Monday, March 30, 2009

Happy Birthday, Vincent!!

Today is Vincent Van Gogh's 156th birthday. Our world is a more beautiful place for him having lived in it. Although fame and success eluded him during his tragically short life, he is now one of the most recognizable, influential artists in the world. He began his journey as a minister in a depressed coal mining village in Belgium, but was soon dismissed from his post for "overzealousness" (a character trait that followed him his entire life). He decided to remain there and began painting "slice of life" scenes of the people who lived there. His work during this time was punctuated by somber colors-browns, umbers, ochres-nothing like what we know of his famous work today. Eventually he moved to Paris to be with his brother Theo, an art dealer. While there, he was introduced to the Impressionists, and brightened his color palette and developed that famous frenetic, passionate brushstroke we are all familiar with.

History has labeled him as difficult, selfish, insane, abrasive, and abusive. The idea of the tortured genius seems to have been taylor made for him. In fact, there are medical reasons for his behavior. He was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, and the famous ear-cutting incident is now believed to have occurred during a seizure, not in a fit of madness and emotional rage. Scholars also believe he was bi-polar, although during Vincent's life, there was no official diagnosis for his periods of frenetic behavior that were often followed by deep depression and suicide attempts. It is also believed he was a victim of Thujone poisoning. Thujone is the main ingredient in absinthe, a very toxic alcoholic drink that was popular with artists of the time for its hallucinogenic properties. Vincent drank absinthe to combat his depression-in reality it aggravated his epilepsy. Finally, it is quite probable that Vincent suffered from lead poisoning. Paint at that time was made with lead, and Vincent had a habit of eating paint chips and nibbling on the ends of his brushes.

It has always been believed that Vincent lived solely for his art, much to the detriment of his relationships and personal well being. His relationship with Theo has always been viewed as one of the loving,long suffering younger brother taking responsibity for the tortured, brilliant older brother who was unable to care for himself. Scholars are now piecing together a different view of that relationship. The commonly held views of the two brothers are now being reversed, to a degree. It is now being suggested that Theo was actually quite wild, having lived with several mistresses and eventually going insane and dying from syphillis, while Vincent, on the other hand, is seen as more savvy and "in control" of how he wanted to be viewed by both his contemporaries and posterity. His suicide attempt from a gunshot did not cause his immediate death, and it is believed that that was intentional on his part. After he shot himself in the chest, he lingered long enough for Theo to arrive and spend his last moments with him-evidence of the enduring love shared between the two.

Whatever the truth may be, Vincent Van Gogh left a prolific amount of work behind, and although he only sold one painting his entire life, he has now taken his rightful place in art history as the brilliant master he always was.

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