Art and Faith
Wrestling with his desire to be useful, in 1880 Van Gogh decides he can become an artist and still be in God's service. He writes: "To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture."
Van Gogh moves to Brussels and considers enrolling at the art academy, but instead tries to study independently, sometimes in the company of Dutch artist Anthon van Rappard. Because Van Gogh has no livelihood, Theo, who is at Goupil's Paris branch, sends him money. He was to do this regularly until the end of Van Gogh's life.
In Etten in 1881, Van Gogh falls in love with his cousin Kee Vos-Stricker, who rejects his advances. His dogged pursuit of Kee causes a rift with his parents. His intense religiosity begins to dissipate.
Learning to Paint
Van Gogh spends several weeks in The Hague in late 1881 taking painting lessons from his cousin by marriage, Anton Mauve, a leading member of the Hague School. Mauve introduces him to watercolor and oil technique.
After an argument with his father, Van Gogh leaves his parents' house in Etten. He rents a studio and takes additional lessons from Mauve in 1882. Van Gogh scandalizes his family and Mauve when he takes his model, a pregnant, unmarried former prostitute named Sien Hoornik, and her young daughter into his household.
Van Gogh makes his first independent watercolor and painted studies in the summer of 1882. In the same year, he receives his first commission. His uncle Cornelis van Gogh asks him to produce 12 pen and ink drawings of The Hague.
The "Peasant Painter"
In September 1883 Van Gogh travels to the province of Drenthe in the northeastern Netherlands. He paints the bleak landscape and peasant workers, but lonely and lacking proper materials, he soon leaves for Nuenen, in Brabant, to live with his parents.
Following in the footsteps of Millet and Breton, by 1884 Van Gogh resolves to be a painter of peasant life. He sketches and paints the weavers of Nuenen and completes 40 painted studies of peasant heads.
Tensions develop when Van Gogh accuses Theo of not making a sincere enough effort to sell the paintings he sent him. Theo admonishes Van Gogh that his darkly colored paintings are not in the current Parisian style, where Impressionist artists are now using a bright palette.
On March 26, 1885, Vincent's father dies suddenly from a stroke. Shortly afterward, Van Gogh completes the Potato Eaters, his first large-scale composition and first masterpiece.
Arrival in Antwerp
In part because local clergymen continually thwart his attempts to find models, Van Gogh leaves the Netherlands for the Belgian city of Antwerp in November 1885. He will never return to his native country.
Van Gogh is invigorated by Antwerp's urbaneness: "I find here the friction of ideas I want." He has access to better art supplies, the opportunity to draw from nude models, and is exposed to the substantial collections of Dutch and Belgian art in the city's museums and galleries, particularly the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens. Among the exotic goods entering Europe through Antwerp are Japanese woodblock prints, which Van Gogh begins to collect.
In January 1886 Van Gogh enrolls in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp. He grows impatient with the pedantic style of academic training, and within two months he withdraws.