Not many artists inspire more awe and mystery than the legendary Vincent Willem Van Gogh (1853 – 1890.) Most people know him as a social outcast who cut off part of his own ear, painted some masterpieces and then shot himself. But many facts surrounding Vincent’s life are even stranger than that.
Why He Signed his Paintings “Vincent”
Van Gogh signed most of his major paintings with his first name. Usually, an artist signed with initials or the last name. He was a Dutchman with a name easy for non-Dutch to spell but difficult to pronounce. “Van Gogh” is not pronounced “van go” or “van goff” but a sound difficult to reproduce in English spelling. The best approximation is “van hawkgh” to sound similarly (but not exactly) to “cough.”
He was perhaps tired of hearing foreigners mangle his last name and so preferred to be called by the more easily pronounced Vincent. He also had a considerable talent for ticking off his family members, so he may have started signing “Vincent” in order to distance himself from the whole Van Gogh clan.
He Wasn’t the Biggest Failure in the Family
Vincent was definitely the black sheep of his family, but he was nothing compared to his first cousin Hendrik Jacob Eerligh Van Gogh, the son of Vincent’s uncle, Rear Admiral Johannes (Jan) Van Gogh (1817 – 1885). Uncle Jan made a fortune in his career and watched it all wash away when his son (Vincent’s cousin) stole it all and escaped to America, where he would die just one year after his father. He is buried in Portland, Oregon.
Not much is known about Hendrik except that he was diagnosed with epilepsy and apparently drank a great deal. The only treatment for epilepsy back then was to stick the person in an insane asylum. No wonder he ran off to another continent entirely.
His Parents had Another Vincent Willem Van Gogh
Exactly one year before Vincent was born, a son was born to his parents and named Vincent Willem Van Gogh. Unfortunately, he was stillborn. The tiny body was buried at the church where Vincent’s father worked. Every time Vincent went to church, he saw a grave with his name and birth date on it.
Although this would seem to be a significant detail in a man’s life, it was basically ignored by Vincent and his family. The 1850s did have high death rates for babies and so reusing a good name perhaps made sense at the time.