5 anecdotes about Vincent Van Gogh

Coline Lehembre
Publié le 30 May 2023
5 anecdotes about Vincent Van Gogh

Very little known during his lifetime, considered a major and essential artist of the 19th century, Vincent van Gogh was a tormented painter with a tragic destiny. Today, Museum TV presents you with 5 anecdotes about the author of "The Starry Night."

The Starry Night. Vincent van Gogh (1889)
The Starry Night. Vincent van Gogh (1889)

1. His true face is (almost) unknown to us

The painter, having reservations about this modern instrument called photography, left very few clues for historians wishing to know his face. He, who loved to paint self-portraits, was particularly reluctant to have his own taken.

For many years, museum curators and art specialists agreed that there were only two existing photographs of Vincent van Gogh. One taken at the age of 13 and the other at 19. In November 2018, it was proven that one of these photographs was actually that of his older brother, Théodore.

Theo Van Gogh
On the left, the photo that was believed to be of Vincent, but was actually that of his brother Theodore. On the right, Theodore is shown at the age of 32. © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The second photograph was taken in The Hague in January 1873, a few months before he started his first job abroad as an art dealer in London. This photograph of the artist at 19 years old is to this day the only formally identified photograph of Van Gogh.

The only photo formally identified as that of Vincent Van Gogh, aged 19

© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

A discordant photograph

Furthermore, another photograph brings uncertainty about a possible identification of Vincent Van Gogh as an adult. This photograph of the Nabis group at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1887 or 1888 could be the second one that history has of the artist. The photograph, found in the archives of the National Institute of Art History, depicts 34 painters, all students, and bears the inscription "Cormon & his students." Among the individuals in the photograph, notable figures such as Sérusier and Gauguin can be recognized.

"Cormon & his students" (1887 ou 1888)
© INHA Library

However, there is doubt surrounding the authentication of the author of the famous "Sunflowers." Some historians refute this hypothesis, arguing that the self-portraits of the painter depict him as a man with a full head of hair, in contrast to the balding individual in the photograph. So, is the person in this group portrait truly Vincent Van Gogh? However, the location, date (if it is indeed a photo from 1887), and the people surrounding him seem to align!

Vincent Van Gogh photo
© INHA Library

The painter still has many secrets to reveal!

2. Van Gogh: a painter-writer?

World-renowned for his painting talents, many are unaware that Vincent Van Gogh was also an avid writer. Suffering from mental illness, he had a constant need to share his ideas and emotions through letters. Many letters from Van Gogh have survived, along with some of the responses. The total preserved correspondence today includes 902 letters, with 819 written by the hand of the painter and 83 addressed to him, according to the Van Gogh Museum.

The majority of the preserved letters consist of correspondence Van Gogh wrote to his sister Wilhelmina, his mother, as well as his artist friends such as Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, Anton Mauve, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Anthon van Rappard. Over 650 of these letters are addressed to his brother Theo. Theo was his closest correspondent, serving as both a brother, best friend, advisor, and loyal supporter. The artist would often end his letters to his brother with "yours truly, Vincent."

Letters from Vincent Van Gogh
Extract from a letter in French to Theodore Van Gogh

© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Letters written in French

While he took great pleasure in putting his thoughts and feelings on paper, Van Gogh remained a passionate lover of art. Thus, he would sometimes add to his letters compositions, sketches depicting the works he was working on at that time. Over 240 sketches have been found in the letters and are preserved at the Van Gogh Museum. Often, these were quick sketches made with a pen, but sometimes they were more detailed color drawings. When he couldn't add color, the painter would often describe the nuances on his sketches to give his correspondent an idea of the painting.

Letters from Vincent Van Gogh
Letter with sketch

© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Finally, it is interesting to note that even though Vincent was a Dutch artist, he wrote approximately one-third of his letters in French. By the end of the 19th century, French was the most important international language. Coming from a notable bourgeois family in the region, the painter had received a strict education that included the learning of the language of Molière. However, it was only after his move to Paris in 1886 that he fully embraced writing in French.

Indeed, according to the Van Gogh Museum, Vincent signed his paintings with his first name because the French had difficulty pronouncing his last name.

3. Known after his death, but how?

It was his brother's wife, Johanna Bonger, known as "Jo", who helped make Van Gogh a famous artist in posterity.

Indeed, after the death of Theo in 1891, just six months after Vincent's passing, his widow relocated to Bussum, about thirty kilometers from Amsterdam. Upon her departure, she recognized the significance of taking Vincent's art collection with her. She was aware that her late husband had tirelessly sought to raise public awareness of his brother's work and innovative artistic vision. Johanna Bonger understood the importance of preserving and promoting Vincent's art, ensuring that his legacy would continue to inspire and captivate future generations.

Jo Bonger Van Gogh
Jo Bonger & her son, Vincent

© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Jo Van Gogh has kept a diary since she was 17. It's full of details about her life with Theo, but also her relationship with Vincent, and gives us a glimpse of life at that time.

In memory of her husband, Jo has sought to raise public awareness of Vincent's paintings. With the help of artist friends, she organised exhibitions to raise the profile of her brother-in-law's work.

Until her death in 1925, she made numerous sales of her brother-in-law's artworks to collections accessible to the public, as well as worldwide. Vincent's talent is finally appreciated for its true worth.

4. Without black paint?

Van Gogh worked extensively with pigments and had a particular concern for capturing natural darkness without using black. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh expressed his satisfaction in having painted "Café Terrace at Night" using only blue, green, and violet.

5. Blackmail by candlelight

Van Gogh was in love with one of his cousins, Kee. Unfortunately for him, she rejected his advances. One day, during a visit to Kee's parents, Vincent Van Gogh placed his hand on a candle flame, hoping to capture their attention and convey his love for their daughter. Unfortunately, his act of sacrifice did not succeed in changing his cousin's feelings.

He never knew it, but to this day he is still considered one of the greatest geniuses of his time!

Visit our streaming platform to find our programmes dedicated to Van Gogh.