Early Years

Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in the Brabant village of Zundert in the southern Netherlands, to Reverend Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. His father was a preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, and his mother was the daughter of a bookseller. Four years later, in 1857, the couple had another child, Theo (Theodorus). The two brothers went on to form an extremely close lifelong relationship, much of which is documented in an extensive written correspondence.

Young Vincent began his formal education in 1860 at a village school in Zundert. He later transferred to a boarding school in Zevenbergen, where he completed his elementary schooling. As a young boy, he began making drawings, a practice that would continue throughout his life.

At the age of thirteen years old, Vincent started his studies at a secondary school in Tilburg. However, despite his good performance learning languages (French, English and German), van Gogh left school in March 1868 during the middle of the academic year. His formal education did not continue.

In July of 1869, thanks to his uncle Cent’s assistance, van Gogh began an apprenticeship at The Hague branch of the international art dealership Goupil & Cie (headquartered in Paris). Following his training, he was transferred to the London office on Southampton Street in 1873. During this period, he began collecting illustrations from The Graphic and Illustrated London News by artists such as Frank Holl, Hubert von Herkomer and Luke Fildes. The black-and-white illustrations of contemporary social problems in Britain had a profound effect on Vincent, and possibly contributed to both his religious fervor and his desire to later become a painter of peasants.

Although he had initial success working at Goupil & Cie, his performance began to deteriorate. In 1875 his uncle and father helped arrange his transfer to the company’s office in Paris. However, things did not improve, and he was eventually terminated from his position in late March of 1876.

Following his termination, he returned to live in England, where he found an unpaid assistant teacher position at a boys’ boarding school in Ramsgate, and later a paid job at a private school in Isleworth. This, however, was short-lived, and in 1877, following his father’s advice, he returned to the Netherlands.

His uncle Cent was instrumental once again to securing a job for Vincent working in a bookstore in Dordrecht, near Rotterdam. During this time, his religious fervor, which had been steadily increasing, grew strong enough that he decided to become a minister, and that year he moved to Amsterdam to begin studies in theology. Here he spent a year, where another uncle, a minister, helped him with his studies. But this was to no avail – lacking discipline to study, Vincent dropped out of school yet again.

The following year he moved to the poor coal-mining district of Borinage in southern Belgium, where he began working as a lay preacher. His extreme religious fanaticism, which led him to give away his possessions, sleep on straw, and live like a pauper, giving him the nickname “The Christ of the Coal Mine”, displeased the church. Due to this, in 1879, Van Gogh was dismissed from his post. The failure to find success as a preacher was a devastating blow to Vincent, yet it proved fortuitous for his art.

van Gogh, c. 1866, around 13 years old

van Gogh, c. 1866, around 13 years old

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1888

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1888