Five Reasons Why Van Gogh is Famous (And Deserves To Be!)

Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and “Starry Nights” are two of the world’s most recognizable and beloved paintings. Unfortunately, Van Gogh is also famous for being a “mad artist”, ending his life by suicide. But is this why Van Gogh is famous? Does he deserve to be remembered for his art or his life?

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), the Dutch post-Impressionist artist, is one of the most famous painters in the history of Western Art. Van Gogh is known for his dramatic use of color and bold, expressive brushwork. He is also known for his mental illness and eventual suicide.

Although Van Gogh’s life is both fascinating and tragic, it’s for his artistic genius that he is most famous. One of the most influential artists ever, Van Gogh’s legacy derives from his ground-breaking use of color, dramatic and vigorous brushwork, and unusual subject matter choice for his paintings. 

An experimental, innovative and fearless artist, Van Gogh was far ahead of his time and is justly one of the most famous artists the world has ever seen. 

Let’s take a closer look at five Reasons why Van Gogh is famous.

Vincent van Gogh self-portrait.
Vincent van Gogh self-portrait (CC).

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1. Van Gogh is famous for being mentally ill

Let’s start with what most people know about Van Gogh – he cut off his earlobe and sent it to a prostitute, and that he later committed suicide by shooting himself. 

Unfortunately, the stereotype of the “mad artist” or “troubled genius” is fueled by beliefs that insanity and creativity go hand in hand. However, today we know that Van Gogh probably had bipolar disorder and experienced bouts of depression and psychosis. 

In addition, he often neglected his physical health and drank and smoked heavily. He was admitted to mental hospitals and did receive treatment for his mental illness, limited though it was at the time. 

Tragically, he succumbed to depression and took his own life at the age of 37.

2. Van Gogh is famous because he only sold one painting during his life

Apart from his so-called madness, Van Gogh is also famous because he never achieved commercial success during his lifetime. He was the classic “starving artist”. 

He produced over 1000 drawings and 900 paintings in his ten-year career, feverishly producing up to four works per week. Although his work was exhibited to some limited critical acclaim, he only sold one painting during his lifetime, contributing to his extreme depression. 

Van Gogh’s lack of popularity during his life is largely because his work was ahead of its time – his artwork spanned different artistic approaches, from Impressionism to Pointillism, to Expressionism. He was highly experimental in his approach and so came to be appreciated only after his death.

All of Van Gogh’s fame came after his death and is mostly due to his sister-in-law’s efforts to exhibit his work. During Van Gogh’s life, his brother Theo (an art dealer) worked tirelessly to promote his work and supported Vincent financially and emotionally. 

Unfortunately, Theo died only six months after Vincent, leaving his wife, Jo Bonger, with a baby son and an apartment full of paintings. 

She soon made the strategic move to the town of Bussum in the Netherlands (home to many artists and writers), where she began exhibiting Van Gogh’s work. In addition, she hosted large exhibitions of Van Gogh’s paintings in Amsterdam and Paris and published a collection of letters between the two brothers.

By the time of her death in 1925, Jo had sold many of Van Gogh’s paintings to museums and collectors worldwide – and made Vincent van Gogh world-famous in the process. The remaining paintings owned by the Van Gogh family became the basis of the collection at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands.

3. Van Gogh is famous for his unique use of color

Van Gogh's oil painting "Starry Night".
Van Gogh’s famous oil painting “Starry Night” (CC).

An excellent artist in the realistic genre, Van Gogh was later influenced by Impressionism. This artistic movement aimed to capture real-life scenes, often outside, using color and quick brushstrokes. This new style contrasted completely with the staid, historical realism that was popular at the time, with its depictions of mythological themes in dark, dull colors.

Van Gogh’s work was often regarded as outrageous and wild during his lifetime, but his use of color was extremely influential, as with the Impressionists. However, Van Gogh went beyond the work of the Impressionists and is referred to as a Post-Impressionist or Expressionist, whose focus was on expressing the gritty, emotional chaos of life – and color was one of the tools he used.

Van Gogh’s use of flat panels of color was influenced by Japanese art, as is seen in “The Bedroom”, where he uses color to express repose and rest. He also used contrasting colors and black to create contours and shadows, such as in “Wheatfield with Crows”.

His five famous paintings of sunflowers are also good examples of his use of color – these paintings are largely painted using only shades of yellow but are still vibrant and eloquent, showing the beauty yet fragility of the subject.

Van Gogh’s revolutionary use of color influenced later artists, particularly the Fauvists, such as Matisse, and German Expressionists, such as Marc and Kirchner. Later Abstract Expressionists, such as Kandinsky, also cited Van Gogh as an influence on their color work.

4. Van Gogh is famous for his expressive brushwork

Influenced by the Impressionist brushwork, Van Gogh is famous for his visible, impasto brushstrokes, with thick layers of paint swiftly plastered onto the canvas. Before the Impressionists, paintings were critically regarded if the brushstrokes were invisible. However, in Japanese art and calligraphy, brushstrokes are used to depict simple yet expressive shapes and images.

Between 1887 and 1888, Van Gogh and the artist Paul Gaugin shared a house in Arles, France, and developed a technique of applying paint thickly using heavy brushstrokes. Later, Van Gogh would even apply paint directly from the tube or with a palette knife, such as in “Starry Night”.

The effect of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes is to show the raw emotion he felt as he painted, the physical effort, and the way he wielded the materials of painting. This innovation was a completely different painting style to the norm of the period and transformed subsequent approaches to art, where brushstrokes are used to show movement and energy in paintings.

Later artists, including the Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, were inspired by Van Gogh’s use of color and materials to express emotion and movement.

5. Van Gogh is famous for the unusual yet everyday subjects of his paintings

An oil painting of a vase of sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh.
An oil painting of a vase of sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh (CC).

During Van Gogh’s life, historical and mythological scenes were regarded as suitable topics for paintings. However, the Impressionists changed that and began painting outdoor landscapes and scenes of real-life – including ordinary people. One of the main reasons Van Gogh is so famous is because of the simple, everyday subjects of his paintings which he shows in a different light.

Before becoming an artist, Van Gogh worked as a missionary and identified with working-class people. Many of his paintings show farmers and laborers, such as “The Potato Eaters”. This artwork was painted in the colors of the earth and potatoes, almost merging the growers and eaters of potatoes as well as the vegetables themselves. The people in the picture are depicted as rough and raw, with gnarled fingers and knobbly faces, like potatoes.

Van Gogh also went one step further than the Impressionists, painting outdoor scenes but from memory. This technique led to his most passionate, symbolic works, such as “Starry Night”, where he painted what was in front of him but used his inner world as a reference. 

One of the world’s most famous and reproduced paintings, “Starry Night,” depicts a luminous moon and stars above a sleeping town, swirling color and shapes showing a dream-like world which is said to be a meditation on the cosmos, life, and death.

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Final Thoughts

Although unknown during his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh is now one of the world’s most famous and best-loved artists for his colorful, vibrant works. 

His artwork has profoundly influenced almost all artistic movements since his death, and his paintings rank amongst the most expensive ever sold at auction. Van Gogh’s fame is based not only on his tragic life but also on his artistic genius.


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