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 Vincent van Gogh was born into a middle-class Dutch family in 18 5 3. Thanks to an uncle's help, in his late teens he was employed for a time by the Paris-based art dealership Goupil and Company in its Hague and London galleries. His first real escape from home, though, did not take place until he was almost 25, and he still had no idea of becoming a painter. Rather, as a neophyte missionary he went to preach to impoverished mineworkers, initially in Belgium's Borinage region-one of Europe's industrial horror spots-and later in the dismal Dutch province of Drenthe to the north.

In both places Van Gogh's eccentric behavior, ill-fitting clothes, and literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount ensured that his church superiors would consider him mad and that children would follow him in the streets, jeering and throwing rocks. Prostitutes were his only female companions; soon he was undergoing the excruciating cures for gonorrhea and syphilis.

To keep his sanity, Vincent drew scenes of the terrors of the coal pits in his idle hours, and he painted a little, using his fingers to mold the colors. By 1880, his religious enthusiasm having declined, he finally resolved to devote himself to art.

At this point Van Gogh had to evade the attempts of his good-natured father to put him away for lunacy. He had an ally, however, in his younger brother Theo (a junior partner with Goupil), who truly loved him and had some idea of his talent. Whether Theo ever saw the artist's masterpiece of his early "Dutch" period, the very dark, Rembrandtesque Potato Eaters (1883-85), is unclear. Whatever the case, like all except one of Vincent's pictures, it went unsold during his lifetime. Sweetman cogently explains why even those who had a taste for works by Jean-Frangois Millet and Jules Adolphe Breton, whom Van Gogh strove to emulate, did not like the painting: "By distorting the perspective, by creating the very crudest features of his subjects, by making them stare into the void in so disturbing a way, Vincent had deliberately undermined any possibility of associating this meal with a form of peasant Mass

Van Gogh had bitter fights with his drawing masters, and consequently endured artistic isolation. "On his own, " comments Sweetman, "Vincent was forced to reinvent the wheel, trying to solve for himself all the problems most artists have encountered since time began." But his discovery of Japanese prints, and the long hours he spent contemplating Rembrandt's Jewish Bride in Amsterdam, did give him W" that his palette could be lightened.

After joining Theo in Paris in 1886, Vincent was exposed to Seurat's pointillism, which moved him to lay in his colors more freely. Although he briefly adopted a pointillist style himself, Van Gogh's emotionalism and his burning desire to create an art for the people had little affinity with the young Scurat's scientific meticulousness.

Vincent's increasingly unruly behavior and dependence on absinthe were connected with his partial conformity to the new Paris art scene, where he was competing with the likes of Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro and Emile Bernard. Theo found home life with Vincent "almost unbearable," and wished the artist "could go live by himself. "

Out of both deference to his brother and his own desire to be released from the pressures of Paris, Vincent departed in 1888 for Arles in the south of France. There he became enchanted by (in his words) "the Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlesiennes going to their first Communion, the priest in his surprice who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the people drinking absinthe... all like creatures from another world. "

In Arles Vincent found the strength to reject Seurat's classicism. Yet, deploring the fact that "all my work is now founded on Japanese art," he longed for a return to the coal pits of Borinage. After a brief confinement in an asylum Saint Remy, he began to paint his forthright portraits of Postman Rouhn and Paul Gachet (a physician and art collector who watched over him). He wished they could be hung next to the pictures of his friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris, he said, so that their "sun-steeped, sun-burned quality, tanned and air-swept, would show up still more effectively beside all that face powder and elegance. "

The unhappier Van Gogh's personal life grew, the more convinced he was that he had discovered the symbolic properties of colors. "I paint infinity," he wrote to Theo. At the time he was producing such great canvases as those depicting the Cafe I'Alcazar-whose acid green pool table he surrounded with violent yellows and reds-and his own yellow room. Even with their intense hues, a yearning for order can be discerned in what would prove to be his last pictures.

Van Gogh suffered his most crushing blow when Gauguin arrived in Arles for a short visit and was not impressed with the paintings he saw. Writing to Bernard, Gauguin bemoaned Vincent's lack of appreciation for Raphael, Ingres and Degas, and pronounced his adherence to Daumier, Theodore Rousseau and Millet intolerable. Van Gogh felt he had failed. Toward the end of his 36th year he tried twice to kill himself by swallowing his paints. His third suicide attempt a few months later-with a gun -was a success.

Van Gogh's most famous paintings including:

Blossoming Almond Tree

Starry Night

Irises

The Cafe Terrace

Starry Night over the Rhone

Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers

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