Born to a dour protestant pastor and emotionally cold mother, Vincent likened himself to a young sapling struck too soon by frost. His early desire to be a Christian missionary faded, as he turned to drawing to make something of his life. His highest ambition in his twenties and early thirties was to be a book illustrator. He lived in relative poverty, supported financially by his brother Theo, who worked for the same art dealers who had sacked Vincent.
His life was nomadic, taking in the Hague, London, Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, Arles and Auvers-Sur-Oise. It also included a few months in a mental asylum at St Remy, after he had cut off his ear and delivered it to his favourite prostitute. His love life was a series of disasters, denying him the family he so desired and his pipe was a refuge, as often was alcohol which he said ‘stuns the pain’.
In Paris, he rubbed shoulders with Seurat, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec, but was never regarded as a talent to watch. It was only when he travelled south to the sunshine of Arles that he really came alive, and almost all his famous paintings were produced in the last year of his life here, and then in St Remy and Auvers. His idea of an artistic community in the Yellow House with Gaugin did not work out, but his emergence as a colourist was startling. ‘I dream of painting and then I paint my dream,’ he said. ‘I experience a moment of frightening clarity when nature is beautiful.’
Vincent – as he always signed himself, never calling himself ‘Van Gogh’ – had just received his first good review when he shot himself, dying two days later in Theo’s arms. As Theo said, he was his own enemy; though in death a friend to millions beneath each starry night.