Van Gogh and The Obsession with the ‘Starving Artist’

Sunflowers, starry nights, and cutting off his own ear.

We all know about Vincent Van Gogh. No matter our level of knowledge of art, we have at least heard about the Dutch artist. Even before I wandered around Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum a few months ago, I was already fascinated by Van Gogh, mostly his unique journey to post-impressionist and post-humous fame. A huge part of his journey was his battle with mental health.

Biographies and movies on Van Gogh have romanticized him as the symbol of crazy genius and “the starving artist.” I do not want to romanticize Van Gogh or the way he shut himself off from much of the world. However, I did want to shed light on the way he arrived at the expressionist style he is now famous for and why some of his paintings and words remain relevant and inspiring.

Van Gogh has said many intriguing quotes about both his own life philosophy and his art (I will include my favorites at the end of this article). Many of these insights can be found in the nearly 800 letters he wrote in his lifetime, particularly to his brother Theo. In the following, he speaks to the inspiration behind the famous The Starry Night:

“At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens…certain stars lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance…it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.”

The Starry Night, Van Gogh

It becomes clear that Van Gogh has a special relationship with color in his art, and when I learned that this was not always the case for him, it made it even more interesting. I find his intense focus on displaying the full brilliance of the night mesmerizing. Ironically, Van Gogh considered The Starry Night a failure.

A Late Calling to Art

Van Gogh did not start painting until he was 27.

His failures in love and life are well-known and well-documented. He had no obvious artistic talent in his early years. Instead as the son of a pastor, he largely immersed himself in religion and had even decided to become a clergyman. However, he was not given a permanent position. He also attempted to be an art dealer. His largest failure, however, was producing close to 900 paintings but constantly struggling in poverty and only selling one painting while alive.

One of his paintings that stood out to me is The Potato Eaters, mostly because it does not fit his usual style or theme.

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The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh

What I learned is in 1885, Van Gogh painted The Potato Eaters to prove himself as a good figure painter. He also saw himself as a painter of peasant life. The beautiful, dark earth colors in the painting send a clear message about the humanity and community still found among simpleness and those burdened. The skin tones of the peasants are purposefully the color of the dusty potato. This painting is considered realist.

Then, he left The Netherlands for Paris.

Japanese Influence

While living in Paris, Van Gogh began to incorporate vibrant color into his paintings and actually drew inspiration from Japan, giving his work a new, now famous direction. He never visited Japan but did encounter Japanese prints and woodcuts in Paris that inspired his newfound love for color. This part of his artistic journey is less well-known.

In a letter to Theo in 1888, Van Gogh expressed his enthusiasm:

“And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

It was from examining Japanese artwork that Van Gogh learned that artwork did not have to be arranged as traditionally. There did not have to be the “illusion of depth” in paintings. Strong color, everyday objects, and attention to detail from nature could be used to create an exotic and joyful atmosphere. Now, if you look back on The Starry Night, that progression from The Potato Eaters to it and other paintings like Almond Blossom makes a lot more sense knowing this.

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Almond Blossom, Van Gogh

In search of color, he then moved from Paris to Arles in the South of France. There, his mental health decreased.

Mental Health

With Van Gogh’s posthumous fame came a lot of speculation about his battle with mental illness that had him cut off his left ear and ended in his committing suicide in 1890. During his life, Van Gogh alternated between fits of madness and lucidity and stayed for a year at a psychiatric hospital. Professor of pathology Paul Wolf stated that Van Gogh likely suffered from manic depression (bipolar disorder). Others have said he had depression and anxiety.

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Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s fixation on sunflowers is well-known, but perhaps his struggle with mental health provides color to this fixation. He created a series of four paintings of sunflowers, only two of which remain. The sunflower became a symbol to Van Gogh of light and an “ideal of an honest life lived in nature.” I find it beautiful that in a letter to one of his friend Koning, he said the sunflowers represented gratitude.

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Sunflowers, Van Gogh

I believe that these sunflowers did speak to Van Gogh’s true nature and mental state. As artist Paul Gaugin who lived with him in the Yellow House said, they were “completely Vincent.” Yellow on yellow on yellow. The color was no doubt purposefully chosen to express his emotions.

In Dutch literature, the sunflower is a symbol of devotion and loyalty. To many viewers, their simplistic beauty is what is captivating. To me, there is something beautiful about the balance, despite yellow being the sole focus color. Some of the flowers are wilted, yet the brightness offsets it. Once I learned the history surrounding his obsession with sunflowers, the sunflowers begin to feel like a mix of desperation and hope. After all, Van Gogh painted two of the sunflower paintings for Gaugin’s bedroom in a last-ditch effort to get his potential new friend to come.

But then the sunflowers became something else for Van Gogh. He told his brother how energetic he was painting the large sunflowers. It seemed to bring him much comfort. This is what I find very relevant now, particularly for creatives — that inspiration and energy can be found in small, unexpected things.

The Letters

I greatly enjoyed reading excerpts from Van Gogh’s letters, and though I do not want to extrapolate too much from his paintings, I do find his letter quotes worth thinking more about.

For all the troubles I just mentioned he had, he remained positive:

“Find things beautiful as much as you can, most people find too little beautiful.”

But also refreshingly (or sadly) self-critical — a reminder for self-confidence:

“It’s a rather sad prospect to have to say to myself that the painting I do will perhaps never have any value.”

Another one I love:

“If something in you yourself says ‘you aren’t a painter’ — it’s then that you should paint, old chap, and that voice will be silenced.”

About the night, which I begin to find also for my own inspiration:

“It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly coloured than the day.”

And as he signed off letters

“Your loving Vincent”

Poetry book “Under Clouds and City Lights” publishing April 2021

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