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Self Portrait Van Gogh

Van Gogh Before Becoming an Artist

by VanGoghology

Many people aren’t aware that Van Gogh was not always an artist; in fact, he worked in several different fields before starting a career as a post-impressionist.

It’s enough to state, however, that he was deeply immersed in the arts. Vincent began working at his uncle Cent’s prestigious art dealership, Goupil & Cie, in the Hague in July 1869, when he was just 16 years old.

Here, large quantities of high-end engraved, etched, and photographed replicas of paintings were manufactured, and Vincent oversaw packing and unpacking while also assisting with the crating of paintings.

A few years later, his brother Theo would find employment at the Brussels branch of Goupil & Cie; In mid-January 1873, Vincent expressed his joy by writing: “I’m really very happy that you’re also part of this firm. It’s such a fine firm, the longer one is part of it the more enthusiastic one becomes”. Vincent had recently received a wage increase and was now earning an acceptable 50 guilders per month.

Goupil CieBy May of that same year, Vincent was transferred to the London branch of Goupil & Cie, at 17 Southampton Street in the Strand, and was to share a house with three German fellows. Although he adored London, much like today, accommodation was expensive; 18 shillings per week in 1873 was the equivalent of four days’ income for a skilled tradesman.

Expanding his horizons through his love for art and culture, Vincent visited many of The lavish museums and galleries that grace England’s capital; The Wallace Collection, which had been displayed in Bethnal Green, The South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), The National Gallery, The Dulwich Gallery, The Royal Academy, and more.

In September, to save money, Vincent moved to 87 Hackford Road, Brixton, where he boarded with Ursula Loyer and her daughter Eugenie, who ran a small school for young boys in the front room. Today, 87 Hackford Road is a Grade II listed building that has been renovated and conserved by the Wang family, but in 1874 it served as the onset of one of Vincent’s first significant bouts of depression following his rejection by Eugenie, with whom he had fallen in love.

In October 1874 Vincent was temporarily transferred to Paris, though returned to London in January after Goupil & Cie acquired the art and print gallery of Holloway & Sons at 25 Bedford Street in London’s Strand

In February, Vincent wrote about the new gallery in a letter to Theo:

Our gallery is now finished and it’s beautiful, we have many beautiful things at the moment: Jules Dupré, Michel, Daubigny, Maris, Israëls, Mauve, Bisschop, &c. We’re going to hold an exhibition in April. Mr. Boussod has promised to send us the best that can be had: Malaria by Hébert, The cliff by J. Breton, &c. – I’d like so much to have you here; we must make sure that it happens sometime.
Vincent to Theo

The exhibition was held on Monday, 24 May and included “An Exhibition of 160 high-class continental pictures.” featuring Hébert, Jules Breton, Dupré, Gérôme, Meissonier, Millet, Corot, Ferdinand Roybet, and more. Unfortunately, prior to the exhibition, and much to Vincent’s dismay, he was transferred to the Paris branch and was replaced by a Mr. Richard Tripp.

Vincent obtained accommodations in Montmartre, where he shared space with a young Englishman named Harry Gladwell who also worked at Goupil & Cie. He remained at the Paris branch until March 31, 1876, and his position was replaced by young Gladwell.

Vincent’s sketch for Theo

Vincent’s sketch for Theo Wed, 31 May 1876 – “View from the school window where the boys stand and watch their parents going back to the station after a visit.”

Vincent’s sketch for Theo Wed, 31 May 1876 – “View from the school window where the boys stand and watch their parents going back to the station after a visit.”

In preparation for his next venture, Vincent started seeking employment elsewhere by responding to various job ads, and on the morning before his departure from Paris he received a letter from William Port Stokes, the headmaster of a well-respected, but strict, boys’ school in Ramsgate, England

Vincent left on April 14, which was Good Friday and upon arrival sent a Telegram to his parents in Etten: “Arrived safely. Boarding school, 24 boys. Think it’s all right. Regards to all. V. v. G.”

Vincent taught the boys French and German, as well as basic fundamentals, math, and giving them dictation.

For the first month it was agreed that he would only receive lodging and meals as compensation – The school was located at 6 Royal Square and Vincent’s accommodations, which he shared with another assistant teacher and four of the boys, was housed close by at 11 Spencer Square – Today, there are blue plaques on both houses signifying the brief few months Van Gogh spent here.

Home to work

At the end of June Mr. Stokes had moved the school, and indeed Vincent, to Linkfield House at 183 Twickenham Road in what was then as the village of Isleworth.

It was early July, when Vincent wrote to Theo:

Mr. Stokes says he definitely cannot give me a salary, for he can get plenty of people who’ll work for board and lodging alone, which is certainly true. But can that be kept up for long? I’m afraid not; it will be decided soon enough. – But, old boy, no matter what the case, I think I can tell you this again, that these couple of months have bound me so closely to the sphere ranging from schoolmaster to clergyman, both through satisfactions associated with those situations and through thorns that have pricked me, that I can no longer turn back.

Onward, then! But I can assure you that very distinct difficulties will present themselves very soon, and others are visible on the horizon, and as if one is in a different world from the firm of Messrs Goupil & Co.

Vincent to Theo

It stands to reason that Vincent would not last very much longer working for the penny-pinching Mr. Stokes, and within the week he had entered the employ of congregational minister, Rev Thomas Slade-Jones, who ran a boys’ school on the same street located at 158 Twickenham Road, and where Vincent would be paid a salary of £15 per year plus board and lodging.

This new endeavor proved agreeable, and once school term began, he tutored the boys in the morning and frequently cared for the Slade-Jones’ own five daughters and a son in the afternoon. When nightfall came, he would read them Biblically inspired tales of repentance and inspiration.

Vincent had become increasingly more consumed with religion after his rejection by Eugenie, and over time, witnessing the degree of his commitment to the Christain faith, the Reverend suggested he volunteer at his church Sunday School in Turnham Green; These records are noted in the Sunday school minutes.

During October and November Vincent undertook several church engagements at the Chiswick Congregational Church in Turnham Green, and also the Richmond Methodist Church, the Methodist chapel at Petersham, and Vineyard Congregational Church – His evangelical dedication became more of an ‘obsession’ which judging by the content of his letters suggest that he was mentally, and emotionally unwell.

On December 20th, he returned to Etten to spend the Christmas period with his family, who upon witnessing his Forlorn demeanor and deteriorating health, urged he not to return.

Mr. and Mrs. Van Gogh wrote to Theo expressing how worried they were for Vincent, his father noting: “I sometimes fear that the Rev. Jones exploits him a little as an errand boy and cannot believe that his present path will lead to a proper livelihood” while his mother emphasized the need for change. – Uncle Cent also got involved after Theo mentioned there was a vacancy at a Bookstore in Dordrecht called Blussé & Van Braam – Pieter Kornelis Braat, the owner of the bookshop ended up hiring Vincent (more as a favor to his son, a good friend of Theo’s) where he began working on January 3, 1877.

Blusse Van Braam 1In the months that followed, Vincent worked long hours at the bookstore, usually working into the night, but not necessarily for the benefit of the business as he was routinely found sketching, or translating the Bible into French, German, and English.

Vincent’s Bible preoccupation is evident in his letters, where he constantly cites verse, hymns and scriptures. On Sundays, he would occasionally attend three, sometimes four church services: The Dutch Reformed Church, a Roman Catholic service, Jansenist, and Lutheran. The large 13th century Brabantine Gothic style ‘Grote Kerk’ is one of those churches, and it still exists today.

Feb 28, 1877 Vincent wrote to THEO:

Last night I left the office at 1 o’clock and walked around the Grote Kerk again and then along the canals and past that old gate (The Groothoofdspoort) to the Nieuwe Kerk and then home. It had snowed and everything was so still, the only thing one saw was a little light here and there in one or two upstairs rooms and, in the snow, the black figure of the rattle-man. It was high tide, and the canals and boats looked dark against the snow. It can be so beautiful there by those churches. The sky was grey and foggy, and the moon shone faintly through it.


Thought of you while I was walking, and upon arriving home I wrote what I’m sending you. It’s perhaps a time when one needs ‘the sound of a psalm of the past and a lamentation from the Cross’.

In 1914, Dutch journalist and author Marie Joseph Brusse, who wrote a popular column for the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, covered a story about Van Gogh the Bookseller’s Clerk’ as described by Dirk Braat, son of the bookstore owner. – You can read a copy of the transcript HERE

He left Dordrecht in May 1877 to prepare for training in Amsterdam at the University of Amsterdam theology.

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