Inspirational Quotations by Vincent van Gogh + A Précis of the Troubled Life of an Extraordinary Man

Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh

It’s the birthday of Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853–90,) the prominent Dutch painter who is renowned for his characteristic style of undulating lines and bold colors. He produced a great number of masterpiece paintings and sketches in just 11 years dedicated to art. In fact, it was during the last two years of his life that Vincent produced all of his best-known pieces. Though it may surprise us in retrospect, his work was not widely appreciated during his lifetime. Now, of course, he is considered one of the most eminent post-Impressionist painters.

Equally fascinating are the tragic circumstances of Vincent’s short life. His productivity and artistic genius are especially remarkable in the context of his debilitating illness, which caused the self-mutilation of his ear and ultimately his fateful suicide. Even to this day, the trials and tribulations of a man posthumously discovered to be an extraordinary artist elicit haunting curiosity and even sympathy.

Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo and others offer a profound, soul-searching description of the jagged life of a genius who achieved much in the face of adversity. Scholars have even wondered if he was rather a great man who painted great pictures. When understood in a certain light, Vincent’s troubled life, his devotion to art, and his sense of purpose make one of the most inspiring stories in the world.

This article provides a brief story of Vincent’s life followed by inspirational quotations chosen from his letters to Theo. A subsequent article will delve into his philosophy of work and his sense of devotion.

Vincent van Gogh’s Quest for Meaning

Young Vincent van Gogh Vincent was raised in a religious and cultured atmosphere. Growing up, he possessed a difficult temper and lacked self-confidence. All through youth, Vincent struggled to find his place in the world. This was a precursor to his life-long struggle to find meaning and establish some kind of harmonious relationship with the outer world.

Vincent began his artistic career at the relatively advanced age. Until then, he held a variety of occupations where he had proved deficient. At age 26, Vincent started work as a lay preacher in a mining community in southern Belgium. As was his habit, Vincent quickly developed great empathy for the miners and fully committed himself to this job. He wanted to be like the poor miners—he even smeared his hands and face with soot and dirt. He gave away his belongings, lived on bread and water, and slept on a sack spread out on the floor of his miserable shed. The church’s committee of elders chastised him for his excessive zeal and fired him. His mother complained of his uncompromising stubbornness: “He will never comply with the wishes of the committee, and nothing will change him.”

Soon thereafter, Vincent’s younger brother Theo visited to discuss Vincent’s future. Theo declared that the van Gogh family was worried about Vincent’s lack of direction in life, especially after several false starts in various vocations. The ensuing dispute marked a serious turning point in Vincent’s life: he resolved to become an artist. He would build on what was once a mere pastime.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

The Art of a Self-Taught Genius

Vincent van Gogh - Self-Taught Genius For the next nine years, with Theo’s financial and emotional support, Vincent traveled around Europe teaching himself to draw and paint. He struggled financially and even starved sometimes after spending the entire stipend that Theo sent him on art supplies rather than on the necessities of living. After a great deal of meticulous experimentation and assiduous practice, Vincent developed his artistic expertise to a level where he could execute art swiftly.

Vincent was an artist for just 11 years before his death. In those 11 years, he completed more than 2,150 pieces, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings, and sketches. Vincent was exceptionally productive towards the end of his life, churning out work with incredible speed—he sometimes executed up to three pieces a day. His most notable paintings are Starry Night, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Portrait of Joseph Roulin, Bedroom in Arles series, Sunflowers series, Church at Auvers, and several self-portraits including the iconic Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.

Following years of depression, frequent bouts of mental illness, struggles with personal relationships, and tumultuous romantic pursuits, Vincent shot himself at age 37, just when his artistic genius was starting to be acknowledged. In an unfinished final letter found on his person when he shot himself, he declared, “Well, the truth is, we can only make our pictures speak.” And speak they did: even today, art lovers marvel at Vincent’s attention to color, his ability to convey emotions, and his unique sense of observation. Although he was poor and practically unknown most of his life, Vincent’s work greatly influenced 20th century art.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

'Ever Yours: The Essential Letters' by Vincent van Gogh (ISBN 0300209479) Despite suffering from mental illness, Vincent possessed an extraordinary unity of mind and spirit. This is evident in the 700 letters he wrote over a period of 20 years, primarily to his beloved brother Theo. These letters are a marvelous record of his life, art, and philosophy. They are the primary source and substance for scholarly studies on Vincent’s life and work, particularly by art historians and psychiatrists.

“Ever Yours: The Essential Letters”, an absorbing anthology of correspondence between Vincent and Theo, sheds light on the shifting quality of his moods, his turbulent life, and philosophical evolution as an artist. Few other men and women have written such letters that reveal the inner workings of their minds and hearts.

I also recommend Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith’s brilliant biography, “Van Gogh: The Life and Anthology”, and Michael Howard’s “Van Gogh: His Life & Works in 500 Images”.

Inspirational Quotations by Vincent van Gogh

The best way to know God is to love many things.
Vincent Van Gogh

One must work and dare if one really wants to live.
Vincent Van Gogh

But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely, much as the rough draught turns into a sketch, and the sketch into a painting through the serious work done on it, through the elaboration of the original vague idea and through the consolidation of the first fleeting and passing thought.
Vincent Van Gogh

Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.
Vincent Van Gogh

If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things.
Vincent Van Gogh

Love is something eternal; the aspect may change, but not the essence.
Vincent Van Gogh

People are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don’t know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.
Vincent Van Gogh

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.
Vincent Van Gogh

Love always brings difficulties, that is true, but the good side of it is that it gives energy.
Vincent Van Gogh

If you truly love Nature, you will find beauty everywhere.
Vincent Van Gogh

What is true is that I have at times earned my own crust of bread, and at other times a friend has given it to me out of the goodness of his heart. I have lived whatever way I could, for better or for worse, taking things just as they came
Vincent Van Gogh

One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way.
Vincent Van Gogh

I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it — keep going, keep going come what may.
Vincent Van Gogh

I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.
Vincent Van Gogh

Some good must come by clinging to the right. Conscience is a man’s compass, and though the needle sometimes deviates, though one often perceives irregularities in directing one’s course by it, still one must try to follow its direction.
Vincent Van Gogh

I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.
Vincent Van Gogh

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is a pity that, as one gradually gains experience, one loses one’s youth.
Vincent Van Gogh

If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter,” then by all means paint… and that voice will be silenced.
Vincent Van Gogh

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?
Vincent Van Gogh

The thing has already taken form in my mind before I start it. The first attempts are absolutely unbearable. I say this because I want you to know that if you see something worthwhile in what I am doing, it is not by accident but because of real direction and purpose.
Vincent Van Gogh

Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way.
Vincent Van Gogh

What has changed is that my life then was less difficult and my future seemingly less gloomy, but as far as my inner self, my way of looking at things and of thinking is concerned, that has not changed. But if there has indeed been a change, then it is that I think, believe and love more seriously now what I thought, believed and loved even then.
Vincent Van Gogh

Conscience is a man’s compass.
Vincent Van Gogh

A weaver who has to direct and to interweave a great many little threads has no time to philosophize about it, but rather he is so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t think but acts, and he feels how things must go more than he can explain it.
Vincent Van Gogh

The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
Vincent Van Gogh

For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.
Vincent Van Gogh

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.
Vincent Van Gogh

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.
Vincent Van Gogh

In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.
Vincent Van Gogh

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.
Vincent Van Gogh

When we are working at a difficult task and strive after a good thing, we are fighting a righteous battle, the direct reward of which is that we are kept from much evil. As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.
Vincent Van Gogh

The more I think about it, the more I realize there is nothing more artistic than to love others.
Vincent Van Gogh

Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.
Vincent Van Gogh

No matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily.
Vincent Van Gogh

If one were to say but few words, though ones with meaning, one would do better than to say many that were only empty sounds, and just as easy to utter as they were of little use.
Vincent Van Gogh

Life is not long for anybody, and the problem is only to make something of it.
Vincent Van Gogh

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