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Adventures with Van Gogh

Adventures with Van Gogh is a weekly blog by Martin Bailey, our long-standing correspondent and expert on the artist. Published every Friday, his stories will range from newsy items about this most intriguing artist to scholarly pieces based on his own meticulous investigations and discoveries.

A concise guide to Van Gogh’s adult life: how the artist celebrated his birthday over the years

From family gifts of cufflinks and chocolate to his darker days in the asylum, a look at where Vincent was and what he was doing on 30 March each year

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Vincent van Gogh, aged 19, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh’s birthday anniversary events were last week brutally interrupted by the theft of his painting of The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884), following a smash-and-grab raid on the Singer museum in Laren, outside Amsterdam.

This week we look back at how Van Gogh spent his birthdays, to provide a vivid insight into his life story. Where was he every year on 30 March, what was he doing and how did he mark the occasion? Counting down the years emphasises quite what an extraordinary journey he had through life, despite its tragic brevity.

1874: 21st birthday, London

Van Gogh was working as an assistant art dealer for the Goupil gallery in Covent Garden. For his birthday his family sent him a guilder to buy cuff links to go with his watch chain. It was the one time in his life that Vincent tried to dress smartly and he wore a top hat going to work, saying ”you cannot be in London without one”. On 30 March, his birthday, he wrote to Theo to impart brotherly advice: “Above all, be sure to find out as much as possible about paintings.”

1875: 22nd birthday, London

Still with Goupil, he was lodging in Kennington with a publican.

1876: 23rd birthday, Paris

Van Gogh had been transferred to the Goupil gallery in Paris, but was sacked because he was a failure at dealing with customers. Facing dismissal from the end of March, he must have woken up to a miserable birthday. But he was cheered up later that day when he received a letter offering him a job as a teacher in Ramsgate, on trial and unpaid for the first month.

1877: 24th birthday, Dordrecht

Working in a bookshop, he had now become obsessed with religion. On his birthday he visited his parents in the village of Etten, in Brabant.

1878: 25th birthday, Amsterdam

Van Gogh was learning Latin and Greek in order to prepare for studying theology. He then had little contact with his family, although Theo visited him on his birthday. Their father was upset by Vincent’s behaviour: “We think it strange that we have had no letter from him, not even after his birthday… I do so fear that he feels very unhappy.”

1879: 26th birthday, Borinage

He was working as an evangelist in the deprived coal-mining area of Belgium, living in Wasmes and giving Bible readings and visiting the sick.

1880: 27th birthday, Borinage

Now cut off completely from his family and friends and lodging in Cuesmes, he was living a life of abject poverty.

1881: 28th birthday, Brussels

After making the momentous decision to try to become an artist, he had moved to Brussels, where he set out to master the skills of drawing.

1882: 29th birthday, The Hague

Living with Sien, a former prostitute, he had now taken up drawing seriously.

1883: 30th birthday, The Hague

Vincent wrote to Theo: “Thank you for your good wishes on my birthday. As it happened, I had a very pleasant day, because just then I had an excellent model for a digger.”

Vincent van Gogh’s drawing, done in Nuenen, of Pollard Birches (1884) Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

1884: 31st birthday, Nuenen

Vincent returned to the home of his family, who had moved to the farming village of Nuenen in Brabant. Among his March drawings was Pollard Birches.

1885: 32nd birthday, Nuenen

This was the day of the funeral of Vincent’s father, who had suddenly died of a stroke four days earlier.

1886: 33rd birthday, Paris

Vincent had arrived a month earlier to stay with Theo and develop his art. He celebrated his birthday with his brother.

1887: 34th birthday, Paris

Still in Paris, this year he was encouraged by the work of the Impressionists to exploit the use of colour.

Vincent van Gogh’s Pink Peach Trees (‘Souvenir de Mauve’) (1888), painted in Arles Courtesy of the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (KM 108.317)

1888: 35th birthday, Arles

Van Gogh had moved to Provence, where he was inspired by its light and landscapes. On his birthday he finished Pink Peach Trees: “Two peach trees in full bloom, pink against a sparkling blue sky with white clouds and in sunshine.”

1889, 36th birthday, Arles After mutilating his ear Vincent spent much of the next few months in hospital. At the time of his birthday he was sleeping there, but was allowed to venture out during the day to paint. On 30 March he was at work on Blossom in the Crau.

Vincent van Gogh’s Blossom in the Crau (1889), painted in Arles Courtesy of the Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

1890: 37th birthday, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Van Gogh was now in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. In late February he had suffered a serious mental attack and was still incapacitated the following month. Theo was very worried, writing to him on 29 March: “How pleased I would be to be able to go and see you tomorrow to shake your hand on your birthday. Will it be a celebration for you, or are you still in a state where you find yourself unhappy?” Vincent’s mother posted him a tin of chocolate and sewed him a tobacco pouch. She wrote to Theo: “May the 30th of March not be too unhappy for Vincent. Poor fellow, may he see better days.”

This would be Vincent’s last birthday. In April he recovered from the attack and the following month he left the asylum to move to Auvers-sur-Oise, an attractive village just north of Paris. There he painted 70 pictures in 70 days. On 27 July he walked into the wheatfields and shot himself. Two days later his life came to an end.

Van Gogh, Self-portrait, summer 1887, Detroit Institute of Arts Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Other Van Gogh news

• The exhibition Van Gogh in America, originally scheduled to open at the Detroit Institute of Arts on 21 June, has been postponed for more than two years. It will now run from 2 October 2022 to 22 January 2023. This ambitious show includes numerous foreign loans and it was feared that even if the Detroit museum was open by June, too many promised works would not be available. A museum spokeswoman says that the 2022-23 dates will give “sufficient time for international travel to return to normal”.

• A woman who missed out on the opportunity to acquire a Van Gogh sold for £4 in a farmyard sale in Staffordshire, England, in 1968 has spoken to the Shropshire Star. Gaye Horrell was then married to Tim Holme, the elder son of the farmer, Charles Holme, who held the rural sale. She was offered first choice of the items, ranging from household goods to farming equipment. Although liking the unidentified painting, Horrell’s father-in-law persuaded that a small brass handbell (worth about £1) would be better. Peasant Woman in front of a Farmhouse (1885), authenticated in 1969, was sold by the Simon Dickinson gallery at the Tefaf art fair in Maastricht last month, for a price believed to around €12m-€15m.

James Roundell (Dickinson’s specialist) and Emma Ward (Dickinson’s managing director) with Van Gogh’s Peasant Woman in front of a Farmhouse © Martin Bailey

Martin Bailey is a leading Van Gogh specialist and investigative reporter for The Art Newspaper. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was a co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain (27 March-11 August 2019). He has written a number of bestselling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh's Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in the UK and US), Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence (Frances Lincoln 2016, available in the UK and US) and Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and US). His latest book is Living with Vincent van Gogh: The Homes & Landscapes that Shaped the Artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and US).

• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: vangogh@theartnewspaper.com

Read more from Martin's Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.