Van Gogh died in 1890. Here is a look back on the life of one of the most popular, important—and tragic—artists of all time.
Van Gogh suffered from a number of mental and physical maladies over his lifetime, including severe depression and migraines. The depression informed his work, as did his migraines: Some art experts think his unique, fluid, “impressionistic” style is simply how he saw the world—people with migraines often see swirling colors or halos.
But Van Gogh sold just one painting during his lifetime, a piece called The Red Vineyard. He got 400 francs for it, which is about $1,000 in today’s money. (He was financially supported for most of his life by his brother, Theo.)
Most English speakers pronounce his name “Van Go,” but it’s actually pronounced like “Van Guff.”
He didn’t start painting until he was 27. Before that, he was primarily a missionary. He worked for a spell in Borinage, a coal-mining area in Belgium. He was so beloved by the coal miners they nicknamed him “Christ of the coal mines.”
He’s almost universally regarded as one of the finest painters of all time, so why was he so unappreciated in his lifetime (1853 – 1890)? Because his style was not considered quality at the time. Impressionists only began to be taken seriously in about 1900, a decade after his death. During his lifetime, more realistic or classical paintings were desirable.
Did Van Gogh really slice off his ear and send it to a prostitute? It’s complicated. Van Gogh invited his friend, fellow painter Paul Gaugin, to stay with him. They got into an argument and Gaugin, a fencing enthusiast, threatened an agitated Van Gogh with his sword…and accidentally sliced off the earlobe. Van Gogh never ratted out Gaugin, but did send the piece of ear to a prostitute friend for “safe keeping.”
Van Gogh’s last words, according to Theo Van Gogh: “La tristesse durera toujours,” or “the sadness will last forever.”
The most ever paid for a Van Gogh painting: In 1990 his 1890 piece Portrait of Dr. Gachet brought in $82.5 million at auction.