Vincent van Gogh’s School Life


By Jean-Pierre Isbouts, Fielding Graduate University

Vincent van Gogh’s school life revealed him to be an intelligent but not particularly dedicated pupil. As the oldest son, he was a bit spoiled, and he was known to have a temper. Vincent had five siblings younger to him, but his strongest relationship was with his brother Theo. Theo is the brother who went on to play a pivotal role in Vincent’s life.

Vincent van Gogh’s painting, 'Wheatfield under Thunderclouds'
Vincent and Theo shared a love of nature and they together roamed and explored the large forests and endless fields in Zundert. (Image: Vincent van Gogh/Public domain)
Portrait of Theo van Gogh
Theo played a pivotal role in Vincent’s life. (Image: Ernest Ladrey/Public domain)

Brotherly Love

After Vincent, his mother gave birth to a daughter named Anna, followed in 1857 by a son named Theo, after his father. Then came two more daughters, Elisabeth and Willemien, and a boy named Cornelis, but they were too young to have a meaningful relationship with Vincent.

The exception was Willemien, with whom Vincent shared a lively correspondence near the end of his life. But above all, it was Theo with whom Vincent forged a lifelong bond.

One thing that Theo and Vincent shared was a love of nature. While Zundert did not have the exciting pulse of a modern city, it did have large forests and endless fields, where the boys could roam and explore at leisure.

Dreamy Childhood

In those days, before the large-scale urbanization of the 20th century, Brabant was a land of dark forests filled with towering oak and poplar. Vincent’s sister Elisabeth later remembered that Vincent would always come home with all sorts of insects, which he studied in minute detail. Even during his heyday in Arles, he wrote:

Dear Theo … you know, there will always remain in us something of the Brabant fields. Ah, the Brabant of my dreams; sometimes, it’s so close to reality.

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

Being the Odd One Out at van Gogh’s School

In the meantime, as the family grew, the small parsonage where they lived was becoming quite cramped. The upper bedrooms were narrow with a sloped ceiling. And in Vincent it instilled a lifelong yearning for solitude, to be by himself, curled up with a book or a drawing pad. 

When he was seven years old, Vincent was sent to the local village school, but of course he was the odd man out. Most of the children were Catholic farm boys who had little in common with this bookish son of the Protestant pastor.

Portrait of a young Vincent van Gogh
Vincent missed his life in Zundert while he was in a private Protestant boarding school in Zevenbergen. (Image: Jacobus Marinus Wilhelmus de Louw/Public domain)

Learning Nothing

In 1864, when Vincent was 11, Dorus, Vincent’s father, decided to enroll him in a private Protestant boarding school, which was located in Zevenbergen, some 16 miles away. That meant that Vincent had to live at the school, and before long he became very homesick. He began to realize how much he missed the homey life in Zundert.

Many years later, he wrote to his sister Willemien:

All the rest of my life is absolutely as inept as it was during the time when I was twelve and lived at a boarding school where I learned absolutely nothing.

However, that’s not really true, because each week he was drilled in French and English, which years later enabled him to speak and write in fluent French.

Even Geniuses Have to Start Somewhere

When he was 13 years old, Vincent went to what today we would call high school. Located in the city of Tilburg, in the heart of Brabant, this was an establishment named after the reigning monarch, King William the Second. The school was actually built as his palace, but the king died before it was finished, and so it was turned into a high school.

The place was a breath of fresh air for Vincent. Apart from foreign languages, it had art classes led by a well-established artist named Constant Huijsmans. This was Vincent’s very first art class, and of course he was riveted.

Fully Entering the Art World

Huijsmans encouraged his students to make studies of plaster casts, and even tried to teach them the mysteries of linear perspective. But it seems that Vincent never quite mastered it.

It seems that Vincent was in his element there, which is why it is so surprising that after less than two years, he suddenly returned home and decided to put an end to his schooling.

Modern scholars have offered all sorts of reasons—that Dorus could no longer afford the tuition, or that there was an outbreak of disease, or that the school had suddenly come under new management. Others believe that the first symptoms of some mental illness must have been the cause.

But what we do know is that in March of 1866, Vincent was back in Zundert, with absolutely nothing to do—except to brood and be miserable. Fortunately, one of his uncles came to his rescue. That was his favorite Uncle Vincent, who was known as Uncle Cent in the family, and he worked as an art dealer. And thus began young Vincent’s turn to art.

Common Questions about Vincent van Gogh’s School Life

Q: Which family member was closest to Vincent van Gogh?

Vincent van Gogh’s brother, Theo, was the person closest to him and they shared a strong bond. Theo played a pivotal role in Vincent’s life, and they always remained in touch.

Q: Why was Vincent the odd man out in his local village school?

Vincent van Gogh was raised in a Protestant family while the other children were Catholics. This led to an odd dynamic between Vincent and the other Catholic farm boys who were in van Gogh’s school.

Q: Why did Vincent suddenly return home from his school in Tilburg?

There is debate as to why Vincent van Gogh‘s school life was cut short when he returned home so suddenly. The reasons range from a lack of funding on Dorus’s part to an outbreak of a disease, from the school’s management changing to Vincent showing the first signs of mental illness.

Keep Reading
Vincent van Gogh’s Early Days of Painting
The Many Faces of Raphael’s Madonna
Van Gogh Painting from 1884 Stolen from Dutch Museum