How to Never Give Up on Yourself – Lessons from History’s Most Tortured Soul

Painter Vincent van Gogh lived a life of poverty, rejection and obscurity only to become one of the greatest painters of all time. This tortured soul is resurrected here – to teach us how we can hold onto our dreams and turn them into reality, in a modern world that’s fighting us every step of the way.

“How can I be of use in the world? Can’t I serve some purpose and be of any good?”

Many of us ask what the world can do for us. But Vincent van Gogh did the opposite, wondering what he could do for the world. These important words were written by the artist in one of many letters he wrote to his brother. Despite his depressed state, van Gogh did not give up on the idea that he could make a contribution. We can too – regardless of what else is happening in our busy lives.

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

In his life time, only one of van Gogh’s 900 paintings was sold. His brother Theo was an art dealer who displayed “the Red Vineyard” in 1890 in Brussels. It sold for what today would be equivalent to $1,000. (The purchaser was a woman named Anna Boch, who was also a painter and art collector). That lack of success did not stop van Gogh. His insecurities told him he wasn’t a real painter. But he studied, practiced and invented new ways of painting. Ignore the voice within you that says you “cannot” by going ahead and doing it anyway.

“I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people”.

Deep down, Vincent van Gogh knew it. We know it too – that what this life is all about are not materialistic things, money or success at any cost. It’s about people. Van Gogh, despite his mental illness, was a spiritual being who worked hard to make people happy by looking at his art work. Today, as we pursue our careers, making people the priority will give us the meaning we seek.

Vincent van Gogh started out in life on the wrong side of the tracks.

The little van Gogh would look out his bedroom window each morning only to see a tombstone with his name on it. It was a year before his birth that his mother had given birth to another baby, also named Vincent. But the first Vincent was stillborn. The grieving parents buried the boy in their backyard. And Vincent the second would see his name in death.

It was perhaps that unusual beginning that made him awkward and distant. His sister Elizabeth later wrote that Vincent was “a serious, sensitive boy who preferred solitude to the companionship of family and friends”.

“Strange” was the word used to describe van Gogh by some who knew him, including the women he would later try to seduce. All would ultimately reject him.

There was one woman who believed in Vincent van Gogh: his mother Anna, who encouraged young Vincent to draw and paint. (A few of van Gogh’s early drawings survived but show almost no artistic talent). Anna would outlive her son by 17 years and witness his remarkable transformation from insecure outcast in life to respected genius in death. (Despite supporting her son, Anna became distraught over his troubles in life and sadly, tossed many of his works into the garbage).

Vincent van Gogh was unlucky both in the pursuit of work, and the pursuit of love.

As a teenager working for his uncle’s art dealership in London, he fell in love with the daughter of his landlady, a young woman named Eugenie Loyer. He proposed to Eugenie, then learned she was already engaged to someone else. That didn’t stop van Gogh who pursued her relentlessly, only to have her outright reject him.

It would be the first of many rejections that would exacerbate his already sensitive and unstable mental state.

Van Gogh’s despondency over Eugenie’s rejection affected his work at the art dealership. He became belligerent, showing up in shabby clothes, and angrily telling customers that all of the art in the store was worthless. To escape his frustrations, he went to spend Christmas with his family without telling his employer. When he returned to work, he was fired on the spot.

Vincent van Gogh’s 1886 painting “A pair of shoes” showcases his innovative use of paint. (Note the signature in the top left corner). Art historians believe that van Gogh found the shoes in a Paris flea market. But when he tried them on, they didn’t fit, so he decided to paint them. 

Depressed and searching for answers, Vincent van Gogh turned to religion (which he hoped would help him find happiness as well as a vocation). He studied to enter the School of Theology in Amsterdam, but was rejected because he refused to learn Latin, calling it a “dead language.” He volunteered for the Church of Belgium but took things too far, becoming a fanatic and calling himself a “peasant.” He chose to live in a shack and gave sermons nobody could understand. Church officials asked him to leave.

Throughout these early failures, van Gogh would occasionally do small sketches, which occupied his mind (likely preventing him from falling further into despair).

It was his younger brother Theo, his best and only friend in the world, who encouraged the troubled van Gogh to pursue his art work. Theo sent money to support his brother, a move originally designed to be temporary but which lasted van Gogh’s entire life. (Theo scolded van Gogh for spending some of the money on prostitutes but despite this, named his first child after van Gogh).

The two brothers Vincent van Gogh (left) and Theo (right). Van Gogh expressed himself not only through his paintings, but many letters to his brother. Vincent wrote to Theo 651 times. Theo wrote back 39 times. Van Gogh’s letters are highly articulate and provide a remarkable glimpse into his thinking. (Van Gogh also corresponded with other family members, including his younger sister Willemien to whom he wrote: “I for one need above all just to have a good laugh.” )

At age 27, Vincent van Gogh picked up his paint brush. He studied the masters of his day. He attempted to copy the great French impressionists, imitating their delicate strokes and precise lines. But the results were less than impressive.

So van Gogh went in another direction, towards “expressionism” in which the goal was to show emotion, rather than copy real life. He dared to use bold, dramatic brush strokes and bright colors to express feeling.

Vincent van Gogh, previously directionless, was now determined to make his mark. He studied Japanese art, tried his hand at water colors, and grabbed ideas from all sorts of styles.

Armed with new confidence, van Gogh moved to southern France to live on his own and perfect his skills. But he spent what little money he had on paint supplies.

He survived, just barely, on coffee, bread and large amounts of alcohol. It is said he sipped on paint thinner. And when out of food, ate some of his paint.

While Vincent van Gogh was physically and mentally ill, he was intelligent and well-intentioned. He saw himself as an artistic ambassador for poor people, leading to his first major work “Potato eaters” (shown here and painted in 1885). In the painting, he wanted to show the plight of peasants. In his day, the painting was ignored. After his death, it was regarded as a masterpiece.

The story is well known that Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute. But in 2009, two German researchers made the claim that it was another famous painter, Paul Gaugin, who cut off van Gogh’s ear after a heated argument. (Gaugin lived with van Gogh for a period and some historians say it was van Gogh who first attacked Gaugin with a knife).

It was shortly after that incident that van Gogh, by now suffering from delusions, knew he wasn’t well and checked himself into an asylum.

While at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in France, van Gogh painted between bouts of severe depression. It was here that he produced one of his most famous works – “Starry Night”. Art experts surmise that the swirling lines of the sky likely represented van Gogh’s mental state. The same style is in all of the paintings he did in the 2 years spent at the asylum.

In the painting “Starry Night” we see the view that van Gogh saw when he looked out the window of his asylum room. The artist said of the painting: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” The star to which van Gogh was referring (top right corner in the painting) has been determined to be the planet Venus (which scientists say would have been shining brightly in June of 1889).

Vincent van Gogh – despite his troubled existence, clung to his painting, believing that one day he would make it.

But he was never to personally experience success.

Believing his life was worthless, he shot himself in the chest on July 27, 1890 at the young age of 37. He survived for two days. When Theo, his brother, came to see him, he was amazed to find van Gogh sitting up, alert and talkative – only to witness him then suddenly collapse and die. Theo would die just six months later.

Today, experts believe van Gogh suffered from bipolar disorder, made worse by malnutrition, insomnia, alcohol and chronic overwork.

Vincent van Gogh showed the world that quality will always rise to the top. And that passion with a purpose will endure. His legacy of determination is one from which we can all learn.

Theo’s wife Johanna was a fan of Vincent van Gogh’s work and collected as many of his paintings as she could after his death. She arranged to have them put on display at a Paris art show on March 17, 1901. It was there that finally, the art world and the public would recognize the genius of Vincent van Gogh. His fame grew quickly and today, he is regarded by many as the most influential painter of all time.


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