Gogh, Vincent Willem van
First name:
Vincent Willem van
19th century
Field of expertise:
Fine arts
Place of birth:
Groot-Zundert (NLD)
* 30.03.1853
† 29.07.1890
Biography print

Dutch post-impressionist artist.


Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Groot Zundert, North Brabant, as the oldest son of a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. He attended the village primary school, was then placed at a boarding school and later attended middle school in Tilburg. In 1869, his uncle helped him obtain an apprenticeship with the art dealer Goupil & Cie in The Hague. Upon completion of his training in 1873, he was sent to work at the firm’s London branch. There he became increasingly nervous and ill-tempered (Strik 1997: 402; Hulsker 1980), and his employer transferred him to Paris in May 1875. Van Gogh immersed himself in religious studies, grew ever more resentful of his work and was finally laid off by his employer for his apparent lack of business skills. After a variety of occupations at different locations, he went to Amsterdam in May 1877 to study theology. He abandoned his studies within a year and moved on to Belgium where he attended a seminary for lay preachers. Despite failing the course, he was given a post as a missionary in the coal-mining district of Borinage in southern Belgium. Deeply moved by the social misery he encountered, he developed a strong sense of solidarity with the miners and chose to live in the same squalid conditions. His employer, however, disapproved of this attitude and dismissed him in July 1878.


Life as an artist

Van Gogh had been drawing since a teenager and, in 1880, decided to take up art in earnest. His younger brother Theo encouraged him and provided financial support from then on. After some months in Brussels, van Gogh moved to his parents’ house in Etten in April 1881. There he fell in love with a widowed cousin, who refused his marriage proposal. His insistence caused a family uproar, and he left for The Hague in December 1881 after a quarrel with his father. He initially stayed with his cousin-in-law, the painter Anton Mauve, who introduced him to painting in oil (Naifeh & Smith 2011; Arnold 1993: 39 ff.). His involvement with his model Sien Hoornik, a single mother and casual prostitute, lead to a further estrangement from his family. In 1883, he left Sien and moved to the Dutch province of Drenthe and later that year to Nuenen, North Brabant, where he stayed for almost two years near his parents’ new residence. He moved to Antwerp in November 1885 and finally, in spring of 1886, to Paris to stay with his brother Theo. Van Gogh mixed with other artists, among them Paul Gauguin, and consumed increasing amounts of absinthe (Arnold 1993: 115 ff.; cf. Arnold 1988). In February 1888, he moved to Arles in southern France where Gauguin joined him in October. The time in Arles became van Gogh’s most productive period, his work was more and more acknowledged by the French art scene and shown in several exhibitions.



Until his death in 1890, van Gogh experienced six breakdowns. On Christmas Eve 1888, after a clash with Gauguin, he severed his left ear with a razor. He was hospitalised twice but would only afterwards recognise his condition as a mental crisis. In a letter dated 3 February 1889, he described his experience alluding to the Platonic concept of mania as “instances of being shaken by excitement or madness or the gift of prophecy, like a Greek oracle on a tripod” (cf. Wengler 2014: 243; our translation). The young hospital physician Félix Rey diagnosed him with epilepsy and prescribed a treatment with bromide.


In March 1889, a number of Arles residents, who were afraid of “le fou roux” (the red-haired madman), filed a petition to the local authorities, and it was ordered that van Gogh be placed in hospital care. Two months later, he voluntarily entered the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (Pickvance 1986). During his one-year stay, he created over 300 paintings and drawings, the clinic’s interior and garden became the main subjects of his work. In May 1890, he was considered cured and released. He moved to Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris as his brother Theo had made arrangements that he stay in the care of the physician Paul Gachet. The short time in Auvers was highly productive but also overshadowed by conflicts between the brothers, especially during a brief visit to Paris in early July. On 27 July 1890, Vincent van Gogh presumably shot himself with a revolver and died two days later, at age 37.



Vincent van Gogh left 652 letters to his brother and over 250 letters to other persons, which give a comprehensive picture of his inner world (Nizon 1977; Nagera 1973). He struggled to come to terms with his life: “I am willing to accept my vocation as a madman as calmly as Dégas accepts his work as a notary. However, I am not entirely feeling like having the strength necessary for this role” (cf. Walther & Metzger 1993: 480; our translation). To this day, there are more than 100 scientific studies offering retroactive diagnoses for his condition. They range from “schizophrenia” (Jaspers 1922), “bipolar affective disorder” (Carota et al. 2005; Strik 1997; Hemphill 1961) and “reactive psychotic episode” (Monroe 1978, cf. Wengler 2013) to “acute intermittent porphyria” (Arnold 2004), “Menière’s disease” (Arenberg et al. 1990) or “alcoholism”, “neurosyphilis”, “lead poisoning” and “temporal lobe epilepsy” (Blumer 2002).



Arenberg, I. K., L. F. Countryman, L. H. Bernstein, G. E. Shambaugh (1990): Van Gogh had Menière’s disease and not epilepsy. In: Journal of the American Medical Association 264, (4), pp. 491-493.

Arnold, W. N. (2004): The illness of Vincent van Gogh. In: Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 13, (1), pp. 22-43.

Arnold, W. N. (1988): Vincent van Gogh and the thujone connection. In: The Journal of the American Medical Association 260, (20), pp. 3042-3044.

Arnold, M. (2003): Vincent van Gogh. Gefälschtes Leben, gefälschte Werke. Munich: Anderland.

Arnold, M. (1993): Vincent van Gogh. Ein Leben zwischen Kreativität und Krankheit. Springer. Basel

Arnold, M. (1995): Van Gogh und seine Vorbilder. Munich: Prestel.

Badt, K. (1961): Die Farbenlehre van Goghs. Cologne: DuMont.

Blumer, D. (2002): The illness of Vincent van Gogh. In: American Journal of Psychiatry 159, (4), pp. 519-526.

Carota, A., G. Iaria, A. Berney (2005): Understanding van Gogh’s night: bipolar disorder. In: J. Bogousslavsky, F. Boller (eds.): Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists (Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience, Vol. 19), Basel: Karger, pp. 121-131.

Faille, J. B. de la (1970): The works of Vincent van Gogh. His paintings and drawings. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.

Gilman, S. L. (1982): Seeing the insane. A cultural history of madness and art in the Western world. New York, Chichester, Brisbane, Toronto, Singapore: Wiley & Sons.

Gogh, V. W. van (1968): Sämtliche Briefe. 6 vols. Edited by F. Erpel. Berlin: Henschel.

Grant, N. (2005): Van Gogh. Fränkisch-Crumbach: Edition xxl.

Hemphill, R. E. (1961): The illness of Vincent van Gogh. In: Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 54, (12), pp. 1083-1088.

Hulsker, J. (1990): Vincent and Theo van Gogh. A dual biography. Ann Arbor: Fuller.

Hulsker, J. (1980): The complete van Gogh. Oxford: Phaidon.

Heugten, S. van (2005): Van Gogh. Die Zeichnungen. Stuttgart: Belser.

Jaspers, K. (1922): Strindberg und van Gogh. Versuch einer pathographischen Analyse unter vergleichender Analyse von Swedenborg und Hölderlin. Bern: Bircher.

Kaufmann, H., R. Wildegans (2008): Van Goghs Ohr. Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens. Berlin: Osburg.

Koldehoff, S. (2003): Van Gogh. Mythos und Wirklichkeit. Cologne: DuMont.

Koldehoff, S. (2003a): Vincent van Gogh. Reinbek: Rowohlt.

Kraft, H. (2005): Grenzgänger zwischen Kunst und Psychiatrie. Cologne: Verlag Deutscher Ärzte.

Monroe, R. R. (1978): The episodic psychoses of Vincent van Gogh. In: Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 166, (7), pp. 480-488.

Nagera, H. (1973): Vincent van Gogh. Psychoanalytische Deutung seines Lebens anhand seiner Briefe. Munich: Reinhardt.

Naifeh, S., G. W. Smith (2011): Van Gogh. The life. London: Profile.

Nizon, P. (1977): Van Gogh in seinen Briefen. Frankfurt am Main: Insel.

Pickvance,  R.  (1986): Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers. New York: Abrams.

Pickvance, R.  (1984): Van Gogh in Arles. New York: Abrams.

Rewald, J. (1957): Von van Gogh bis Gauguin. Die Geschichte des Nachimpressionismus. Cologne: DuMont.

Schapiro, M. (1978): Van Gogh. Cologne: DuMont.

Schneede, U. M. (2003): Vincent van Gogh. Leben und Werk. Munich: Beck.

Strik, W. K. (1997): Die psychische Erkrankung Vincent van Goghs. In: Der Nervenarzt 68, (5), pp. 401-409.

Sweetman, D. (1990): Van Gogh. His life and his art. New York: Crown.

Thomson, B. (2007): Van Gogh. Gemälde. Die Meisterwerke. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Tralbaut, M. E. (1969): Van Gogh, le mal aimé. Lausanne: Edita.

Walther, I. F., R. Metzger (1993): Vincent van Gogh. Sämtliche Gemälde. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen.

Wengler, B. (2013): Vincent van Gogh in Arles: Eine psychoanalytische Künstler- und Werkinterpretation. Kassel: Kassel University Press.

Wildegans, R. (2007): Van Goghs Ohr. Ein Corpusculum als Corpus Delicti. In: H. Bredekamp (ed.): Curiosa Poliphili. Leipzig: Seemann, pp. 192-198.


Burkhart Brückner, Robin Pape


Photo: Vincent van Gogh / Source: Wikimedia / [public domain]. 


Referencing format
Burkhart Brückner, Robin Pape (2016): Gogh, Vincent Willem van.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
URL: www.biapsy.de/index.php/en/9-biographien-a-z/234-gogh-vincent-willem-van-e
(retrieved on:24.05.2024)