From 1881 to 1885 van Gogh lived in the Netherlands, sometimes with his parents, sometimes in lodgings, supported by his devoted brother Theo (1857–91), a picture dealer in Paris who regularly sent him money from his own small salary as well as art materials and prints. Their correspondence is an extraordinarily rich source of information on van Gogh's life and art. Initially he confined himself to drawings, and they dominate the first half of his career. He experimented with various media, including waxy black lithographic chalk, which encouraged the bold, strongly outlined style he favoured in his early work. Later he preferred pen and ink, which he used with much greater spontaneity in rapid dots and flicks that pulsate with the same kind of life as the swirling brushstrokes that came to characterize his paintings.
He took up oils in 1882 and in keeping with his humanitarian outlook he painted peasants and workers, the most famous picture from this period being The Potato Eaters (1885, Van Gogh Mus., Amsterdam). Of this he wrote to Theo: ‘I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamp-light have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour, and how they have honestly earned their food.’ In 1885 van Gogh moved to Antwerp on the advice of Anton Mauve (a cousin by marriage), and studied for some months at the Academy there. Academic instruction had little to offer such an individualist, however, and in February 1886 he moved to Paris, where he met Degas, Gauguin, Pissarro, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec. At this time his painting changed abruptly in style under the combined influence of Impressionism and Japanese woodcuts (see Ukiyo-e), losing its moralistic flavour and revelling in the beauty of colour. Unlike the Impressionists, however, he did not use colour for the reproduction of visual appearances, atmosphere, and light. ‘Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes,’ he wrote, ‘I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcibly.’ Of his Night Café (1888, Yale Univ. AG), he said: ‘I have tried to express with red and green the terrible passions of human nature.’ For a time he was influenced by Seurat's delicate pointillist manner, but he abandoned this for broad, vigorous brushstrokes.
In February 1888 van Gogh settled at Arles in the south of France, where he painted more than 200 canvases in fifteen months. During this time he lived in poverty and suffered recurrent nervous crises with hallucinations and depression. He became enthusiastic for the idea of founding an artists' co-operative at Arles and in October he was joined by Gauguin. However, as a result of a quarrel between them van Gogh suffered a crisis in which he cut off part of his left ear (24 December 1888), an event commemorated in his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889, Courtauld Gal., London); epilepsy and schizophrenia are among the causes that have been suggested to account for his mental disturbances. In May 1889 he went at his own request into an asylum at St Rémy, near Arles, but during the year he spent there he continued a fervent output of tumultuous pictures such as The Starry Night (1889, MoMA, New York). He produced 150 paintings (as well as drawings) in the course of this year.
In 1889 Theo married and in May 1890 van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, to the north of Paris, to be near him, lodging with the patron and connoisseur Dr Paul Gachet. There followed another tremendous burst of activity and during the last 70 days of his life he painted 70 canvases. But his spiritual anguish and depression became more acute and on 29 July 1890 he died from the results of a self-inflicted bullet wound; Theo died six months later and was buried alongside him in Auvers. Van Gogh sold almost nothing during his lifetime and was little known to the art world at the time of his death, but his fame grew rapidly thereafter. His influence on Expressionism, Fauvism, and early abstraction was enormous, and it can be seen in many other aspects of 20th-century art. His passionate life and unswerving devotion to his ideals have made him one of the great cultural heroes of modern times, providing the most auspicious material for the 20th-century vogue in romanticized psychological biography, notably Irving Stone's novel Lust for Life (1934) and the Hollywood film of the same name (1956).
Text Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)