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Profiles in Pipes –– Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh (3/30/1853 –– 7/29/1890) was one of the most influential artists of the last 500 years. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate Van Gogh’s effect on modern art and Expressionism. While he famously received little acclaim during his brief life and career, one of his paintings, “Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet,” sold for $83 million in 1990. Some of his most revered works are now considered priceless. 

Van Gogh was born into an upper-middle-class family in Zundert, Netherlands. At an early age, he developed a thoughtful appreciation for nature. As a young man, he traveled to London to work as an art dealer. During this time, Van Gogh experienced the first instance of depression and mental instability that would plague him throughout his life. Shortly after, he attempted to join a Protestant ministry; he failed. Van Gogh then left to do missionary work in an impoverished town in southwestern Belgium called Borinage. There, he gave up his comfortable lifestyle to live in solidarity with the destitute townsfolk. For this, he was again rejected by church authorities. 

Around this time –– 1880 –– Van Gogh began to paint seriously. Though he died in 1890, his work underwent several massive transitions and upgrades across this relatively short time. This is because Van Gogh was an avid consumer of art and a dedicated student. Van Gogh drew inspiration from many artists and art styles, ranging from Rembrandt to Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec, to contemporary Japanese prints. 

Van Gogh’s art also evolved because of upheavals in his own life. In 1883, his cousin rejected his marriage proposal. And he suffered from fits of rage and despair. His beloved brother, Theo, described living with Vincent as “almost unbearable” in 1886. In 1888, Van Gogh entered into a violent argument with a friend and fellow painter, Paul Gauguin. Though the exact details are unknown –– whether Gauguin severed Van Gogh’s ear in a fight or whether Van Gogh himself cut part of his ear –– it is clear that Van Gogh was in the midst of severe mental upheaval. By 1889, he had entered the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in France. Although he was unwell, Van Gogh continued to produce some of his finest work near the very end of his life –– including “The Starry Night,” which was finished a mere 13 months before his death. 

Van Gogh found comfort during his brief and tumultuous life in pipe smoking. He smoked regularly and even included his pipe in several self-portraits. He referred to his pipe as a “trusted friend” and once wrote, "The most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed.” Van Gogh also painted a famous image of a skull smoking a lit cigarette, probably with humorous intent. 

Van Gogh died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in July of 1890 at age 37. After his life, his paintings and his struggles became massively influential to global artists. He is perhaps the best real-life example of the “tortured artist.”


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