“You’re from the Netherlands? That’s so cool! I absolutely love Amsterdam!”  

      This expression puzzles me more each time I hear it. Not because I dislike people equating the Netherlands and Amsterdam — I can vividly imagine myself, dwelling in a state of decreased alertness, saying something along the lines of “You live in Pennsylvania? That’s nice. Man, I really want to visit San Francisco someday.” —I just cannot imagine why a sane human being would be attracted to Amsterdam. 

      Further inquiry usually reveals the canals as an important landmark, and experienced tourists are able to mention more specific architectural feats, but the most universally acclaimed point of attraction is undoubtedly the coffee shops. This, I must admit, does make sense: inhaling a sufficient amount of cannabinoids would even endow the Parisian banlieues with a glow of elegance. It does make you wonder in what way de Wallen (Amsterdam’s red light district) enhances the tourists’ perception of the city. Whilst people visit Athens for the Acropolis, Rome for the Colosseum, London for the British Museum, they visit Amsterdam for hemp and prostitution. 

      Don’t lose your hope on Amsterdam just yet! ESN Utrecht offers a foray into a more sophisticated side of Dutch culture; namely, a trip to the Van Gogh museum!

 

      Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter born in 1853 in Zundert (near Breda, in the province of Noord-Brabant) as the first child of Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Carbentus a year after their would-be first son, also named Vincent, was stillborn. During his childhood Vincent attended public school, was homeschooled for a few years and eventually finished primary education in a boarding school. He was a thoughtful and reticent child who at the time did not show any remarkable talent for drawing or painting. 

      At sixteen years old Vincent became the youngest assistant at an international art dealer in The Hague which was previously owned by Vincent’s uncle. During this time Vincent and his brother Theo started an exchange of letters that would last until Vincent’s death and which would later become the most important source of information about Vincent’s life. In 1873, he was relocated to a branch of the art dealer in London. Here he would visit the National Gallery and the British Museum where he first admired the works of the so-called ‘countryside painters’ like Jules Breton. He also became increasingly interested in theology, at one point working unpaid as a pastor for a boarding school in Ramsgate, Kent.

      At Christmas in 1876 he returned to his family in the Netherlands after which he started to work for an art dealer in Dordrecht (near Rotterdam). In 1877 he lived with his uncle in Amsterdam to study theology, with some help from another uncle who was a pastor. Like most of Vincent’s pursuits so far, his studies were only short-lived:  he rather spent his time walking on the streets and talking to people (which, to be honest, does not seem too far off from the daily activities of a missionary). 

      Following his religious fervency, Vincent moved to the mining district Borinage in Belgium in 1879. He chose to live a life devoid of luxury; he gave away his possessions and he offered his relatively comfortable lodging to a homeless man, instead opting to inhabit a barn, sleeping on hay. Although Vincent was unsuccessful as a pastor, during this period he started to make sketches of his surroundings and send them to his brother Theo, who ultimately encouraged Vincent to concentrate more on artistry. 

      In 1881, Vincent moved back to his parents who now lived in Etten, Noord-Brabant. His parents disapproved of his choice to become a painter and after an argument with his father he moved to The Hague. Vincent became a student of Anton Mauve, a famous painter that happened to be his cousin-in-law. It was in this period that Vincent made his first paintings. 

      Vincent was romantically involved with his model and former prostitute named ‘Sien’. Her ‘career’ came as a shock for his family, but luckily for them the relationship was short-lived and Vincent departed to Drenthe in late 1882. Again, only holding out for a few months, Vincent returned to his parents (now living in Nuenen, near Eindhoven). He now tried to make a living as a painter of the farmer’s life. In this period, after the passing of his father in 1885, he created the world famous painting De Aardappeleters (See “The Potato Eaters” on the Museum's website).

      We have tried to recreate the painting, getting a slight glimpse into the artist’s vision towards light, colour and composition. What do you think?


 

      Now, to continue his life story: He tried to sell his paintings via his brothers’ art dealership in Paris, but he was unsuccessful, as the public taste in France at the time demanded brighter colours. Later that year he left for Antwerp to enroll in the academy of fine arts. In Antwerp, Vincent found it hard to find women who were willing to serve as naked models for his paintings. Because of this, amongst other reasons, Vincent became increasingly depressed and his health deteriorated: his teeth were falling out and he contracted syphilis. 

      Vincent started longing for France and he wanted to join his brother in Paris, who finally allowed him in late 1886. Vincent opened a workshop near his brother’s place and during this period, despite his bad mental and physical condition, he became his most productive.  In addition to his increased artistic output, Vincent became acquainted with highly prolific French painters like Émile Bernard and Paul Signac. In the spring of 1888 Vincent left Paris for Arles, in the south of France, where he reached the apex of his productivity; sometimes creating multiple paintings in a single day! 

      The warmer climate of southern France was not able to stabilize Vincent’s mental or physical health, however, and in 1889 he was admitted to a mental asylum (with a workshop) after suffering nervous breakdowns. From this point on it went downhill with Vincent’s condition: afraid of suffering more mental breakdowns he opted to stay inside, further worsening his condition.  In 1890 Vincent moved, for the final time, to Auvers (near Paris), where he painted his last paintings. 

      On top of his depression and bad physical health, Vincent’s financial position was abysmal and in July 1890 he tried to commit suicide by firing a revolver to his chest, but he missed his heart. Although the specifics are unclear, it is hypothesized that Vincent slowly bled to death over the course of a few days, as the local doctors were no surgeons and did not dare to remove the bullet from his chest. Theo, also severely depressed, died half a year later from the complications of syphilis. Both brothers were buried in Auvers-sur-Oise.

      As you have seen, the life of Vincent van Gogh has many chapters: it features the classical bohemian lifestyle, the archetypical tormented artist and it is set in the countryside, the metropolis and everything in between. A mere blog post like this does the story of Vincent van Gogh a grave injustice, so it is imperative: visit the van Gogh Museum and let us know what part sparked the most interest for you!

Article written by Sebastiaan Smeenk