What Van Gogh Did to Become a Post-Impressionist Painter

How the early years of Vincent’s life made him a leading artist

Christopher P Jones
9 min readNov 23, 2021

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Detail of ‘Old Man with a Top Hat’ (1881) by Vincent van Gogh. Crayon, pencil, ink and paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands Image source WikiArt

The appeal of Vincent Van Gogh shows no signs of fading. The sense of Van Gogh’s artistic genius is more than ever tied to a personal heroism, defined by his short tragic life, the intense work rate of his last few years, and the sickness that became evermore manifest. The allure of this dialectic — pain and productivity — has coloured Van Gogh’s life with the hue of folklore, as if we can read from his story a paradigm of creativity itself.

Yet I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Van Gogh’s draughtsmanship and deft handling of colour are evidence of a deeply methodical turn of mind, and not, as the critic Robert Hughes assessed, “the vulgar image of a madman issuing orgasmic squirts of yellow and blue at the dictation of his lunacy.”

There is much more to learn about the man and his art. By tracing Van Gogh’s movements during his younger days, it’s possible to see that the Dutchman was a subtle and sophisticated collector of influences, both artistically and socially.

A Youthful Wanderer

The youthful Van Gogh was a keen traveller and rarely stayed for more than a few years in any one place. Born in 1853, at the age of 16 he had left his boarding school and found work with Goupil & Cie at The Hague, a leading art dealership with headquarters in Paris that dealt mainly in art reproductions.

These days, art dealers might sell reproductions in the form of high-quality photographic prints. In Van Gogh’s day, copies of artworks were in the form of engravings, etchings, and lithographs.

The young Van Gogh was fond of collecting such prints himself, for pleasure and as tools to learn from. These articles undoubtedly helped shape his artistic style, as the bold lines of his early sketches and the graphic quality of many of his later paintings demonstrate.

By age 20, Van Gogh had completed his training with Goupil and travelled to England to work at the London branch.

He engaged eagerly with the culture he found in Britain at the time. “I love London,” he wrote to his brother Theo. He read Charles Dickens, John…

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