Becoming Van Gogh

This past weekend, I decided to forego sleeping in on a Sunday morning and instead headed to downtown Denver to see the last day of the Van Gogh exhibit, “Becoming Van Gogh.”

What I knew from Van Gogh wasn’t much – mostly the basic dirty details of one missing ear, possible mental illness, and the reproductions of his works that I’d seen mass-produced. What I learned about Van Gogh in the exhibit left such an impression on me that it has forever changed my life.

The rumors and stories surrounding Van Gogh are plentiful: an artist plagued by madness who sliced his own ear off and presented it as a gift to a prostitute at a brothel (I suspect she just happened to be the best seamstress in the city and he was looking to get it reattached), possibly an artist who shot himself in the chest, or one who was shot by a friend or lover. Or, an artist who was overcoming and dealing with his own demons who was accidentally shot while painting in a field (this is what the most recent research suggests according to the curators at the Denver Art Museum).

As I viewed Van Gogh’s amazing successes and struggles, I stopped wondering so much about these incidents and focused only on the intimate details of his love for art. I walked slowly through the exhibit looking closely at each stroke of his brush, clearly seeing how year by year Van Gogh grew into the artist that we would come to know. An artist who obviously lived and breathed art (so much so that he often forgot to eat) and embraced new artistic concepts. His signature was not the “Van Gogh” that we know him by, but only a simple and humble “Vincent.” With or without an ear…with or without madness, Vincent Van Gogh was one of the greatest artists in the world. And an artist who wore his heart on his sleeve.

The exhibit started off with the beginning stages of his life where he began his journey to becoming “Van Gogh.” His life began in a small village in the Netherlands in 1853 and continued on to carry him to Paris, The Hague, England, Brussels, and many other places. In fact, Van Gogh spent much of his life traveling between these cities acquiring different positions: an art dealer, a teacher, and a preacher’s assistant, all the while admiring art and developing his own skills.

As I walked along with the large crowd that was currently stopping at each work, I noticed they kept a fair distance back, which struck me as odd as there weren’t any gates or ropes suggesting we should stay back. I am a curious person by nature and wanted to see the patterns of texture that were created by his own hands. It was a struggle not to reach out and touch the paintings – there is something about being so near something so obviously created from absolute devotion.

As I walked from room to room, each area showcasing a specific time in Van Gogh’s life I learned that Van Gogh wasn’t afraid to try any current style of art. He began his art career at age 27, working with only black and whites and focusing on figures. He’d wanted to master these before adding color and it was suggested that adding color was a bit intimidating for Van Gogh. However, once he’d brought color into his works there was no stopping him. He studied scientific books on color and then applied this to his works using complementary colors to create mood and vibrance. At an art class where they were working with nude busts he became irritated with his teacher who he felt wanted everyone’s works to look the same. So he abandoned that and went back to doing his painting and sketches in his own way (yay for rebels!).

Van Gogh seemed to thrive on all of the available art styles of the time from Pointillism, Japonisme, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and just about any other kind of art style that he came across. Van Gogh is hard to throw into one “box,” but I suppose he is mostly associated with Post-Impressionism. What you don’t hear much about is what an incredible writer he was. His letters are just as beautiful as his paintings. What Van Gogh really is… is completely unique.

He loved to paint people that he saw in his daily life: peasants working in fields, prostitutes, booksellers, postmen, and fishermen. He seemed to take pleasure in the natural day-to-day activities of life. I wondered if Van Gogh had mastered the art of “living in the moment.” His work certainly suggests so.

I had known of Van Gogh vaguely, only hearing the sad details of his life and never questioning whether they were real or not. I’d gone through my own life feeling that he was a sad and lonely man, perhaps haunted by madness. The truth might actually be that he cut his ear off to make a point to Paul Gauguin (who he was with at that time) that he’d had enough of his incessant babbling! Or, maybe it was the popular rumor that Paul had cut off Vincent’s ear with a sword? I’m fairly certain we will never know since Van Gogh did not discuss the incident in any of his many letters.

The truth has revealed Van Gogh to be a loving and devoted man to both his family and his art. Everyone has struggles and everyone can feel down or sad, but what impressed me about Van Gogh is that he never quit. He never gave up what he loved. Even while in the psychiatric hospital he continued to paint what he could see from his room, taking care to not include the bars on his windows in his works.

It was shortly after this time and shortly before his death that he began painting masterpiece after masterpiece. And that is quite an inspiration.

If you’d like more information on Vincent van Gogh, please visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

I also strongly suggest this free iPhone app Yours, Vincent where you can listen to letters written by Van Gogh to his family and friends.

Check out these Van Gogh inspired works from our Redbubble Community!

Works by Terrylightfoot, Anthea Slade, VenusOak, schiabor, Marilyn Brown, BLYTHART, Mary Sedici, luvapples downunder, Richard Pattenden, & metronomad

- Jen, The Scarlet Samurai


  • Susan Vang
    Susan Vangover 1 year ago

    His lovely brother Theo always supported him. Family is awesome like that sometimes. I wish I was there! Thanks Jen.

  • Hi Susan! Thanks for reading! Yes, his brother Theo (and his wife Jo) were amazing and so supportive of him. His entire story and history was very touching. And you’re right… family IS awesome like that sometimes. -Jen

    – Redbubble Community Team

  • Ann Warrenton
    Ann Warrentonover 1 year ago

    Thank you so much for the story and information. I suppose your aware was known for his Sunflower images.
    Here is a print of his I have.

  • Thanks for reading, Ann! He did paint some gorgeous flowers… especially his sunflowers.

    – Redbubble Community Team

  • Owed to Nature
    Owed to Natureover 1 year ago

    This is wonderful Jen! I too know/knew little of him other than popular myth and legend. But as I started to read your words, I felt as if I started walking alongside you as his work opened your eyes, mind and heart. His work, his life and your words tell a simply powerful story… powerful for its simplicity… and how universally it relates to each of us. Thank you Jen. Thank you Vincent. …Sylvia

  • Thank you so much for your wonderful comment, Sylvia! Very much appreciated! -Jen

    – Redbubble Community Team

  • berndt2
    berndt2over 1 year ago

    thanks for that – really cool reading (and I’m certainly inspired!)

  • Thanks so much! That is what we are here for… to bring inspiration to our awesome community! – Jen

    – Redbubble Community Team

  • TomBaumker
    TomBaumkerover 1 year ago

    Nice thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks so much, Tom! – Jen

    – Redbubble Community Team

  • wolftinz
    wolftinzover 1 year ago

    Great summary of the exhibit and the nature of the man. Thanks, jan I enjoyed read his.

  • Robin King
    Robin Kingabout 1 year ago

    So interesting!! Thank you for sharing this!!!!

  • Judy Crayton
    Judy Craytonabout 1 year ago

    Thank you so much for your essay Jen. And the pics from everyone. I also got interested and read all his letters. He was very different from the little that I had heard. A full person, even though a small part of him was broken. He was a deep Person. I’m glad God gave him to us for a short while.