5 Places That Inspired Vincent van Gogh’s Art

Alexxa Gotthardt
Apr 9, 2019 3:45PM

Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh led a turbulent, restless life. From a young age, he moved incessantly, searching for both artistic inspiration and an environment that would calm his gnawing nerves. “It always seems to me that I’m a traveller who’s going somewhere and to a destination,” he wrote to his brother, Theo, in August 1888. By the time of the artist’s death in 1890, at age 37, he’d lived in over 15 different cities across Europe.

Each location deeply influenced the passionate, volatile painter’s life and work, and together, they provide the framework for a new biography, Living with Vincent van Gogh: The homes and landscapes that shaped the artist (2019), by scholar and curator Martin Bailey. Below, we highlight five places where Van Gogh embedded himself, unfurled his canvases, and developed his unique, feverish, and spellbinding paintings.

The Hague, the Netherlands


In 1869, at age 16, Van Gogh left his rural hometown of Zundert, the Netherlands, for the more cosmopolitan, seaside city of The Hague. There, he began his first apprenticeship at the Goupil gallery and was exposed to modern art (19th-century paintings by French, Italian, and Spanish artists) for the first time. At other exhibition spaces across the city, he fell in love with the bucolic, soft-hued landscapes of the Hague School of painters, especially Anton Mauve. A number sketches from this period survive, which reveal Van Gogh clumsily but resolutely experimenting with cityscapes and landscapes.

In December 1881, when the artist was in his late twenties, he returned to The Hague. (In between, he’d spent 12 years as an itinerant art dealer and burgeoning artist.) By this time, he’d committed fully to artmaking and began sketching urban life, with a focus on the city’s poor and downtrodden people. One of Van Gogh’s most striking, empathetic figurative works, Sorrow (1882), comes from this period. It depicts his muse and lover, a prostitute named Sien, as naked, pregnant, and clutching her body. During this stint in The Hague, Van Gogh also injected color into his palette for the first time, and began creating vibrant, thickly impastoed oil paintings. As Bailey points out, one of the artist’s finest early canvases, View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882), depicts the roiling, blue-grey ocean not far from his home. To this day, grains of sand are embedded in the painting’s surface, evidence that Van Gogh painted it en plein air on a windy day.

Nuenen, the Netherlands

At age 30, in December 1883, Van Gogh followed his family to the Dutch pastoral village of Nuenen. While he had a fraught relationship with his parents, the painter established his own private studio space on their property—in the former laundry room—where he could work in peace. He also cemented a business arrangement with his brother, Theo, that provided him with financial stability and calmed his nerves; Theo, who was an art dealer, would send Van Gogh a regular allowance in exchange for any paintings he produced.

In this stable and mostly calm environment, Van Gogh made strides in his work. He spent concentrated time perfecting his oil technique. Landscapes from 1884, which depict the surrounding countryside and the church where his father was a pastor, show the artist experimenting with modulation of color and the representation of glowing, autumnal light. Peasant life also provided endless artistic fodder for Van Gogh, and inspired what Bailey considers his first masterpiece: The Potato Eaters (1885). With a dusky palette, thick brushwork, and exaggerated figures, he depicted a lively peasant dinner table. He wanted the work to be gritty and honest, harnessing the “smells of bacon, smoke, potato-steam,” he explained. “These folk…have tilled the earth themselves with these hands…so it speaks of MANUAL LABOUR and––that they have thus honestly earned their food.”

Autumn Landscape (1885), one of the last paintings Van Gogh created in Nuenen, flaunts his artistic growth during his two years in the town. The composition is more detailed than past landscapes, and his hues more luminous. “My palette is thawing,” he wrote to Theo around the time he completed the piece, “and the bleakness of the earliest beginnings has gone.”

Paris, France

Van Gogh’s two-year stay in Paris, between February 1886 and February 1888, radically transformed his work. For the first time, he was introduced to Impressionism, whose loose, active brushwork and bright palette he incorporated into his own practice. “In Antwerp I did not even know what the Impressionists were,” he wrote to his friend and fellow artist Horace Livens. “Now I have seen them and though not being one of the club, yet I have much admired certain Impressionist pictures—Degas, nude figure—Claude Monet, landscape.”

Van Gogh had spent short periods of time in Paris before, in the 1870s, while working for the art gallery. Now, however, he was focused on advancing his painting technique. For a brief time, he studied under the then-famed painter Fernand Cormon, whose students included Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Bernard. But Van Gogh’s true education came through the artists he rubbed elbows with. Toulouse-Lautrec and Bernard became his friends; he met Paul Gauguin; and, for a time, he lived down the street from Impressionist Auguste Renoir.

As Bailey points out, two self-portraits Van Gogh made just nine months apart reveal his swift progress. In Self-Portrait with black felt Hat (1887), he rendered himself with a dark palette and tight, traditional brushwork, whereas in Self-Portrait with gray felt Hat (1887)—forged less than a year later—the artist appears as a medley of pronounced, active strokes of brilliant blue, accented with hot orange and bright white. The canvas evidenced Neo-Impressionism’s grip on the artist, and the beginnings of his own unique and influential style.

Arles, France

While Paris had proved artistically fruitful for Van Gogh, it also exposed him to pressures and unhealthy temptations. In Living with Vincent van Gogh, Bailey suggests that rising tensions between the artist and his brother, Theo, as well the high cost of living in Paris, likely instigated his move to Arles in February 1888. “I left Paris very, very upset, quite ill and almost an alcoholic through overdoing it,” Van Gogh later wrote.

Arles was a quaint, colorful city surrounded by the Provencal countryside’s fertile olive groves, orchards, vineyards, and wheat fields, along with bursts of sunflowers and a close proximity to the sea. This abundant landscape provided endless inspiration for Van Gogh, who completed around 200 paintings (more than three per week) during his 15-month stay in the area. Canvases like Harvest in Provence, The Sower, and The Red Vineyard at Arles (all 1888) show golden fields flecked with red and blue under radiant yellow skies. His palette became bolder and brighter in this environment.

“When the vegetation is fresh it’s a rich green the like of which we seldom see in the north,” he wrote several months after his arrival in Arles. “When it gets scorched and dusty it doesn’t become ugly, but then a landscape takes on tones of gold of every shade.”

Van Gogh settled into a home he affectionately referred to as the “Yellow House.” It, too, became the subject of several paintings, including depictions of its bright façade and the artist’s own bedroom, complete with a sun-yellow bedframe and blue walls covered in paintings. In the fall of 1888, it was also the site of domestic drama for Van Gogh, when he invited fellow artist Gauguin to stay with him there. But a mere nine weeks after his arrival, Gauguin left angrily. The row left Van Gogh emotionally and psychologically fragile, and not long after, he famously cut off most of his left ear. The episode resulted in several searing self-portraits, including Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889), and set off a string of increasingly debilitating mental crises for the artist.

Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France

After a series of mental breaks in Arles, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum 20 miles north of Arles. Life inside the hospital was dim: “One continually hears shouts and terrible howls as though of the animals in a menagerie,” he wrote of the environment. But the surrounding landscape was stunningly beautiful, offering both emotional respite and artistic fodder. The window of Van Gogh’s room framed a scene he would paint almost 15 times: rolling fields swelling with olive trees and cypresses, bordered by the Les Alpilles mountains.

He was also allowed to take excursions to the surrounding fields and country towns, and it was likely one of these occasions that inspired his most famous painting: Starry Night (1889). The work shows a dark, turbulent sky intercepted by bright, shimmering stars and a glowing moon. As Bailey notes, the work is emblematic of Van Gogh’s tortured mental state while in the asylum, but also his resilience. Each time he recovered from a crisis, “he would return into the light, once again taking up his brush,” writes Bailey. “This vibrant painting stands as a powerful testament to the artist’s struggle to overcome the challenges of living and working in an asylum for the insane.”

Van Gogh painted through his suffering, but in the end, he couldn’t bear his increasingly tormented mind. A year later, in 1890, he took his own life in the small town of Auvers in northern France. But his paintings would live on—proof of one artist’s artistic genius and relentless commitment to his craft.

Alexxa Gotthardt