In an unfinished letter of 1890 written to his brother, the iconic Post-Impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh made a final effort to explain himself. ‘I risk my life for my own work,’ he wrote, ‘and my reason has foundered in it.’ Some time later Van Gogh wandered into a field of wheat near the home of Dr. Paul Gachet (whom he had immortalised in Portrait of Dr. Gachet , 1890) and shot himself. He would die two days later.
By then, the myth of Van Gogh’s genius had already begun to spread. A few months earlier, the celebrated French critic Albert Aurier had described him in the Mercure de France as ‘this robust and true artist… with the soul of a mystic.’ Having famously sold only a single painting in his lifetime ( The Red Vineyard , 1888), within 15 years of his suicide Van Gogh would be widely recognised as one of the most important artists of his generation.
Van Gogh’s artistic career spanned only a decade. He was born the eldest of six children to a Protestant minister in 1853. The young Vincent worked for international art dealers, Goupil & Co, and as a lay preacher before he decided to paint. Van Gogh would always struggle with the fervency of his faith. By 1880, having been dismissed from both Goupil and his preaching position, he turned to painting as a conduit for his spiritual struggles.
His early works were inspired by the rural realism of Jean-Francois Millet , a period culminating with The Potato Eaters (1885). On the advice of his art-dealer brother and benefactor Theo van Gogh, he lightened his palette. It was a turning point, producing deeply personal works. ‘I have tried to express with red and green,’ he wrote of his work Night Café (1888), ‘all the terrible passions of human nature.’
Following his infamous 1888 season in Arles with Gauguin — the effects of which were captured in his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) — the last two years of his life saw Van Gogh produce some of his most famous works. They included Starry Night (1889), painted during his self-imposed retreat to an asylum in Provence.
Van Gogh paintings and drawings rarely come to auction, and when they do, achieve historic prices. Memorably, a Sunflowers still life sold for £23 million at Christie’s London in 1987, three times more than any artwork had fetched at auction previously. In 1990, Portrait of Dr Paul Gachet also set a world record price at Christie’s New York, selling for $83 million.
La maison de Vincent à Arles (La maison jaune) ( recto ); page of a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo ( verso )
Boerin met een kind op haar schoot (Peasant Woman with Child on her Lap)
Uitzicht over Den Haag met de Nieuwe Kerk (View of The Hague with Nieuwe Kerk)
Vrouw Zittend voor een Geopende Deur, Aardappels Schillend (Woman Seated Before an Open Door, Peeling Potatoes)
Orphan Man, Wearing a Blouse, with Broom and Pipe (Weesman met bloes, bezem en pijp)
Winter, ook in het leven (naar Jozef Israëls): Winter, in life as well (after Jozef Israëls)