Why do art? For the immense intrinsic reward and the hope of touching others as the artist himself has undoubtedly been touched. The artist hopes to share his own attempt to make sense of his experience, with the aim of adding meaning to the lives of others. Vincent van Gogh was a perfect example of this artistic vision. He is also an example of how it can all go wrong. His early works depict toiling peasants and nature, but as he developed as an artist, he became obsessed with bright colour. He ended his tormented life by shooting himself with a revolver in a field filled with ripe golden wheat, the colour of which must surely have reminded him of the huge yellow sunflowers he loved so much and is so famous for painting.

Vincent van Gogh - Self Portrait

Vincent van Gogh is a sobering example of how artistic vision can lead a creative person into difficulties. (Image: WPClipart)

Riddled with guilt, Van Gogh had always been unstable, but he became increasingly restless and troubled during his poverty-stricken time in Paris. Drawn by the sunshine, the prospect of a less hectic life, and a lower cost of living, he left the crowded northern metropolis and went to the warm flower-strewn Midi region of France. He was going to live quietly and capture the vivid colours and clear light so prevalent in the area.

The urge to escape is common among people with a strong need for greater psychological and emotional independence. Flight is a concretized response to the inner feeling of being smothered or hemmed in. Whether the strategy works depends on the personality of the person seeking greater freedom. Unfortunately, Van Gogh was unable to tolerate a lot of solitude, a situation that prompted wild self-obliterating overwork thereby continuing the state of over-excitement that life in Paris had inflicted upon him and which he had sought to evade.

The arrival of Paul Gauguin, who had come to share a house with Van Gogh, only made matters worse. Gauguin was famously hard to get along with and as the pair plunged into a thrilling exploration of expressionism, the interpersonal tension and artistic stress overwhelmed Vincent. He suffered an abrupt and violent breakdown from which he never really recovered.

Van Gogh would later sum up the results of his ill-considered move with these simple words, “My journey South was a shipwreck.”

Van Gogh’s nervous breakdown unnerved him and collapsed the artistic vision that had heretofore sustained him in the impoverished frustrating life of an unsuccessful artist. He had suffered a shock and now saw things differently feeling that art had kept him away from “real life.” The instinctual urge to marry and have children took hold of him. Artistic ambition had led him astray leaving him dependent on his brother Theo for financial support and with no profession other than that of failed artist. He had moved to an even deeper level of personal crisis. Theo was devoted to Vincent and brought him north again establishing him in a small village near Paris. Vincent, however, was never the same. He took to leaving his paintings strewn about where the elements might damage them and remained despondent until the end.

After his vision had broken, he declared, “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”

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6 thoughts on “How Van Gogh Lost His Artistic Vision

  1. The story of Van Gogh’s life is heartbreaking, not least because he was so unappreciated during his life. It’s tragic that he didn’t live long enough to see how significant his work would become, and how much it would mean to so many people.

    One fact about his life that I always remember is that he once worked, briefly, as a debt collector in London. The poverty and misery of the debtors so distressed him that he couldn’t bring himself to collect a single penny. I think his sympathy for other people often comes through in his work, and is one of the most attractive aspects of his art.

  2. Fascinating post, Thomas. I liked the depicition of Van Gogh in a film where he lost his temper with a fellow artist on the beach and scrubbed sand all over the other man’s painting because he was so outraged at his Victorian hypocrisy.

    So agree with that, Mari! I love Van Gogh’s paintings, particularly ‘Night Cafe at Arles’ and ‘The Potato Eaters’ and – I know this is cliched – ‘Starry Night’. I don’t think he made a single sale in his life and now his work is collected for obscene sums. A sad incidence of our society’s understanding ‘the price of everything, and the value of nothing’.

  3. Van Gogh was certainly responsive to the plight of others. He preached to Belgian coal miners early in his working life and spent much time looking after those that were sick or injured. Unfortunately, he was in all things an extremist. He got himself repeatedly dismissed for refusing to meet the obvious requirements of one job after another. For example, he wanted to be a minister, but refused to learn the Latin still used by the Church of Belgium at the time. Yet he was too religious even for the missionaries who had sent him to the miners. They fired him when his lifestyle began to resemble that of a “martyr.” While working in London at an art dealer’s shop, he advised customers not to buy the “worthless art” on display there!

    The wretched man was plagued by guilt. While still living with his devout parents, he would, as punishment for his sins and unclean thoughts, lie on his bed and beat himself on the back with a heavy stick. His family rejected his artistic aspirations and disowned him when he persisted. When his brother Theo took to supporting him financially, Vincent was yet again overwhelmed by guilt, feeling that his married sibling could ill afford to part with the funds. In fact, it was just after a histrionic outburst from Theo and his wife – about going broke – that Vincent took his own life. The couple were given to exaggerating their financial woes in great shows of fiscal angst. Vincent, however, took it all seriously. When Theo heard that Vincent had shot himself, he was heard to exclaim, “It’s all my fault! It’s all my fault!”

  4. I’m in the other camp when it comes to money and society, Lucinda. Looking at the near-universal bankruptcy of Western nations brought on by government overspending and wanton consumer debt, I would say, “We understand the value of everything and the cost of nothing.”

  5. Lol, Thomas! Someone I know was predicting the end of civilisation as we know it due to that ole consumer debt. I laughed and said ‘So what?’ which wasn’t considered very funny…

  6. I understand the response to your joke, Lucinda. Unlike you, we aren’t all longing to keep smelly free-range pigs and chickens while making our own boots! Lol. Nor do we pine to spend our days romantically hoeing straggly rows of moth-eaten organic veggies. Personally, I’m not looking forward to starving when the “locally grown” crops fail either.

    But you were right to make fun of such a dire prediction. The collapse of the debt situation will not end civilization – just our prosperity. After a decade or so of readjustment, things will once again soldier on.

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