Van Gogh: Behind the Paint.

We all know what Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork looks like, but do we know the stories behind the paint? In this blog, we’ll delve into the tales behind five of my favourite of Van Gogh’s masterpieces.


Skull May 1887


Drying cracks are visible in many places, such as immediately below the skull. The paint has cracked because Van Gogh painted the skull over an earlier picture.


The Yellow House (The Street)September 1888

the yellow house

This piece depicts where Van Gogh lived in Arles, Southern France, from May 1888 – May 1889. His four rooms, rented at 15 francs per month, are visualised by the green shutters on the building. Van Gogh sent a sketch and description to his brother Theo: “It’s tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue.” He had planned to turn it into a ‘Studio of the South’; a place where like-minded artists could live and paint in harmony.

It is here that he and fellow artist (and close friend) Paul Gaugin lived together, with Gaugin moving in on the 23rd October. However, their personalities began to clash; their contrary ideas on art strained their relationship. In December, their relationship hit the breaking point. In a fit of rage, Van Gogh cut off his ear and gifted it to a prostitute named Rachel to safe-guard it.

Van Gogh’s stay at The Yellow House ended on the 8th May 1889 when he willingly committed himself to the Asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.


Sunflowers January 1889 


Sunflowers used to be one of my least favourites of Van Gogh’s works, until I learnt the heartfelt story behind it. This particular piece was painted in Arles, at The Yellow house (see above) and, interestingly, only used three shades of yellow. In total, Van Gogh created five Sunflower canvases, two of which hung in the room of Paul Gaugin, as Van Gogh knew how much his friend and fellow artist loved the flowers. Gaugin was thoroughly impressed and considered them to be, “Completely Vincent.” He later requested one of the paintings as a gift, which Vincent was hesitant to give him.


Starry Night1889

starry night

One of Van Gogh’s most popular works, painted at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole; the Asylum he willingly committed himself to in May 1889. The Asylum is where Van Gogh was officially diagnosed with epileptic fits, and he was thought to have been recovering. However, he relapsed; he began to suffer from hallucinations and suicidal thoughts. This change is marked in Van Gogh’s artwork by the darker colours incorporated into his artwork. The blues of the ‘Starry Night’ dominate the piece. The swirls create a dreamlike and ethereal effect which highlights the rift between reality and Van Gogh’s dream-like state. The deep-black spire that essentially suffocates the painting represents Van Gogh bringing God to the depicted village. Moreover, unlike the majority of his work, it is completely imaginary; it does not represent the scenery from around the Asylum.


Almond Blossoms February 1890

almond blossom

A hugely symbolic painting of Van Gogh’s. Almond trees bloom in early spring and represent new life, awakening, and hope. This masterpiece was a present to his brother Theo and sister-in-law Jo for the birth of their son, Vincent Willam. Their son went on to found the Van Gogh Museum.

“As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and courageous as you.” -Theo, to Vincent Van Gogh.

Flowering trees appear to have been important to Van Gogh, as he painted a series of other almond blossoms paintings: Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass – 1888 and Blossoming Almond in a Glass with a Book – 1888.

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