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  • Writer's pictureAccessible Art History

Artist Spotlight: Vincent van Gogh


Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! Today, I’m adding another post to our “Artist Spotlight” series. Vincent van Gogh is one of the most beloved artists in history, despite not being commercially successful during his own lifetime. He was able to transform the pain from his struggles with mental illness into beautiful works of art that resonate across the generations. Despite his fairly short life, he left behind more than 2100 works! To learn more about this incredible man and his paintings, then keep on reading!


Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in Zundert, the Netherlands. His family was fairly well off and van Gogh had a number of siblings. He was closest to his brother Theo. The two brothers wrote frequently to each other and Theo financially supported his brother for much of the latter’s adult life. Van Gogh was described as a quiet and serious child. He did not enjoy school, but his mother did encourage his artistic talent.

Before he pursued his artistic career, van Gogh tried out a few different paths including an art dealer and a priest. However, he wasn’t satisfied with either of them. Van Gogh moved to both London and Paris before finding his true style. In Paris, he fell in with Impressionists and Post Impressionists. But, his big style breakthrough came when he moved to Arles, in the south of France. Originally, van Gogh moved there for his health, but soon fell in love with the town. Its beautiful light and landscape inspired him to create over 300 works!

Besides his works, van Gogh is also most famous for his struggle with his mental health. Many people have tried to diagnose him posthumously, but I don’t feel comfortable speculating on what he could have been afflicted with. He did write of his symptoms which include: poor digestion and a bad stomach, hallucinations, nightmares, manic episodes, depressive episodes, stupor, absent mindedness, impotence, insomnia, and anxiety. Van Gogh did spend some time in psychiatric hospitals, including after the famous “ear cutting” incident. Sadly, van Gogh died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on July 29, 1890.

Today, he is best remembered for turning his pain into beautiful works of art. His paintings are often at the center of many famous museum’s collections. In fact, there is an entire museum dedicated to his work in Amsterdam! It is a great legacy for a great man.

The Potato Eaters

The Potato Eaters was painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1885. It is a dark and brooding work, in contrast to his other famous works like Starry Night. Van Gogh was motivated to show peasants as they really were, living in the dark and in a small and cramped room. He actually sought out "ugly" models, to keep the work as realistic as possible. The room is lit by a single source of light, barely strong enough to show the viewer the dinner scene. Van Gogh chose to use an earthy, deep color palette This not only mimicked the land that these peasants worked, but also the potatoes they are eating for dinner. It is authentic and raw, showing the harsh reality of peasant life.

Van Gogh was quite proud of the work, despite the criticism that it drew. People thought that it was too realistic and depressing. It even split his family! His brother Theo didn’t like it, but his sister Wilhemina thought it was his finest piece.

The Night Café

The Night Café is another one of van Gogh’s most famous works. He painted it in 1888 while living in Arles, France. It features an actual café that van Gogh frequented. It is called Café de la Gare, located at 30 Place Lamartine, and run by Joseph-Michel Ginoux and his wife Marie. This piece is fairly flat, lacking in three dimensionality, showing the inspiration that van Gogh received from Japanese woodblock prints. I think that van Gogh describes the scene best in a letter to his brother Theo:

“I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a rose nosegay. The white clothes of the landlord, watchful in a corner of that furnace, turn lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green.”

"In my picture of the Night Café I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. “

This shows us that van Gogh wasn't neutral about his subject. His personal feelings are reflected in his art. This was quite different from the Impressionist art style that was popular at the time. It also helps to explain the harsh lighting and depressing feel that he painted into the scene.

Starry Night

Starry Night is Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work. He painted it in 1889 during his stay at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy, in southern France after the famous ear cutting incident. This piece is one of many he made of the view outside of his window, but it is obviously the best known. Van Gogh also wrote of this to his brother, stating: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big,”.

The swirling lines and rich colors are the hallmarks of this work. It paints a romantic vision of a calm night, where nature is at her best. The cypress tree on the left hand side dominates that space, creating a link between land and earth. The exaggerated size of the moon adds an otherworldly element, as if this landscape only exists in our minds.


Vincent van Gogh, despite his short life, made a huge impact on the history of art. His works are filled with new techniques, (such as swirling brushstrokes and flattened perspectives) and emotional complexity. The fact that he was able to pour his emotional pain into his works to create something beautiful for us is something that we should all be thankful for when viewing his art.

  1. Young Vincent van Gogh, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  2. Self-Portrait, September 1889, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  3. The Potato Eaters, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  4. The Night Cafe, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  5. Starry Night, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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