Did you know that Vincent van Gogh didn’t decide to pursue an art career until he was 28 years old? Given the fact that he passed away a mere nine years later, it’s hard to believe that he ultimately created nearly 900 paintings. With so many works to see, you may be wondering where to begin learning more about Van Gogh’s paintings.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a misunderstood genius. As an artist, he had a tumultuous life marked by mental illness and only managed to sell one painting. The great expressive power of his extensive work, more than 900 paintings painted during a ten-year period, was recognized after his death. So much so that the Dutch painter, a pioneer of expressionism, is considered one of the most transcendental figures in art history.
Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and life have long been subjects of fascination for art lovers, with books, films, and, more recently, immersive experiences dedicated to the Dutch artist. Van Gogh’s paintings of dreamy landscapes and eerie self-portraits have drawn massive crowds at art institutions across the globe. And, with newly authenticated pieces cropping up at the Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, interest in the world famous artist continues to grow.
The largest collection of his popular paintings can be found in his native Holland, especially in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. However, his paintings are also displayed in major cities like Paris, London, and New York.
Here’s a look at ten of Van Gogh’s most emblematic of his Paintings...
1. Potato Eaters
This early canvas is considered Van Gogh’s first masterpiece. Painted while living among the peasants and laborers in Nuenen in the Netherlands, Van Gogh strove to depict the people and their lives truthfully. Rendering the scene in a dull palette, he echoed the drab living conditions of the peasants and used ugly models to further iterate the effects manual labor had upon these workers. This effect is heightened by his use of loose brushstrokes to describe the faces and hands of the peasants as they huddle around the singular, small lantern, eating their meager meal of potatoes.
Despite the evocative nature of the scene, the painting was not considered successful until after Van Gogh’s death. At the time this work was painted, the Impressionists had dominated the Parisian avant-garde for over a decade with their light palettes. It is not surprising that Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, found it impossible to sell paintings from this period in his brother’s career. However, this work not only demonstrates Van Gogh’s commitment to rendering emotionally and spiritually laden scenes in his art, but also established ideas that Van Gogh followed throughout his career.
As Van Gogh explained in a letter to his brother Théo, he wanted to portray real peasants eating the potatoes they had picked and grown themselves to depict the hardship of country life. He painted this bleak portrayal of five humble peasants about to have dinner in the Dutch town of Nuenen.
2. Café Terrace At Night
Using contrasting colors and tones, Van Gogh achieved a luminous surface that pulses with an interior light. Almost in defiance of the darkening sky. The lines of composition all point to the center of the work drawing the eye along the pavement as if the viewer is strolling the cobblestone streets.
Café Terrace at Night captures a late summer evening in the Place du Forum, a vibrant public square in Arles. To capture the colors of the scene, Van Gogh set up an easel in the plaza and painted en plein air. In a letter to his brother, he explains why he preferred this approach: “I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway . . . it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light.”
The café that inspired this Van Gogh’s painting still exists today. It has become a “mecca” for van Gogh fans visiting the south of France.
This painting is housed by the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands.
3. The Sunflowers
In addition to revealing self-portraits and enchanting night scenes, he loved painting still-life depictions of sunflowers, which gave him great “comfort in contemplating.” Van Gogh completed two series starring sunflowers: Paris Sunflowers (a collection of four paintings featuring close-up studies of cut sunflowers resting on a flat surface) and Arles Sunflowers (a five-piece series showcasing the flowers propped up in vases).
Using a wide spectrum of yellows made possible by the invention of new tints. Van Gogh depicts sunflowers in every stage of their life (in bud, flowering, wilting). He wanted to decorate his friend Paul Gauguin’s room in the yellow house, a house he rented in Arles. Van Gogh and Gauguin worked together in the yellow house between October and December 1888. While these paintings exist in institutions all over the world, you can find two of the most well-known works at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s National Gallery of Art.
4. Starry Night
Van Gogh’s painting, “Starry Night”, is an icon of the Post-Impressionist style. It represents the night view from the window of the sanatorium in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where the artist stayed during the last stage of his life. Van Gogh suffered from mental health issues throughout much of his life. After a string of unfortunate incidents (including an episode that resulted in the artist severing his own ear) in the late 1880s, he checked himself into a mental health facility in the South of France. During his time in the asylum, he completed 150 paintings, including The Starry Night, a nocturnal landscape painted through his “iron-barred window.”
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City acquired this world-famous painting in 1941.
5. The Room of Arles
While living in the “Yellow House,” Van Gogh found ample artistic inspiration in an unlikely source: his bedroom. Van Gogh painted this subject three times, paying particular attention to color in each instance. Upon completing the first rendition—which the Van Gogh Foundation has permanently loaned to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam—he described the palette to his brother, Theo, in a letter:
“I have painted the walls pale violet. The ground with checked material. The wooden bed and the chairs, yellow like fresh butter; the sheet and the pillows, lemon light green. The bedspread, scarlet coloured. The window, green. The washbasin, orangey; the tank, blue. The doors, lilac. And, that is all. . . I have depicted no type of shade or shadow; I have only applied simple plain colors, like those in crêpes.”
He painted Bedroom in Arles while waiting for a visit from Paul Gauguin in October 1888. There are three versions of this painting, which are described in Van Gogh’s letters. The three versions can be distinguished by looking at the small pictures on the wall above the bed.
6. The Yellow House
Van Gogh lived in Arles, a commune in the South of France, for fourteen months. During this time, he had hoped to establish a shared studio where he and his contemporaries could paint. In an attempt to realize this dream, he rented four rooms in the “Yellow House,” a two-story home located at 2 Place Lamartine.
Unfortunately, the Yellow House was destroyed during World War II. However, in September of 1888, Van Gogh immortalized the charming abode in a painting. It is now on display at the Van Gogh Museum.
7. Starry Night Over The Rhone
Van Gogh painted Starry Night Over the Rhône less than one month after completing Café Terrace at Night. Again, he opted to paint outdoors; this time, however, he left the bustling city center behind and settled along the banks of the Rhône River. From here, he could see gas lamps across the water, which echoed the twinkling sight of the stars overheard.
Much like his other nocturnes, Starry Night Over the Rhône illustrates Van Gogh’s inherent interest in color. From the aquamarine sky to the mauve ground. Though luminous tones and energetic brushstrokes fill the scene with energy, the scene is exceptionally calm—a far cry from the swirling Starry Night he’d paint the following year.
Today, Starry Night Over the Rhône is part of the Musée d’Orsay‘s permanent collection.
Irises is one of the many flower studies that Van Gogh worked on during his period at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He did not let his institutionalization interfere with his love of painting en plein air. Often, he would paint in the asylum’s garden, where he found an abundance of plants and flowers, including irises. Despite the fact that Van Gogh considered this painting just a study, his brother Theo recognised it as an important painting. Therefore, he submitted it to the annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in September 1889.
Titled Irises, this painting was most likely intended as a simple study. However, in 1987, this unassuming work became the most expensive painting ever when it was sold to a private collector for $53.9 million. Two years later, it was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum, where it remains today.
9. Self Portrait
Prior to his time in the mental hospital, Van Gogh began exploring the self-portrait genre. From 1886 until 1889, he completed 30 paintings of himself, including one particularly well-known work at the Musée d’Orsay.
Van Gogh drew and painted himself some 40 times. And, this work—which reflects his engagement with avant-garde artists in Paris upon his move there in 1886—is created out of a tight network of painted blue, green, pink, and yellow hash marks that virtually dissolve in front of your eyes as you approach the work.
Completed during his time in the asylum, this poignant painting hints toward Van Gogh’s deteriorating mental state. In addition to outfitting himself with “green-rimmed eyes,” this approach is evident in the artist’s treatment of color: a “mix of absinth green and pale turquoise [that] finds a counterpoint in its complementary color, the fiery orange of the beard and hair.”
Van Gogh passed away a year after completing this portrait.
10. Wheatfield With Crows
Two months before his untimely death, Van Gogh left the hospital and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris. Though his work began to receive recognition during this time, he suffered some financial setbacks that undoubtedly contributed to his poor mental health.
On July 27, 1890, he shot himself in a wheat field—the setting of his painting, Wheatfield with Crows, a piece held by the Van Gogh Museum. Fittingly, this would be the last painting completed by Van Gogh, who died two days after his suicide attempt.
Of course, with over 850 paintings in his oeuvre, this selection simply scratches the surface of Van Gogh’s must-see paintings. However, these 10 pieces are particularly important, as studying them allows us to both appreciate his artistic skills and trace the story of his tragic life.