How Vincent van Gogh’s Childhood Affected Modern Art


By Jean-Pierre Isbouts, Fielding Graduate University

The story of Vincent van Gogh’s childhood has always had a very special place in almost all art enthusiasts’ hearts. For an art historian, it is difficult to overestimate Vincent’s influence on the development of modern art. And that’s especially true today, when he embodies the archetype of the self-taught genius, the maverick artist, who brushed aside all conventions to forge his own path.

Vincent van Gogh’s self portrait as a painter
Vincent van Gogh has been a symbol of a self-taught genius for artists around the world. (Image: Vincent van Gogh/Public domain)

Brabant: The Place of Vincent van Gogh’s Childhood

Vincent grew up in a region called Brabant. The fields and forests there served as the model for Vincent’s earliest drawings and paintings. One can even recognize the paintings from his Dutch period as scenes from Brabant.

These impressions of narrow roads bordered by trees, of thatched homes and solitary peasants, lost in the fields, were still very much in evidence in the fifties and early sixties. In fact, Vincent would always cherish the memory of Brabant. In one of his last letters to his brother Theo, near the end of his life, he wrote:

During my illness I again saw every room in the house at Zundert, every path, every plant in the garden, the views of the fields outside, the neighbors, the graveyard, the church … our kitchen garden in the back.

The parsonage garden was actually designed by Vincent’s mother, Anna. She was inspired by a book that was very popular at the time called Autour de Mon Jardin or Walks Through My Garden, written by Alphonse Karr.

As a Protestant family in a Catholic village, they obviously did not have a lot of social contact. So, they spent a lot of time in this beautiful garden. Many years later in Arles, Vincent painted the garden of his childhood from memory.

This article comes directly from content in the video series In the Footsteps of Vincent van GoghWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Vincent van Gogh’s Still Life with three Birds-nests
Bird nests were the subject of some of Vincent’s still life paintings in Nuenen. (Image: Vincent van Gogh/Public domain)

The Crazy Painting Guy

Bird nests were the subject of some of Vincent’s still life paintings in Nuenen.

Piet van Hoorn was someone who, as a young boy, would gather bird nests and sell them for a few pennies to the ‘crazy man’ with his flaming red hair, so that he could paint them. Most of the other village children were afraid of het schildermenneke, or ‘the painting guy’, but not him. The local folks would nudge each other when Vincent walked by, saying behind his back, “Daar gaat diejen gek weer“—“There goes that fool again.”

Of course, most of the old Brabant is gone now. Zundert, the village where Vincent spent the first 11 years of his life, is now called Great Zundert. It’s a large town and a major center of Dutch agriculture. But some monuments from Vincent’s time still remain. One of these is this rather imposing, 19th-century city hall, where Vincent’s birth was registered in March of 1853.

Following Father’s Footsteps

Image of Zundert townhall
Vincent van Gogh’s birth was registered at Zundert City Hall. (Image: Michielverbeek/Public domain)

But the most important monument in Zundert is the church where Vincent’s father served as the pastor. It is a lovely little structure, built in 1806; but it is obviously much too small to hold all of the citizens of Zundert. And the reason is that Theodore, or Dorus, as he was called, was not a pastor of the Catholic Church, but of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church.

This distinction is important because Vincent first wanted to pursue a career as a clergyman, before deciding to become an artist.

If one day I have the joy of becoming a pastor and performing my tasks like our father, I will be thankful to God.

Vincent’s Father, Dorus

Vincent’s father came from a large brood of 12 children—which was not unusual in those days—but he was the only one who decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Protestant minister. He was a handsome man, but not, shall we say, the sharpest knife in the drawer. 

Three of his brothers went on to become art dealers, and another brother even rose to become an admiral in the Dutch navy. Dorus had none of these ambitions, except for one: he wanted to become a doctor. That was not surprising, since many of his family members were frequently ill, including Dorus himself. But his father wanted him to continue the family tradition of service in the Dutch Reformed Church, and that left him little choice.

In fact, the Reformed Church was going through a very difficult period at the time, as it was being split between a conservative and a progressive wing, which were referred to as ‘pillars’ at the time. Dorus was torn, but in the end, he decided not to join a particular side. Of course, that didn’t help his career very much. On top of that, it was said that his sermons were as long as they were dull. Little wonder, then, that he wound up in this town of Zundert, close to the Belgian border, which was probably as close to exile as you could probably get at the time in Holland.

But we have to give Dorus his due. It is clear that, for all of his flaws, he did have a powerful influence on his son, because for much of his life Vincent remained deeply interested in religious ideas.

Common Questions about How Vincent van Gogh’s Childhood Affected Modern Art

Q: Where did Vincent grow up and how did it affect his paintings?

The early years of Vincent van Gogh’s childhood were spent in Brabant, a region full of forests and fields that Vincent remembered fondly and used as landscapes in his paintings even when he no longer lived there.

Q: Why did Vincent want to become a clergyman?

Vincent van Gogh’s childhood hope of pursuing a career as a clergyman was inspired by his father’s career as a Protestant minister. If he had pursued that career successfully, art history would have changed significantly.

Q: Why did Vincent’s father join the Dutch Reformed Church?

Dorus was forced into service for the Dutch Reformed Church because of his father’s wishes. Dorus himself wanted to become a doctor, but his father wanted him to continue the family tradition of service in the Dutch Reformed Church, and that left him little choice.

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