Vincent van Gogh's life was marked by failure.
He failed at several occupations before becoming an artist. He worked for an international art dealer in The Hague, London and Paris. He taught at a boarding school in England. He immersed himself in Bible study but decided he wouldn't be able to pass theological exams. Instead he became an evangelist in the mining district of Belgium.As an artist he failed to sell more than a few paintings. And those he sold for a pittance. Some he sold to a junk dealer for prices that didn't cover the cost of materials. Some he exchanged with the tavern Le Tambourin in Paris for meals. His career was riddled with criticism and despair.
Van Gogh was consumed by a need to help the unfortunate. Destitute himself, he gladly gave what little he had to people who had even less.
He practiced self-abnegation. As an evangelist he left the comforts of a Belgian farm house to live in a small shack, alone, where he slept huddled in a corner of the hearth. He roamed the village wearing an old soldier's jacket and shabby cap. He gave away nearly all his clothing, his money and kept virtually nothing for himself. He wanted to be more destitute than the miners he served.
In Neunen, the Netherlands, where he lived near his parents after deciding to become an artist, Van Gogh would go for weeks without eating meat. A piece of dry bread with a hunk of cheese constituted a meal. A flask of brandy was the only luxury he allowed himself.
His selflessness is recounted in numerous anecdotes. The following, one of many we could have chosen, was written by his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin.
The snow is beginning to fall, it is winter; I will spare you the shroud, it is simply the snow . . . The poor people are suffering; often the landlords do not understand that.
Now, on this December day, in the Rue Lepic of our good city of Paris, the pedestrians hasten more than usual without any desire to dawdle. Among them a shivering man, bizarrely outfitted, hurries to reach the outer boulevard. Goatskin envelops him, a fur cap _ rabbit, no doubt _ the red beard bristling. Like a cowherd.
Do not observe him with half a glance; do not go your way without carefully examining, despite the cold, the white and harmonious hand, the blue eyes so clear, so child like. Surely this is a poor beggar.
His name is Vincent van Gogh.
He enters the shop of a dealer in scrap iron and cheap oil paintings.
"Poor artist! You put a part of your soul into the painting of this canvas that you have come to sell."
It is a still life _ pink shrimps on pink paper.
"Can you give me a little money for this canvas to help me pay my rent?"
"My God, my friend, the clientel is becoming difficult, they ask me for cheap Millets; then, you know," the dealer adds, "your painting is not very gay. The Renaissance is in demand today. Well, they say you have talent, and I want to do something for you. Here, take a hundred sous."
And the round coin clinked on the counter: Van Gogh took the coin without a murmur, thanked the dealer, and went out. Painfully, he made his way back up the rue Lepic. When he had almost reached his lodgings, a poor woman, just out of Saint-Lazare, smiled at the painter, desiring his patronage. The beautiful white hand emerged from the overcoat: Van Gogh was a reader, he thought of la Fille Elisa, and his five-franc piece became the property of the unfortunate girl. Rapidly, as if ashamed of his charity, he fled, his stomach empty.
One wonders what he would have done with the $82.5 million recently fetched by "Portrait of Dr. Gachet."
Van Gogh considered "The Bedroom" one of his best paintings.