Biography of Vincent van Gogh and Igor Stravinsky

“One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passerby see only a wisp of smoke rising from the chimney and continue on their way.”
Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853-July 29, 1890) second child to Anna Cornelia Carbentus and

Theodorus van Gogh would be plagued by mental instability for the greater part of his life. Vincent was one of seven children born to the van Goghs”. The first child also called Vincent and oddly enough, born on the exact same day one year prior, was stillborn.

After Vincent, came five other children, two boys and three girls, but only felt the great connection to his brother Theo. During his 37 years, Vincent exchanged over 600 letters with his brother. Unlike Vincent, who saved very few of Theo’s letters, Theo has preserved most, if not all, the letters he received from Vincent. These letters can be read on

Early in his life, Vincent displayed an irritable, restless, disposition that was to thwart his every pursuit. It is unknown if one specific condition affected him or a combination of a few. If you were to ask today’s experts they may tell you he could have suffered from Epilepsy, Bipolar Disease, malnutrition, or a combination of the three. Which ever condition he was inflicted with caused him many years of pain and suffering.

As a young man, Vincent felt drawn to love and wanted to help mankind. Unfortunately Vincent found it very hard to carry on relationships with other individuals. As a youngster knowing he shared a name and birth date with his older brother, may have led to his feelings of powerlessness and inadequacies. When he was eleven years old, his father thought he was getting out of hand, and he was sent away to a boarding school in Zevenberger. Leaving his family at such a young age could not have been easy on the boy. While away at school he learned three languages; but, due to financial reasons, he was unable to complete his schooling and returned home.

When Vincent turned 16, his Uncle Vincent, nicknamed Uncle Cent, hired him to work as a clerk at Goupil and Co. Vincent learned to be an art dealer and became interested in the new styles in painting. He was soon transferred to the London office where life seemed to change for him.

Once in London he rented a room in the home of a clergyman’s widow, Mrs. Loyer. While there he fell in love with her daughter Eu?ene. When he finally mustered up the courage to tell her his feelings for her she rejected him. Sadly this would be the first of many rejections he would have to endure throughout his life.

Upon her rejection, he left the quarters at Mrs. Loyer’s house and lived alone for a period of time until his Uncle Cent arranged for him to be relocated to the Paris office in hopes that his spirit would be lifted. Upon making this change van Gogh lost all of his desire to be an art dealer. He decided instead, that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a preacher. Against his parents’ better wishes they agreed to pay for his education.

He decided to abandon his training in Amsterdam, and enrolled in a training school for lay preachers. Graduates of this school were not full-fledged ministers, but learned enough to spread the Gospel among the poor.

He went to preach at the coal mines in southern Belgium. He went deep underground, to watch the miners work. He tended to accident victims of cave-ins and fires. He started a bible school and preached at a dance hall. During this time he was able to identify with the miners, their lifestyles, and their families. The interaction he had with the peasants and the working class becomes evident later on in his works depicting peasant life.

While in the coal mines Vincent decided he wanted to become a serious artist. It was through his artwork that he could finally open up and express his feelings. He wrote Theo hundreds of letters discussing the new techniques he was practicing along with the interaction he had with the locals.

In 1881, at the age of 27, Vincent went back home to his parents. Once he was back at home he set out to teach himself how to draw. He painstakingly tested a variety of different styles of drawing using different subject matters to experiment with. After a few months of staying with his parents, Vincent had another life shattering event. His first cousin, Kee Vos and her four year old son, came to live with the van Gogh family. Vincent fell in love with Kee, and to express his feelings to her, he spoiled her son. She mistook these actions as being a caring eccentric relative but when he expressed his love for her, she rejected him and parted soon after. He couldn’t bear the rejection of another woman and went out to locate a prostitute for some companionship.

This is how he came to befriend Sien. Sien was a prostitute who had an 11 year old daughter and pregnant with another child. She was the subject of many of his drawings to include, Sorrow 1882. At one point had and he considered marrying her. When Vincent contracted gonorrhea from her and found himself in the hospital with a lengthy recuperation it put a strain on the relationship. He became irritable and moody and decided his artwork was more important than the bond with her. Eventually, their relationship crumbled and she ultimately moved out.

From the start of van Gogh’s artistic career he wanted to draw and paint people. There are drawings that show how he mastered weathered hands as well as other body features. He wanted to create a multiple figure piece to show the artistic community that he had talent. In 1885 he created The Potato Eater. This piece seemed very dark and the attempts to paint figures look distorted. He felt that since this piece was a failure he should have some formal training in technique. This painting is considered to be his first masterpiece, which he did not come to realize while he was still alive.

Later that year he entered Antwerp Academy. It was at this time that van Gogh started to study how light and color reflected on his subjects. In letters he wrote to his brother Theo, he went into great detail about all the different methods he used to try to achieve the perfect balance.

By early 1886 Vincent moved to Paris and moved in with Theo. He stopped using the dark colors that he selected in The Potato Eaters, realizing they were out of date and started using brighter colors.

He developed an interest in the Japanese style and met several artists of that time including Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Emile Bernard. He wanted to open his own art school and asked his new friends to join him. He was convinced that using his new vibrant color combinations would contribute to modern art.

Toward the end of 1888, van Gogh started exhibiting more signs of mental illness. He suffered from epileptic seizures, shifting from extreme happiness to manic depression, and delusions. Even his brother Theo wrote in a letter to his family that van Gogh “appears as if there are two different beings in him, the one marvelously gifted, fine and delicate, and the other selfish and heartless”.

Van Gogh decided to move to Arles France where he rented four rooms. This house was more than a place to sleep and paint in, it became symbolic for him. He referred to it as the house of light. He was hoping to use this house to open a new artists’ commune. Other artists would come and live there with him and share his expenses and work together. But when all was said and done only one artist, Paul Gauguin, came to live at the yellow house.

In the beginning van Gogh was very happy to have Gauguin there; he had great hopes of having a successful artist community. But it was apparent early on that there was a great difference in the two men’s personalities. When Gauguin arrived he found the house to be in disarray as well as van Gogh. Assessing the financial needs for such an endeavor, Gauguin attempted to put the household on a budget.

By early December the tension between the two men was evident. Vincent wrote to his brother expressing his feelings about whether Gauguin was going to stay or move out. Gauguin too was unsure whether he should stay or not; he even wrote to Theo expressing his feelings about leaving, then would write again about staying. There were episodes that Gauguin would awaken to Vincent standing over him; who knows what would have happened if he failed to wake up in time. I believe this indecisiveness on Gauguin’s part led to a psychotic incident with Vincent. On Christmas Eve, while taking a walk after dinner, Gauguin recounts an episode where he heard familiar footsteps coming up quickly behind him. When he turned he saw an enraged Vincent rushing toward him with a razor in his hand. Looking at Gauguin, Vincent realized what he was doing turned, and ran the other way.

Gauguin went to the local hotel and fell asleep. Vincent did not return home. That night he went back to the yellow house and used the razor to slice off his earlobe. He then wrapped the lobe in newspaper, went to the local brothel, and gave the package to one of the prostitutes, Rachel. He returned to his house and was found the next morning near death from bleeding and lack of good health.

After the recovery of his attack, he returned to the yellow house and began painting again. He had joked about the incident and was not even concerned about his missing earlobe. This recovery did not last long, he found himself in and out of the hospital suffering from more attacks and delusions.

Vincent traveled to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where he committed himself to an asylum. Although suffering from attacks, he was unable to draw for months at a time; he managed to paint Starry Night 1888 which has been labeled one of the most influential pieces in history. All in all, while in the asylum, it is said that Vincent did some of his best work ever.

It is important to note that over the years there has been much speculation as to the cause or reasons behind van Gogh’s attacks. In a conversation with the son of Theo, Vincent Willem van Gogh, Vincent’s attacks seemed to be timed with certain news of the day. For example van Gogh started having trouble with Gauguin when Theo announced his engagement to Johanna Bonger. Then there were other incidences when Theo and Johanna married, the announcement of Johanna being pregnant, and the actual birth of their baby.

There is no mention in Vincent’s letters to Theo about these events. It is speculated that Vincent was afraid he was going to be cut off from his allowance that Theo had been sending him most of his adult life. What was mentioned in a letter to Theo, from Vincent, is his animosity toward art dealers and the fact that a dead artist was valued more than a living one. Some feel that he contemplated suicide as a way to pay Theo back for all of his support.

On July 27, Vincent went out to paint, took a revolver with him and shot himself in the abdomen. He was found the next day, weaken from blood loss. His friend (and doctor) Dr. Gachet was summoned with Theo to his bedside. Vincent died the next day, on July 29, after spending the day smoking his pipe and talking to his brother. He would no longer be a burden on his brother.

Unfortunately, his brother did not fair so well after his death. He tried without luck to find a gallery to display Vincent’s artwork. He had troubles with his employer, quit his job, and eventually turned hostile. He was hospitalized just as his brother had been. Upon his recovery, Johanna took him to Holland, where he succumbed to a weighty depression.

Six months after the death of Vincent van Gogh, Vincent’s brother Theo died as well. The doctor on duty noted that Theo suffered from “overstrain and sorrow.” I believe he died of a broken heart at the loss of his cherished brother.

Although Vincent van Gogh’s life was short, he was able to do something that no other artist before him achieved. He introduced real life and feelings to modern art instead of just painting what you see. It is evident that he didn’t follow a prescribed path. He used his drawings to perfect his talents and he used his paintings to reflect his feelings.

He idolized other painters of his day, never imagining that he too was, a great painter. He took the techniques of the time and turned them into his own creations. When he realized that his color palette in The Potato Eaters was to dark he used brighter colors. When he was not pleased with his attempts to draw figures he studied anatomy. By changing brush stroke patterns and paint textures Vincent was able to create masterpieces. But as evident in Starry Night’s swirling colors and turbulent skies; one may conclude that Vincent experienced those same emotions in his head.

Igor Stravinsky (June 17, 1882 – April 6, 1971), Russian-American composer was considered by some to be the most important composer of the 20th century. Born in a village on the Gulf of Finland, he was one of four boys. He did not seem to have very fond memories of his parents or his brothers. When he talked about his childhood he seemed lonely and unhappy, but when asked why, he was unable to offer exact reasons for the unhappiness. It may have had something to do with his father’s quick temper or his mother’s expression of distaste for his music. He did not talk much about his brothers. Roman, eight years older than him, died while Igor was still a boy. Yury, three years older than Igor, who went on to be a structural engineer, died in 1941. But Igor’s younger brother Gury, who was also musically gifted, had a special place in Igor’s heart. Unfortunately, Igor grieved the death of his brother Gury who died in 1917 of typhus while serving in a Red Cross Unit during World War I.
The only other relative that Igor had any affection for was his Uncle Alexander Yelachich, who was a passionate musical amateur (Igor Stravinsky, pg 14).
It hurt Stravinsky that his parents did not acknowledge his musical talent since both of them were musicians. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, bass singer at the Marlinsky Theater, forbade him to study music, as he had a law education in mind for his son. He wanted his son to become a lawyer. But by age 20 Stravinsky had decided to go into music and studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who was the leading Russian composer at that time.

Stravinsky made a student effort at composing “Artifices de feu” (Fireworks). This got the attention of Sergei Diaghilev who hired Stravinsky to do some orchestrations, and then a full-length ballet score, L’ Oiseau de feu (The Firebird).

In 1910 Stravinsky left Russia to travel to Paris. Once he was in Paris, he composed two more works Petrushka(1911) and Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1913). The Rite of Spring caused quite a controversy. When the music began to play with complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites, drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance. Stravinsky was so upset that he fled the theater in mid-scene, reportedly crying.

Much like van Gogh, Stravinsky was driven to learn and explore. He was interested in art, literature and life. He took this desire and collaborated with composers, poets, filmmakers and artists.

Stravinsky married his first cousin, Katerina Nossenko. Katerina was a close confidant to Igor and their marriage lasted 33 years, until her death in 1939. However he was living a double life with the love of his life Vera de Bosset who he carried on an affair with from 1921 until Katerina’s death in 1939. Upon Katerina’s death he married Vera.

Stravinsky’s career fell into three different stylistic periods. The Russian period consisted of three ballets, L’ Oiseau de feu, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. He composed these for Diaghilev. They are scored for very large orchestras using Russian folk themes. They are reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s scoring style.

The next period for Stravinsky’s style was the Neo-Classical period starting in 1930. This period abandons the great orchestras turning to wind instruments, the piano, and choral works. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Symphony of Psalms are among the best ever created for wind instruments. Stravinsky goes on to write a few other great works but by 1951 he never wrote another neo-classic work.

The last and final style for Stravinsky, and probably his best work, is the Serial period. This is when he started to use the dodecaphony technique. The technique is a means of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music. All 12 notes are thus given more or less equal importance, and the music avoids being in a key ( He experimented with this technique in smaller vocal pieces such as Cantata (1952), Three Songs from Shakespeare (1953) and In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954).

Probably the most important period for Stravinsky was when he returned to the ballet with Agon, a work for twelve dancers that combined the tonality of the neo-classic period with Stravinsky’s own unique take on the Serial method.

Vincent van Gogh, like Igor Stravinsky, were both born during the nineteenth century. Both van Gogh and Stravinsky had a need to try new techniques with strong opinions on how to perfect their craft and they each followed a path not yet traveled by others. They lived in several different cities including Paris. And, were both constantly evolving, utilizing different styles and techniques.

They differ in the fact that van Gogh was emotionally troubled the majority of his life. He found it increasingly difficult to handle even the smallest rejections. He was unable to find the one true love he longed for and died at his own hand at the age of 37.

Igor Stravinsky outlived his family, married once for closeness and companionship and the second for love. Both of these artists are considered to leave behind legacies of their talent and hey have been copied by others who followed them. Stravinsky had the opportunity to see the fruition of his labors but van Gogh did not.

“To continue in one path, is to go backwards.”
Igor Stravinsky


Vincent van Gogh

Robert Wallace and the Editors of Time-Life Books, The World of Van Gogh, 1853-1890, Time Life Library of Art

Linda Whiteley, Van Gogh Life and Works, Source Books Inc.

Enrica Crispino, Masters of Art Van Gogh, Peter Bedrick Books

Igor Stravinsky

Michael Oliver, Igor Stravinsky, Phaidon Press Limited

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001-05