the care of a homeopathic doctor and amateur artist, Dr. Gachet.

The doctor encouraged Van Gogh to paint. Van Gogh manically painted. It is estimated that he  painted roughly one painting a day in these last two months of his life.


On July 27, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh suffered another severe bout of depression. He wandered into a nearby wheat field and shot himself in the chest with a revolver.

He managed to seek help though, but his wounds were not treated properly and he died two days later.

Theo quickly came to be with Vincent in his last hours and it is said that Vincent’s final words to Theo were:

“The sadness will last forever.”

Ironically, by the time of his death in 1890, Van Gogh was just starting to achieve some acknowledgment in the art world.

Vincent Van Gogh's room in the Asylum - Van Gogh Art
Vincent Van Gogh’s room in the Asylum – Van Gogh Art [Public Domain]

The Inheritance

Six months after Vincent’s death, his brother Theo died at the age of  34 in the Netherlands.

Interestingly Vincent was buried just a day after he died in the small local cemetery of Auvers -sur- Oise. Theo died just 6 months later and was buried in Holland. However Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger , decided 30 years later to move Theo’s body so that he would be buried next to his brother Vincent in Auvers. Why she waited so many years remains an enigma.

They rest side by side in the little cemetery amid the wheat fields of Auvers

Words written by Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger

Theo’s widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, inherited the large collection of Vincent’s paintings, drawings and letters.

Jo van Gogh-Bonger made it her mission to promote Van Gogh’s artworks. She loaned out his paintings to exhibitions and published his letters in an effort to expose his life story.

After Jo passed away, her only child with Theo, Vincent Willem van Gogh Jr. (named after his uncle), inherited his uncle’s artwork. 

In the ten years that Van Gogh painted, incredibly, he painted 900 paintings and made 1,100 drawings and sketches. Most of these artworks were now in the hands of the nephew.

Vincent Willem Van Gogh Jr. eventually founded the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which opened in 1973.

Starry Night over the Rhone in Arles - Van Gogh art
Starry Night over the Rhone in Arles – Van Gogh painting [Public Domain]

Vincent Van Gogh’s Legacy

Today, Vincent Van Gogh is a household name and is one of the most famous painters in the world. Van Gogh’s artworks are iconic!

He has given us a wealth of masterpieces like his Sunflowers, Irises and the Starry Night. 

How ironic that the artist who only sold one painting during his lifetime, would later have his paintings exhibited in the most esteemed art museums all over the world. 

Van Gogh died penniless. 100 years later, his painting entitled “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold for nearly $155 million, one of the most expensive paintings in the world.

Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh
Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet – Van Gogh painting [Public Domain]

Great Places to View Vincent Van Gogh’s Paintings:

In the Netherlands

In the city center of Amsterdam you can view a large and beautiful collection of Van Gogh art in the Van Gogh museum. This museum houses the largest collection of Van Gogh artworks in the world. The permanent collection includes over 200 paintings, 500 drawings and more than 750 letters.

The Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands also showcases 90 paintings and over 180 drawings. It has the second-largest Van Gogh art collection in the world.

In Paris

In Paris, you can see Van Gogh’s artworks in Musee D’Orsay and the Marmottan Museum in Montmartre.

L’Atelier des Lumières in Paris is screening its new sound & light exhibition called Van Gogh – Starry Night (in French:  Van Gogh, La Nuit Etoilée). This exhibition will continue from February 22 until December 31, 2019.

This magnificent sound & light show indulges you with 15000-sqm of walls screening segments of Van Gogh’s most iconic paintings. It’s a feast for the senses!! For this exhibition, you MUST book tickets online. For more details about this sound & light show press here.

Vincent van Gogh Art Museum
Vincent van Gogh Art Museum / Photo by Tomasz Baranowski (CC BY 2.0)

Day trip from Paris – Auvers-sur-Oise

The small village Auvers-sur-Oise was the last home of Vincent Van Gogh. Here, he painted many scenes. He lived above the cafe Auberge Ravoux and ultimately committed suicide in a nearby wheat field. Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo are buried in the Auvers cemetery. Press here for organized tours to Auvers-sur-Oise from Paris.

Southern France


In Arles you can visit the hospital where he was hospitalized after cutting his ear, walk to the location of the Yellow House and see the famous bridge that he painted.

Saint Remy de Provence

In Saint Remy, you can walk the Van Gogh Trail and see the places that inspired him. You can also visit the psychiatric hospital Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, where Van Gogh stayed as a patient for one year. In Saint Paul, you can see the replica of his bedroom and painting studio and visit the sites that inspired him to paint.

The psychiatric hospital  - Saint-Paul-de-Mausole
The psychiatric hospital – Saint-Paul-de-Mausole / Photo by Philippe MARC (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Pop into the Musee Estrine. This wonderful, small museum portrays Van Gogh’s artistic development while suffering from mental illness. Here you will not see original paintings but learn the story of Van Gogh himself.  It is a gem.

Carrières de Lumières – Les Baux de Provence

Not far from Saint Remy, is the medieval town of Les Baux de Provence. Next to this town is the location of the stunning multimedia, art-themed Sound & Light show at “Carrieres de Lumieres”. The viewer is transported into a magical world of art & music.

The venue is a former limestone quarry, carved into a mountain. The artwork images are projected onto the large floors, massive stone walls and the ceilings. Currently  Carrières de Lumières is displaying the magnificent paintings of Van Gogh. Note – this show is very popular. It is recommended to book tickets in advance to avoid long queues, especially in the summer months. Press here to book online tickets.

All these sites can be visited independently. However ,there are also organized tours. For more information press here.

Carrières de Lumières – Les Baux de Provence

Historical Fiction Books about Vincent Van Gogh

So much literature has been written about Vincent Willem Van Gogh. His complex life of chronic mental illness, loneliness, poverty  and lack of success in his life time draws us to him. For a comprehensive list of books that delve deeper into his life story, press here.

There are also a few historical fiction books written about Van Gogh. There is one however, that I read, LOVED and highly recommend. It is called “The Last Van Gogh” by Alyson Richman. Press here to read my review.

Another stunning book recommended is “Vincent & Theo” by Deborah Heiligman. This book covers the close relationship between the two Van Gogh brothers. Theo was Vincent’s younger brother. He supported Vincent both emotionally and financially throughout his life. The book is based on the hundreds of letters written between the two brothers. It is a beautiful story of brotherhood.

For more articles about Van Gogh and how to travel in his footsteps in France, see the articles below.