Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh :: The Potato Eaters 1885

This week's episode is going to be a 2 part episode. My good friend, fellow art teacher and former mentor, Chuck Hoff joined me to talk about one of my favorite artists of all time, Vincent Van Gogh.

In part 1, we discuss his early life and his first major masterpiece, The Potato Eaters from 1885.

Born March 30, 1853 in Groot-Zundert a predominantly Catholic province in the Netherlands. His father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.

Vincent was said to be a pensive child. He was initially taught by his mother and a governess, then went to the village school in 1860 and he was sent to a boarding school in 1864. He was unhappy there and asked to come home. Instead, they sent him to a different boarding school in 1866. He felt abandoned and miserable.

While at the boarding school in Tilburg, he learned from Constant Cornelius Huijsmans who had been a reasonably successful artist in Paris. He was known for his rejection of common technique and favoring impressions of common objects and nature. Vincent was mainly focused on how miserable he was and abruptly returned home in March of 1864 (about 11 years). He later described his childhood as “austere, cold and sterile.”

n 1869, Vincent’s uncle got him a job as an art dealer because this was a time when 16 year olds would be starting their careers. He was apparently pretty good at the job. He transferred to the London branch and at just 20 years old, he was earning more than his father. This was a happy time for Vincent. His sister in law later said it was the best year of his life.

Unfortunately that happy period ended as he had some unrequited love, then became isolated and more religious. In 1875, he was transferred to Paris but became resentful of how art was being commodified which is a really ironic stance for an art dealer. Unsurprisingly he was dismissed from that job after about a year.

He focused intensely on religion and wanted to become a pastor. He stayed with his uncle, a theologian, while studying for the entrance exam to the University of Amsterdam. He failed the exam and left his uncle’s house.

He failed another course, but he was determined and in 1879 he took a position as a missionary in Belgium. While there, van Gogh gave his comfortable lodging to a homeless man and he stayed in a hut sleeping on a straw bed. Apparently this behavior was seen as beneath the dignity of the priesthood and in 1880, he returned home to Etten. His brother Theo encouraged Vincent to study art under a Dutch artist, Willem Roelofs, who encouraged Vincent to attend Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts. He studied anatomy, modeling and perspective at the academie.

The first major work from this time period was The Potato Eaters. Vincent felt like his brother Theo was not doing enough to sell his works. Theo said they were too dark and not in line with the colorful style of the Impressionists which were popular at that time. Vincent was supported financially by his brother, but he lived in poverty and barely ate because he preferred to spend the money Theo sent him on supplies.

Next week we will discuss how his art shifted after moving to France, his ill fated dream of forming an artist's colony in Arles and of course, The Starry Night which went on to become his most famous masterpiece.

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