Visit the Van Gogh Museum for free with the I amsterdam City Card

Beginnings and background

Van Gogh was born in 1853 in the village of Zundert in Brabant. He attended primary school in Zevenbergen, secondary school in Tilburg and left at the age of 15 to work for art dealer Goupil & Cie in The Hague. Van Gogh shared an interest in the art world with his brother Theo, who worked for the same dealer in Brussels and later in Paris. The pair exchanged letters, which have been carefully preserved over the years, giving us a rare insight into the artist’s life and work in his own words. Van Gogh’s chosen career was a point of great conflict between him and his parents. Theo supported him financially throughout his life.

Van Gogh's birthplace in Zundert. Photo via Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

In search of inspiration

Following stints in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, during which time he considered a career in theology, Van Gogh eventually decided to develop his drawing techniques with encouragement from his brother. He returned to the Netherlands for a short time, then enrolled in art school in Antwerp before joining Theo in Paris. At this time, Paris was a hotbed of artistic inspiration. Impressionists were experimenting with natural light, painting en plein air and moving towards loose, vivid brushstrokes. While inspiring, Paris became overwhelming for Van Gogh and he relocated to Provence in 1888 in search of sunshine and a slower pace of life.

The Potato Eaters (1885). Photo via Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam 

Troubling times ahead

He remained in Arles for more than a year and bonded with fellow artists including Paul Gauguin. The pair were close friends who worked together and shared ideas. Eventually, their artistic differences came to a head and Gauguin threatened to leave, triggering Van Gogh’s severe breakdown and the well-known incident in which he cut off part of his ear. His struggles with mental health were escalating and he sought help at a psychiatric institution in Saint-Rémy soon after. While in hospital, he painted tirelessly, treating artistic expression as a type of therapy. At times, his health seemed to be improving, but the fear of his health problems returning – as well as financial instability – led to his suicide at the age of 37.

Field with Flowers near Arles (1888). Photo via Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Van Gogh’s artistic style

Van Gogh’s earlier works were influenced by realist artists such as François Millet and Gustave Courbet whose subjects included peasants and scenes of everyday life. Van Gogh’s first major work, The Potato Eaters (1885), portrays a family of peasants sitting down to eat a simple meal of potatoes. Their features are realistically gnarled and weather-beaten, their clothes ragged, and they sit under dull lamplight.

As his style developed, Van Gogh moved towards what is now categorised as post-impressionism, an emotionally evocative style of painting. Van Gogh used dramatic, spontaneous brushstrokes and symbolic colour in his still lifes and landscapes, painting what he felt rather than what he saw. This is perhaps part of his reason that his artwork remains so accessible to wide audiences: the calming yellows in The Bedroom (1888) and the ominous swirling brushstrokes in The Starry Night (1889) is a telling peek into the artist’s emotional state. His oeuvre also includes more than 43 self-portraits.

The Bedroom (1888). Photo via Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Most famous works

  • Sunflowers (1989) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
  • The Potato Eaters (1885) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
  • The Starry Night (1889) Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Café Terrace at Night (1888) Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Jan Kees Steenman

See Van Gogh’s art in Amsterdam

The Van Gogh Museum opened in 1973 and is home to some 200 paintings and 500 drawings. Along with showcasing some of the artist’s most prominent works, the museum goes into great detail about Van Gogh’s life and the stories behind the artworks. Many of the letters between Van Gogh and his family are on display, translated into several languages and recorded on audio guides.

In the first building, designed by Dutch artist and architect Gerrit Rietveld, you can follow the development of Van Gogh’s style and see major works by the artists who influenced him, including Gauguin, Munch and Kandinsky. This building was expanded in 1999, in a design by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, to house the museum’s ever-changing schedule of exhibitions.

Tip: Entrance to the Van Gogh Museum is included in the I amsterdam City Card.

Van Gogh museum Amsterdam Jan Kees Steenman

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Jan Kees Steenman

More places to see Van Gogh’s work in Amsterdam

Aside from the Van Gogh Museum, several of his paintings are displayed in the permanent collections of the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum. The Kröller-Müller Museum is home to the world’s second-largest Van Gogh collection, made up of more than 80 paintings and 180 drawings. Among these, Café Terrace at Night (1888) is one of the most famous.

More museums included in the I amsterdam City Card