The Life and Work of Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh is a fascinating subject for students of art history.

By Daniella Garran


Born in 1853 in Holland, Vincent Van Gogh didn’t decide to become an artist until he was 27 years old. Among his first subjects were the people of the Dutch lower class. He was able to capture their suffering and hardships in dark tones and colors. Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 where his brother, Theo, provided for him financially. While in Paris, Van Gogh was exposed to the work of the Impressionists and was inspired by their palettes and techniques.  In 1888, Van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France where he was captivated by the light and landscape. During his short time in Arles, Van Gogh suffered from mental illness, even cutting off part of his ear at one point prior to committing himself to an institution. Though he was in Arles for just over a year, Van Gogh produced close to 300 works of art. After several hospitalizations, Van Gogh ultimately committed suicide in July of 1890. Over the course of his short decade-long career, Van Gogh produced 900 paintings and over 1,100 drawings.

Using Van Gogh’s style, have students add to one of his famous paintings. For example, students may choose to put some people into "Starry Night" or have "The Potato Eaters" eat something else. You may also consider having students paint a self-portrait in Van Gogh’s style or using his palette.

Your students could spend a good deal of time deconstructing "The Bedroom at Arles." They should assess the mood, the tone and the message of the painting. Give students the option to either write a story about the room in Van Gogh’s painting, or to paint a picture of their bedroom in the same style.

You can add an element of language arts into your study of Van Gogh. He was a prolific writer. Students could read some of his letters (there are some annotated versions online), which would allow them to explore a completely different side of Van Gogh. After getting a feel for Van Gogh’s writing style, students could write an artist’s statement about one of his paintings as if they are writing from his perspective. Below are some other lesson plans which will help your students gain a better understanding of one of the greatest, and most mysterious, artists in history.

Vincent Van Gogh Lesson Plans:

How Van Gogh Made His Mark

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a tremendous resource available online. This interactive web site allows students to learn about Van Gogh and to try their hand at working in his artistic style. Students also focuses on the importance of light and its effects on one’s art.

Faces of Vincent Van Gogh: A Study of Portraits

For educators interested in focusing on Van Gogh’s self-portraits, this lesson provides an excellent framework. Students focus on the color wheel as well as on proportion in this lesson.

Look Before You Think: How to Appreciate a Painting

This comprehensive set of lesson plans is suitable for high school students learning how to critique and analyze art. Although the works of many different artists are featured in this lesson, Van Gogh’s "The Night Café" is included in a section entitled “Meet the artist and his painting.” This lesson can also be applied to the study of virtually any artist from any time period.