Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) painted people with remarkable sympathy but failed to get along with people in real life. He was deemed a failure by most of his family, had no lifelong friends and never married. In his entire short life, he had just one trusted confidant - his younger brother Theo. Theo was so attached to Vincent that he died a mere six months after his older brother.
Van Gogh's Family
Vincent was the oldest son of five children. He was born about one year after his mother gave birth to a still born son named Vincent. His father was a pastor, but more importantly his Uncle Vincent worked as a successful art dealer for the French firm Goupil & Cie. Vincent originally was going to follow his uncle's footsteps and sell art as opposed to creating it. He even worked in Guopil & Cie.'s London branch for two years.
Vincent did not receive any support from his large family with the sole exception of his brother Theo. Most of Vincent's letters to Theo survived and have been published. Vincent was considered bizarre and a misfit by his other family members. Vincent tried to woo his widowed cousin but she refused him. This caused a huge rift in the family that already was pushing Vincent away.
Van Gogh's Lovers
Although the legend claims that Vincent cut his ear off as a present for his favorite whore, this legend has been debunked. But Vincent did go to prostitutes. No "decent" woman would have anything to do with him. Modern doctors state that Vincent's bizarre behavior may have been the result of a combination of mental illness and a chronic ailment such as epilepsy or migraines.
Vincent moved to The Hague in 1881. In 1882, he met a pregnant prostitute, Clasina Maria Hoornik, and fell in love with her. They lived together, which caused a major scandal. The relationship was doomed from the start, but Vincent's tenderness towards his lover shows in his drawings of her, including the much loved Sorrow.
Van Gogh's Contemporaries
Most other artists would not have anything to do with Vincent, since his poverty made him have poor grooming habits and his ailments made his behavior unpredictable. He did briefly study under Anton Mauve, then a famous Dutch realistic painter. But Mauve soon tired of his scandalous student and soon would have nothing to do with him.
The only artist to attempt to collaborate with Vincent was yet another social misfit, Paul Gauguin. They briefly shared lodgings at Arles, France but often fought. Both were alcoholics and both were impoverished. Some biographers claim it was Gauguin who cut off part of Vincent's ear.
Van Gogh.Rene Huyghe. Crown Publishers; 1967.
Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh. Irving Stone & Jean Stone, editors. Plume; 1995.