Thanet Writers Spotlight Vincent van Gogh

Martin Charlton highlights the life, works and legacy of writer and artist Vincent van Gogh, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

Image Credit: 
Vincent van Gogh / Public Domain

“I love Paris and London, though I am a child of the pine woods and of the beach at Ramsgate,” announced Vincent van Gogh in the autumn of 1876. Writing to his brother Theo from Isleworth, west London, Vincent at the time was not yet the renowned artist admired today. In fact, he wasn’t an artist at all. At the time he wrote those words, the twenty-three-year-old Dutchman believed his future was either in education or the clergy. He was then working as an assistant teacher at a boys’ boarding school, though he was giving serious consideration to becoming a missionary, either in London or South America.

Born on 30th March 1853 in Zundert in the southern Netherlands, Vincent Willem van Gogh was the eldest surviving son of Reverend Theodorus van Gogh, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus, daughter of a rich family of art dealers. The couple’s first child, also called Vincent, had been stillborn. Vincent, the future artist of paintings such as ‘The Starry Night,’ ‘Sunflowers,’ ‘The Church at Auvers,’ and ‘Wheat Field with Crows,’ was born on the first anniversary of his older brother’s death. When attending church, he would pass his brother’s grave, and psychoanalysis have since pontificated what effect this must have had on young Vincent’s mental state.

As a child he was serious, quiet and thoughtful. He loved nature and would take himself off for miles alone, studying the detail of plants and the landscape. Later, he would be accompanied by his younger brother Theo, to whom he was very close. Four years Vincent’s junior, Theo would be a life-long support, both emotionally and financially, to his older brother.

Vincent was at first taught at home by his mother and then later a governess before, in 1860, being sent to the village school. It was his mother who encouraged him to draw, though these early attempts were very clumsy in scale and composition.

Vincent van Gogh / Public Domain

When he was packed off to a boarding school in Zevenbergen in 1864, Vincent felt abandoned and frequently pleaded in his letters to be allowed to come home. Instead, in 1866, his parents responded by sending him to a middle school in Tilburg. Vincent hated it. Feeling alienated, the sensitive young boy became reclusive and sought comfort in his own internalised world, escaping into the world of books. He particularly liked the novels of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Victor Hugo, as well as poetry by John Keats, the short stories of Hans Christian Andersen, and the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare. “I have a more or less irresistible passion for books,” he once told Theo many years later in the summer of 1880, “and constantly need to instruct myself, to study, if you will, just as I need to eat my bread.”

As the eldest son of a respectable middle class family, Vincent bore the weight of social expectations. Work and ambition were key qualities for a young middle class man finding his place in the world, as was reputation. With this in mind his family secured him a position with Goupil & Cie international art dealers in The Hague. Aged just sixteen, he was their youngest employee. It was during this time that he began a regular correspondence with his brother.

Over the course of his life, Vincent would write over eight-hundred letters, expressing his highs and lows, his desires and disappointments, as well as his need for money. Although a prolific painter, he wrote much more than he ever painted. Some of his letters also included poetry, such as this opening from Craving for Sanctity written in September 1876:

Who shall deliver me completely and forever
From the body of this deed; bowed down beneath the yoke,
How long shall I have to fight against myself
Before I can tear this heart away from the service of sin?

‘Craving for Sanctity,’ 1876

Theo, himself, began working for Goupil & Cie in January 1873. By the end of that year he had been transferred from Brussels to The Hague, but by then Vincent had been transferred to the firm’s London branch on Southampton Street.

Vincent took lodgings at 87 Hackford Road, Stockwell, south west London, home of Ursula Loyer and her daughter Eugenie. On the whole this was a happy time in his life. He had a good job, earning £90 per annum, and he was in love with Eugenie. But when he declared his feelings to her she rejected him, revealing that she was already secretly engaged to a former lodger. The rejection of a first love is always hard, but Vincent found it particularly difficult to accept. He became isolated and religiously fervent. Concerned by his behaviour, his father arranged for his transference to the Goupil & Cie branch in Paris in May 1875.

By now the young Dutchman was becoming disillusioned and resentful. He had a particular issue with how the firm commodified art. He also became concerned for the poor. For him, it wasn’t money that made the world turn. It was art, passion, and religion. Unsurprisingly, Goupil & Cie weren’t too impressed with van Gogh’s anti-commercial attitude, and he was sacked at the end of March 1876.

Vincent wanted to return to England. In one of the continental newspapers he saw a number of adverts for Assistant Teachers. An application for a post in Scarborough was unsuccessful, but, to his delight, and on his final day at Goupil & Cie, he was offered a position at a small private boys’ school in Ramsgate, on the Kent coast in Thanet. “I received a letter from a schoolmaster in Ramsgate,” he enthusiastically told Theo. “He proposed that I go there for a month (without salary). At the end of that time he will decide whether I am fit for the position. You can imagine how happy I am to have found something!”

The school, a converted terrace house on Royal Road, was run by a Methodist minister called Reverend William Stokes. Vincent would be given free board and lodging, and at the end of his probationary period Stokes would decide whether to pay a salary. For van Gogh it was a new start and his letters to Theo conveyed his excitement at this change of direction in his life.

By Saturday 15th April, Vincent was back in London. Early the following morning, Easter Sunday, he caught the train for the Kent coast, via Canterbury, which he described as “a city with many medieval buildings, especially a beautiful cathedral, surrounded by old elms.” His exhilaration growing, he finally arrived at his destination just after lunchtime. Stokes was away on business; however his son, who was deputising, greeted the young Dutchman cordially. After Sunday lunch, by which time Stokes had returned, Vincent was shown to his lodgings, a few doors away at 11 Spencer Square, which he shared it with another young Assistant Teacher and four older boys. “I have a little room that is waiting for some prints on the walls,” he told his parents in his next letter. “Love to all and a handshake from your loving Vincent.”

Ramsgate, during the second half of the 19th century, had become the quintessential English seaside town. Its population at the time was around 12,000 inhabitants, with fishing and tourism the basis of its economy. As well as the usual holiday crowd, it also attracted figures from the world of art and literature. Author Wilkie Collins and French artist James Tissot were two famous faces visiting around that time, and it had once been a regular haunt for the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge during the 1820s and 30s. Its waterfront was (and still is) dominated by its harbour, which, in van Gogh’s words, was “full of ships, shut in between stone jetties on which one can walk.” The harbour had been given royal status in 1821 by King George IV for its role during the Napoleonic Wars. “The houses on the shore are mostly built of yellow stone in simple Gothic style, and have gardens full of cedars and other dark evergreens,” Vincent informed his parents, “and then there’s the unspoiled sea, and that is very beautiful.”

Reverend Stokes, not typical of Victorian headmasters, liked to played marbles with his students, though any boy who became too excited—something he loathed—would later go to bed without any supper. Aged 44, of medium build, with a bald head and side whiskers, he was, according to Vincent, much liked by his students, of whom there were twenty-four, all in their early teens, who were in bed by eight each evening and up at six in the morning. After breakfast, prepared by Mrs Stokes, lessons would begin. Lessons were from nine to five, with a two-hour lunch break. The emphasis of lessons, as in all Victorian schools, would have been reading, writing, and arithmetic, though Vincent also taught French and German. After classes, he would read to them. His favourite book at the time was The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherall, which narrates the pious and tearful story of a young girl, sent out into the world by her dying mother and not so compassionate father.

Soon after he had arrived he began to notice a number of inadequacies, and it was through Dickensian eyes that van Gogh viewed his surroundings. These ranged from the dark stairs and passageways to the rotting floors and bugs, with his only distraction being the view of the sea. Vincent also noted the misery of the boys themselves as they traipsed downstairs to wash in a cold communal bathroom, and their despondency as they watched visiting parents leave for one of the town’s two railway stations. His descriptions are touching and self-conscious, and he gives an image of Nicholas Nickleby championing the starved and maltreated urchins of Dotheboys Hall. Even so, his letters also suggest his enjoyment of teaching, and when not doing so he could escape the school’s melancholy surroundings and take in the delightful views of Ramsgate.

Vincent would often take some of the boys to the beach where they would either walk or make sandcastles. He enjoyed the open air, the sea in all its moods, and the various colours of the sky. Even the school’s location was beautiful to him, and in another of his letters he paints a vivid picture of Spencer Square, with its large lawn enclosed by an iron fence and lined with lilacs. “I wish you could catch a look out of the windows,” he told Theo. And for good measure he sent two rough sketches of the Paragon Corner House and the gardens opposite.

As well as sending drawings, van Gogh also wrote about scenes, lending some insight into how he saw the world before he began painting. During a walk to Pegwell Bay, he noted the nature of the cliffs, with their “old, gnarled hawthorn bushes” whose black and grey moss-covered branches had been sculpted by the wind. A couple of days later, he and six older boys were caught in a violent gale while walking along the shore, where he later described seeing “the lifeboat brought in by a tug, returning from a mission to a ship that had run aground on a sandbank.” The ship concerned was the Happy Return, which had been wrecked on the notorious Goodwin Sands. Fortunately, all of her crew had been rescued by another ship and safely delivered to shore. In his penultimate correspondence from Thanet, he describes another storm he observed, this time in greater detail.

The sea was yellowish, especially close to the shore. On the horizon a streak of light, and above it immensely dark grey clouds, from which one could see the rain coming down in slanting streaks. The wind blew dust from the little white path […] and shook the hawthorn bushes in bloom and the wallflowers that grew on the rocks.

Letter, 1876

His letters not only show his powers of observation—a trait shared by artists and poets alike—and his unique perspective on moments he witnessed, but also his love for Ramsgate. He would later still speak of its abiding influence upon his life. Despite his growing affections for the town, eight weeks after arriving Vincent decided to leave. However, when Reverend Stokes announced he was moving the school to Isleworth, west of London, and hinted the prospect of a small salary of £20 per annum, Vincent agreed to go with them.

On Monday 15th June, Vincent van Gogh set off on foot for London. “That’s a long walk indeed,” he later told Theo, “and when I left it was awfully hot and it remained so until the evening, when I arrived at Canterbury.” From there, it was another two days before he arrived back in the capital, travelling via the Medway towns.

A few days after arriving in Isleworth, Vincent met the Reverend Thomas Slade-Jones. By now, van Gogh believed his future lay in education or the clergy, and this chance meeting with Slade-Jones—who also ran a boarding school in the area—gave him the chance to combine both. The position was again Assistant Teacher, but, crucially, there was no ambiguity over a salary, and Vincent was eventually permitted to preach there. But in December 1876, van Gogh went to spend Christmas with his parents in Etten and decided to quit teaching. He never returned to England.

For the next six months he worked in a bookshop in Dordrecht, but hated the position and spent much of the time doodling or translating passages of the Bible into English, French, or German. He became increasingly pious and monastic; immersing himself more deeply into religious faith. He also ate frugally and wouldn’t eat meat.

In May 1877, Vincent moved to Amsterdam to prepare for the entrance exam to study theology at the University of Amsterdam. He failed and abandoned formal studies to become an evangelist preacher among the mining community in the Borinage in Belgium. Here, Vincent became even more concerned by the plight of the poor. He frequently sketched the people and their environment, which he sent to Theo. Again, compared with his later sketches, these were still very amateurish.

At first the miners and their families loved this rather eccentric Dutchman, but over time Vincent overplayed his Christian beliefs. His personal appearance became unkempt and his behaviour more erratic. The local authorities became so concerned that they wrote to Theodorus van Gogh, who travelled to the Borinage to rebuke his son. Feeling that everyone was against him and indifferent to his beliefs, Vincent quit and went to Brussels.

In July 1879, aged twenty-seven, van Gogh decided to try his hand as an artist. In his eyes he had failed as an art dealer, a teacher, and as a member of the church; perhaps art would be his salvation. The establishment wouldn’t make this latest career move easy for him. At the Brussels Academy of Art they thought his drawings too amateur and Vincent himself too old to become an artist. Not willing to give up, he decided to go it alone, teaching himself to draw by copying sketches in art manuals and the works of masters, such as Rembrandt. Ever supportive of his brother’s latest ventures, Theo arranged for Vincent to be tutored by the Dutch realist painter, Anton Mauve.

Related to van Gogh by marriage, Mauve took one look at Vincent’s latest efforts and was impressed. “I used to think you were an idiot,” he commented, “but actually what you’re doing isn’t bad.” Mauve believed his new student could make a living from his art. As well as pastels and watercolours, he introduced van Gogh to painting with oils. Vincent quickly become impatient and exasperated with his apprenticeship, believing it was too conventional, and within a month the pair had fallen out.

It was in the depths of the Dutch countryside during the spring 1885 that Vincent van Gogh painted what is considered to be his first significant work, ‘The Potato Eaters.’ He wanted the painting to depict the harsh reality of country life, so the five figures featured in the painting have coarse bony faces and rough working hands. He used earthy colours, “something like the colour of a really dusty potato.” To him, the message of the painting was more important than technical perfection or correct anatomy. Vincent wanted the viewer to see that the people within the picture, about to have a meal of potatoes, had “tilled the earth themselves […] that they have thus honestly earned their food.” Now regarded as an early masterpiece, at the time people didn’t care for the painting’s dark tones. Other similar works recording the “little people” of country life followed. All were sent to Theo, who was unable to sell any of them.

In January 1886, Vincent enrolled himself at the Antwerp Academy but instead he became addicted to drugs, alcohol, and frequenting brothels, where he contracts what was then called “the French disease”—syphilis. Feeling very ill, his doctor informed him that he only has a few years left to live. In response to this news, van Gogh paints the head of a skeleton smoking a cigarette. Again loathed at the time, today it’s considered bash modernity approaching surrealism. This was Vincent sticking two fingers up at death.

From Antwerp, van Gogh spent the next two years living with his brother in Paris, during which the bond between the two was severely tested by Vincent’s eccentric behaviour. Nevertheless, the close relationship of the van Gogh brothers held firm.

While in the French capital, Vincent was introduced to the work of the French Impressionists. Astounded by their use bright exciting colours, he immediately began creating a number of still life pictures as colour studies. He also collected Japanese prints, which he had become fascinated with while in Antwerp. Combining the two, he came up with his own style. Out went the dark earthy colours and in came the vibrant shades of blue, red, yellow and green. He painted portraits of friends, as well as views of well-known Parisian landmarks. But despite producing new more colourful work, Theo still found it extremely difficult selling any.

By the start of 1888, Vincent had tried of the monochrome tones of Paris. What he really wanted was a return to nature, to be allowed to paint without people objecting and forcing him to move on. He wanted wide open spaces and to walk for miles, as he had done as a child, and study the beauty and complexities of the natural world and of rural life. He wanted warmth and sunshine, partly because of his deteriorating health. In February of that year, Vincent packed up his things and travelled south.

He ended up in the former Roman City of Arles, Provence, situated just twenty miles from the Mediterranean. Compared to the grey of Paris, Arles must have seemed like a multi-coloured wonderland with its red-roofed and yellow-walled buildings and its picturesque countryside. Even in the depths of winter the sun seemed brighter than it did further north. In his letters to Theo, Vincent conveys that he has found his lost paradise. He begins long explorations of the countryside, creating three canvasses a day. His time here would be his most productive period: two-hundred paintings and over a hundred sketches and watercolours. The locals, however, weren’t too impressed by his efforts, and neither were Theo’s customers. Arles would also be the setting for the most notorious event in van Gogh’s life.

It began with Vincent’s conceiving a notion of creating a brotherhood of artists, all living and sharing ideas at the now infamous Yellow House. Of all the artists he invited only one agreed—Paul Gauguin. He took some persuading, too. Gauguin was a former banker and had a very high opinion of himself. Not only was he a great artist, but also a self-publicist and a serial adulterer. He liked to paint from imagination and found Vincent’s method of painting from life rather comical. At first, things between the artists were fine, but within days of arriving at the Yellow House, Gauguin was writing to friends in Paris saying how he needed to “get out of here.” The two frequently clashed over their differences towards art, and on one occasion, in a local café, Vincent threw a glass at the Frenchman, who luckily ducked just in time. The following morning, Vincent vaguely asked: “my dear Gauguin, I feel I may have caused you some offence last night.”

On the evening before Christmas Eve, Gauguin had made it clear that he was leaving the Yellow House. He later recalled how Vincent furiously ripped a sentence out of a newspaper and handed it to him: “The murderer then took flight.” Gauguin left the house but soon heard footsteps behind. Turning, he saw Vincent, holding a knife. The two men coldly regarded one another, before van Gogh slowly went home. But this wasn’t the only bad news Vincent had received that day. In the morning post was a letter from Theo announcing his engagement to his fiancée Johanna Gezina Bonger. It seems that a combination of Gauguin’s imminent departure and the possibility (at least in Vincent’s mind) of losing his brother was enough to push van Gogh’s already fragile mental state over the edge.

The next morning—Christmas Eve—Gauguin returned after spending the night in a hotel (some sources say it was a brothel) to find a crowd outside the Yellow House. “Your friend is dead!” a member of the crowd called to him as he entered. Inside he found the police and Vincent lying in a foetal position on the bed wrapped in a blood-stained blanket, his head swathed in crimson stained rags. Cautiously, Gauguin touched the body and then let out a sigh; Vincent was still alive. “Wake him gently,” Gauguin instructed as he went to collect his luggage.

Gauguin hurriedly left Arles, and Vincent was hospitalised. When discharged, the locals got together a petitioned demanding that Vincent be committed to a mental hospital. Two months later, again feeling spurned by society, van Gogh left Arles and voluntarily committed himself to the Saint-Remy-de-Mausole asylum.

Here, Vincent’s mental health deteriorated further. He was plagued by hallucinations and more than once tried to poison himself by eating oil paint and drinking turps. Between these dark episodes, he continued to work by painting his surroundings and reworking earlier paintings.

Listen, leave me in peace to continue my work. If it’s the work of a madman, well, too bad. There’s nothing I can do about it. Work distracts infinitely better than anything else and if I could throw myself into it with all my energy that could possibly be the best remedy.

Letter, 1889

Art, it seemed, was his best defence against his demons. However, during one manic state, after sending his latest paintings to Theo, he instructs his brother: “don’t hesitant to destroy all these daubs!” The ‘daubs’ he spoke of are now amongst the jewels of the biggest galleries in the world, and the fact that van Gogh was happy to endorse their destruction shows the severity of his mental state.

In May 1890, Vincent discharged himself from Saint Remy. Theo arranged for him to live in the Parisian suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise, under the care of Dr Paul Gachet. It also meant that Theo would be closer to his brother. Himself an amateur painter, Gachet had treated several other artists in the past. Vincent’s first impressions, however, were far from flattering, saying Gachet was “iller than I am, it seems to me, or let’s say just as much.” Yet Vincent soon became captivated by the surrounding countryside of Auvers-sur-Oise, with its green fields of wheat. Later in July, he wrote to Theo, describing how those “vast fields […] under turbulent skies” appeared to represent his “sadness and extreme loneliness.” Among the paintings he produced at this time was ‘Wheatfield with Crows.’ “[The] canvasses will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside,” he told Theo.

‘Wheatfield with Crows’ is a depiction of a golden field, with green bands of grass either side of a dead-end path, under a dark threatening sky. A murder of crows is flying, but it’s not clear whether are coming towards or away from the viewer. Vincent wanted the painting’s turbulent sky to express the loneliness he was feeling, but he also wanted it to express how he believed being in the countryside could fortify one’s health. Indeed, viewing the painting, I did feel a connection with the countryside, even standing in a packed art gallery. Sadly, for Vincent, his internal darkness would have the upper hand.

On 27 July 1890, just days after finishing this picture, Vincent shot himself in the chest. He died two days later. He was thirty-seven. Unable to come to terms with his brother’s death, Theo became ill and died six months later, aged thirty-three. They’re both buried in the local cemetery, side by side as they were in life.

Today, van Gogh is among the most celebrated artists of all time. Marginalised in life and a pariah in death, it wasn’t until the 1920s that he achieved the international recognition he deserves. His story is that of the tortured genius who defied the artistic conventions of the time, and in the process suffered for his art. His work has gone on to influence the likes of Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Salvador Dali. It is said that reprints of his paintings adorn the living room walls of more homes around the world than any other artist.

Vincent van Gogh was so much more than a painter—he was a prolific writer of correspondence, a poet, a teacher; a visionary. For once, the word ‘icon’ would be correct. His art and his words conveyed great emotion, and he was eloquent until the end. According to Theo, who was with his brother at his death, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever.”

Published queer author, blogger and historical crime enthusiast.

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