Read Vincent's letters
Follow every word in the intimate exchange of letters between Vincent and Theo.
5 pivotal moments
It can be difficult to stay positive in challenging times. But the future is often sunnier if you look on the bright side. This applies just as much to us in the 21st century as to Vincent in the 19th century.
Vincent was nearly 23, had been working for an international art dealers for six and a half years, and had just heard that he would lose his job in a couple of months’ time. In 1876, he wrote to Theo:
'So far I’m really rather in the dark about what I should do, but we must try and keep hope and courage alive.’
And soon after, he told his brother that he was busy looking for a new job:
‘I read the advertisements in the English newspapers and have already written to a couple, we’re hoping for a godsend.’
Vincent didn’t give up hope. He kept applying for positions, and his persistence was rewarded: shortly before leaving Paris, he was invited to start his trial period as a teacher at a school in England.
At the age of 26, Vincent had had all sorts of jobs, but he still hadn’t found his calling. In 1880, he lived in poverty alongside mineworkers in the Borinage region of Belgium. For a while, he had little to no contact with his family.
After 10 months of silence, Vincent wrote a letter to his brother Theo. He reflected on his life, and described what kept him going in challenging times:
‘… on the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed. But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. That goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting...’
With Theo’s help, Vincent’s quest brought him to drawing and painting – the road that he would follow for the rest of his life.
At the age of 28, Vincent fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos. In the 19th century, this wouldn’t have been considered strange. But Kee didn’t feel the same way: ‘No, nay, never’ was her answer when Vincent declared his love.
But Vincent didn’t give up easily: ‘for the time being I regard that “no, nay, never” as a piece of ice that I press to my heart to thaw’, he wrote to Theo.
Vincent’s persistence was in vain. But Kee’s rejection didn’t crush his hopes of finding love: ‘If you wake up in the morning and you’re not alone and you see in the twilight a fellow human being, it makes the world so much more agreeable.'
Vincent found such a ‘fellow human being’ a year later in The Hague: Sien Hoornik. Sien regularly posed for him, and was expecting her second child. Vincent hoped to marry her, as they were very close. He lived together with Sien and her children for a year, but they never married.
Early in his artistic career, Vincent mentioned being hopeful of quickly producing ‘something saleable’. And he did: in the Netherlands, he was commissioned to draw cityscapes of The Hague, and in Paris, he sold his first painting to a paint and art dealer. But aside from that, he had little success:
‘If you’re a painter, you’re taken either for a madman or for a rich man. A cup of milk costs you one franc, a slice of bread and butter two, and paintings don’t sell’, he wrote to his brother Theo in 1888.
Vincent didn’t find life as an artist easy, and it appears as if he accepted that his work would not sell. But he was convinced that his desire to paint would bring results.
He made a hopeful prediction about his paintings: ‘The day will come, though, when people will see that they’re worth more than the cost of the paint and my subsistence, very meagre in fact, that we put into them’.
At the age of 35, Vincent wanted to establish an artists’ colony in Arles in the South of France. His dream appeared to become reality when Paul Gauguin joined him at the famous Yellow House. But tensions, differences of opinion and stress mentally exhausted Vincent. Shortly before Christmas, in a state of complete confusion, he cut off his left ear.
Vincent was admitted to the hospital, but already returned to work in mid-January 1889. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: ‘I didn’t know that one could break one’s brain and that afterwards that got better’.
Unfortunately, this isn’t how things turned out: after suffering a number of attacks of his illness, Vincent admitted himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy. But he remained firmly focused on the future:
‘I have a certain hope that (...) a time will come when I’ll produce again, although in the asylum’.
And that time indeed came: in Saint-Rémy, Vincent made some 150 paintings.