He was the son of a minister, the eldest of six children in a family that valued education, cultural experiences and religion. Early on, he exhibited a talent for drawing and watercolors. But for the longest time, van Gogh ricocheted from job to job and place to place.
In 1869, at age 16, he went to work for Goupil & Co., a prestigious art gallery in The Hague where one of his uncles was a partner. After four years, he was transferred to the gallery's branch in Paris, and then, briefly, to London, and then to Paris again. In March 1876 he was dismissed. Evidently, he'd taken an unauthorized leave the previous Christmas, when the gallery was especially busy, and in any event his personality was not exactly suited to selling pictures and serving clients.
The following month, he accepted a position as a schoolteacher in Ramsgate, England. Within a few months, he moved on to another school in Isleworth, near London. Late in 1876 he resigned from that job, too, he and and his family agreeing that he had no future as a teacher in an English boarding school. He then worked as a bookstore clerk in the Dutch town of Dordrecht, but quit after a few months.
In May 1877 he moved to Amsterdam, where he began to prepare for the entrance examinations to study theology at the University of Amsterdam. He hoped to become a minister like his father, but by July 1878 he had abandoned his studies. Instead, he went to Brussels and took a three-month course for evangelical missionaries, after which he was appointed a lay minister in the impoverished Belgian coal-mining district known as the Borinage. There, he applied Christian doctrine rather literally: He gave away his clothes and possessions to the poor and needy and lived with virtually no personal amenities. An inspector for the Comite d'Evangelisation viewed his behavior as overzealous and counterproductive. Again, van Gogh was dismissed.
In 1880 he turned to art. The discouragement of the years of accumulated failures began to abate by late that year, when he wrote to Theo that he had started to draw: "I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself, in spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing. From that moment, everything seemed transformed for me." With his brother's financial assistance, Vincent embarked on his journey as an artist.
He moved to Brussels in October to study art, but found the city too expensive for his modest allowance; the following April he returned to Holland to stay with his parents in Etten. At the end of 1881 he moved to The Hague, where he studied with Anton Mauve, a distant relative and the leading figure of the group of artists known as the Hague School. Van Gogh concentrated on drawings and watercolors and did little oil painting until 1882.
His decision to become an artist provided a sense of purpose but did not mitigate his personal problems. While living in The Hague in 1883, he moved in with a prostitute known as Sien, who had a 5-year-old child and was pregnant with another. The move strained his relationships with his family and with Mauve, who stopped offering advice and instruction. Most of his friendships, in fact, collapsed under the gravity of his personality.
His intelligence, prodigious talent and determination were very likely overbearing. He was very serious and held strong opinions. When challenged, he would became angry or withdraw behind a wall of silence. In a letter to Theo, he offered a self-portrait that is confirmed by the accounts of others: "[Father and Mother] have the same dread of taking me in the house as they would about taking in a big rough dog. He would run into the room with wet paws – and he is so rough. He will be in everybody's way. And he barks so loud. In short, he is a foul beast."
In November 1883, he moved to Drenthe, a province in northeastern Holland. After three desolate months there, he joined his parents in Nuenen, a village in the province of North Brabant, where his father had recently become the parish minister. Between 1883 and 1885, he drew and painted the landscape and the peasants in the area – and with the same compassion and empathy he had shown in the Borinage. Pastoral imagery and the world of the peasants had a strong attraction for him. "I often think how the peasants form a world apart," he wrote to Theo in 1885, "in many respects so much better than the civilized world."
It was in this spirit that he executed his first great masterpiece, "The Potato Eaters," which he painted in Nuenen in September and October 1885. Not long after finishing a work that appears to be a premiere pense, or first version, of "The Potato Eaters," he wrote to Theo about his project for "a real peasant picture": "All winter long I have had the threads of this tissue in my hands, and have searched for the ultimate pattern; and though it has become a tissue of rough, coarse aspect, nevertheless the threads have been chosen carefully and according to certain rules. And it might prove to be a real peasant picture. I know it is."
At this point, van Gogh's development was largely influenced by the work of artists he had seen and admired in London, Paris, Amsterdam and The Hague. In some instances, he knew their work only from black-and-white illustrations in magazines. Many were landscapists and painters of peasants who were members of the Hague School in Holland or the Barbizon School in France. Some, such as Jean-Francois Millet, were well known, but were not members of the avant-garde. Two or three years would pass before van Gogh became familiar with the paintings and ideas of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
He had very specific ideas about the content and the meaning of his paintings. In addition, he was quite eloquent about how he intended to convey his message. In the same letter to Theo, he laid out his approach to "The Potato Eaters": "I personally am convinced that I get better results by painting them in their roughness than by giving them a conventional charm . . . It would be wrong, I think, to give a peasant picture a certain conventional smoothness. If a peasant picture smells of bacon smoke, potato steam – all right, that's not unhealthy; if a stable smells of dung – all right, that belongs to a stable; if the field has an odor of ripe corn or potatoes or of guano or manure – that's healthy, especially for city people. Such pictures may teach them something. But to be perfumed is not what a peasant picture needs."
Clearly, "The Potato Eaters" was painted within the confines of a limited range of color, or "certain rules." In addition, the drawing of figures, the rendering of space and the interpretation of form are rife with exaggerations and distortions. Van Gogh's works depend heavily on a process that early in his career he described as "reasoned out and willed." If he had painted in the grip of emotional outbursts and uncontrolled effusions of energy, there would be little or none of the analytical thought that characterizes his correspondence.
Van Gogh often sent sketches, drawings and paintings to his brother, who was working for Boussod & Valadon (formerly Goupil & Co.) in Paris. Theo must have shown his brother's work to friends, because one of them, Charles Serret, apparently voiced complaints about Vincent's knowledge of anatomy, interpreting his intentional distortions and remarkable expressiveness as ineptitude. In a letter of July 1885 to Theo, the artist replied to the criticism with equanimity but conviction: "Tell Serret that I should be desperate if my figures were correct, tell him that I do not want them to be academically correct . . . Tell him that my great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodelings, changes in reality, so that they may become, yes, lies if you like – but truer than the literal truth."
Not long after completing "The Potato Eaters," van Gogh left Nuenen and enrolled in art school in Antwerp. But his classes at the academy frustrated him, and his professors and fellow students found him peculiar. He stayed for only about three months.
One morning in early March 1886, Theo received a note, delivered by a porter from the railroad station: "Do not be cross with me for having come all at once like this; I have thought about it so much, and I believe that in this way we shall save time. Shall be at the Louvre from midday or sooner if you like."
Vincent was in Paris, suddenly surrounded by the modern painting about which he had only read and heard.