London’s Blue Badge Tourist Guides often take their groups around the city’s art galleries and are trained to be familiar with the works of major painters. One of these is Vincent van Gogh. Many of us know a few famous facts about the Dutch post-Impressionist — he only sold one painting during his life; he cut off his ear and later committed suicide. Brilliant artist, unstable person is the general view of Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent van Gogh self-portrait, 1887 Paris. Photo Credit: © Edwin Lerner.
Vincent van Gogh in London
What is perhaps less well known is that Vincent van Gogh spent two years in London during his early 20s before starting his career as a painter. He lived at 87 Hackford Road, Stockwell, between 1873 and 1875 and worked as an art dealer. He was actually earning more money than his father, who was a priest in Holland. One of Van Gogh’s earliest drawings, discovered recently, is a small sketch of his London home. It remains in the possession of the family who owned the house.
Vincent van Gogh spoke four languages fluently – Dutch, French, German and English – and was happy and settled whilst living in London, but it wasn’t to last. After falling in love with both his landlady and her daughter and being rejected by both women, he left England for Paris, where he lost his job at the art dealers Goupil and began his long descent into instability and madness. Van Gogh came back to England and tried teaching, and then returned to Holland and became a priest for a time. It was Vincent’s beloved brother Theo who suggested he take up painting. He then finally found a vocation – if not a living.
Van Gogh produced most of his famous paintings during an astonishingly productive period at the end of his short life (he died at age 37). He was living in the French town of Arles, where the local people called him “le fou roux” (the red-headed madman). He drank too much and was in and out of an asylum. Yet it was here that Van Gogh created works such as Sunflowers and Starry Night, which are recognised worldwide and have commanded huge sums in the art market.
Vincent van Gogh sun flower painting. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
Vincent van Gogh And Britain Exhibition at Tate Britain in London
Many of these paintings have been brought together at London’s Tate Britain museum for the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition, which runs until August 11 and is the largest display of his works in the U.K. for nearly a decade. The show also includes paintings by artists whom Van Gogh influenced, such as Francis Bacon, whose three powerful portraits of Van Gogh walking through the countryside feature at the end of the display. There’s also a sketch of Vincent and Theo by the French Impressionist Lucien Pissarro, believed to be the only one of the two brothers together.
Vincent van Gogh has also been the subject of biographies and films. The Tate Britain exhibition includes scenes from Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin, the French artist Van Gogh befriended and worked with until the two powerful personalities fell out. In the 2018 film At Eternity’s Gate, Vincent van Gogh is played by another American actor, Willem Dafoe, with Oscar Isaac as Gauguin. The film supports the unproven theory that Van Gogh was killed by local boys rather than by his own hand. Whatever the cause of his death, Van Gogh lived life too intensely to survive into old age. His brother Theo, his most loyal friend and supporter, outlived him by only six months, and the two are buried next to each other in France.
It was Theo van Gogh’s widow who recalled Vincent’s happy times in London as a young man and arranged for one of the versions of his Sunflowers to be sold to the Tate, which then loaned it to the National Gallery. Now Sunflowers has made the short journey back to Pimlico from Trafalgar Square for this blockbuster exhibition celebrating one of the world’s most influential artists and the formative years he spent in the capital. As Vincent van Gogh said when he saw a painting of the River Thames embankment by Giuseppe de Nilitis, “When I saw this painting I felt how much I love London.”
Vincent van Gogh Starry Night Over the Rhone painting. Photo Credit: © Edwin Lerner.
Vincent van Gogh blue plaque. Photo Credit: © Edwin Lerner.
Vincent van Gogh house in London. Photo Credit: © Edwin Lerner.