Before Vincent became an artist

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Slide 1: Slide
Art and designGeography+1Primary EducationLower Secondary (Key Stage 3)

This lesson contains 30 slides, with interactive quizzes and text slides.

time-iconLesson duration is: 15 min


A brief description of Vincent's life before he decided to become an artist, with a short quiz at the end.


General learning objective
The class will listen to a brief story about the life of Vincent van Gogh before he became an artist and then answer a few questions about it.

No materials required.

Optional variations
1. The lesson may be used prior to a creative assignment, such as drawing.
2. Google Maps or other maps can be incorporated into this lesson as part of a geography class.

Background information
Vincent van Gogh decided to become an artist fairly late, at the age of 27. After leaving a promising career in his uncle's art dealership, he spent about four years trying to figure out what he really wanted to do with his life.

Items in this lesson

Slide 1 - Slide

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous Dutch artists of all time. When he died, he was only thirty-seven years old and had made more than 850 paintings and almost 1,300 drawings. That was after just ten years as an artist. Do you know what he did before he started drawing and painting? Let's start at the beginning.

Slide 2 - Slide

Vincent was born on 30 March 1853, in a small village called Zundert in the south of the Netherlands. Can you find it on this map from 1843?

A red dot has been added, with the letter 'Z'. The village was so small that it wasn't even on the original map.

Slide 3 - Slide

This is a photograph of the house in Zundert where Vincent was born.
(This photo dates from 1900, when the house was still there. It was later demolished.)

Slide 4 - Slide

Vincent's father was a pastor, and his mother was a housewife. He was not their first child, but sadly, the first Vincent had died at birth. Fortunately, the second Vincent was a healthy baby. In fact, three younger sisters and two younger brothers came after him. Vincent is 19 years old in the photograph. This is the last known portrait photo of him.

Slide 5 - Slide

Vincent went to boarding school. That means he went to a school where he lived as well. Vincent was good at languages. Besides his first language, Dutch, he also spoke German, English and French. Vincent was a good student, but shortly before his sixteenth birthday, he left school without a diploma.

Slide 6 - Slide

A year later, he began working in this shop: his uncle's art dealership in The Hague, called 'Goupil & Cie.'. That was where Vincent discovered his great interest in art. Goupil also had shops in Belgium, Germany, England, France, and even New York.

Slide 7 - Slide

Vincent did his best there. In fact, he did so well that he was also allowed to work for the Goupil shops in London and Paris. Can you find those cities on this map of Europe?
(This is a French map, so look for the French name for London: 'Londres'.)

Slide 8 - Slide

Meanwhile Vincent kept in touch with his family by writing letters, especially to his brother Theo. We know so much about Vincent today because Theo saved all of Vincent's letters. This is the earliest letter from Vincent that we still have today. It dates from 1872 and is written in Dutch. Can you find the names 'Theo' and 'Vincent'?

Slide 9 - Slide

In their letters, Vincent and Theo told each other about their experiences. For example, Vincent wrote that he wasn't interested in working as an art dealer anymore. He no longer did his best, and after almost seven years he lost his job. But Vincent soon found a new job, without pay, as an assistant teacher in Ramsgate, England. In April 1876, he made this drawing there. What do you think? Was he already good at drawing?
View of Royal Road, Ramsgate, 1876

Slide 10 - Map

After a couple of months, the school moved from Ramsgate to the small town of Isleworth, near London. Vincent could not afford to take the train, so he walked from Ramsgate to London. If you zoom out on the map, you can see how far that is.
(120 kilometres. Vincent walked that distance in two days.)

Slide 11 - Slide

After a couple of months, Vincent found a paying job. But he still wasn't earning much money. At the end of the year, he went back home to the Netherlands for Christmas.

Slide 12 - Slide

Vincent's parents were then living in the house shown in this drawing, on the left. His father advised him not to go back to England.

Parsonage and Church in Etten, 1876

Slide 13 - Slide

Vincent took that advice and found a job in a book shop. But after a few months he moved on to Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands. 
Can you find Amsterdam on this map?

Slide 14 - Slide

Vincent had decided that he wanted to be a pastor like his father. Since he had no diploma, he first had to take a national examination. He could do that in Amsterdam. There Vincent stayed with his uncle Jan, the director of the Navy Yard. You can see his house on this map, right above no. 36. Vincent spent a year there. But he didn't like his new course of study. Again, he left without finishing the programme.

Slide 15 - Slide

After that, Vincent found a job in Belgium. In the Borinage, a coal mining area, he was allowed to work as a 'lay preacher'. He gave lessons, visited the sick and spoke to people about the Bible. 

Vincent lived in Wasmes, near the town of Mons. Mons is in the south of Belgium. Can you find it on the map?

Slide 16 - Slide

In the Borinage, Vincent lived among the coal miners. Like them, he lived in poverty and slept on the floor. He gave away everything he owned. His superiors were displeased with that, and again, Vincent lost his job.

Coke Factory in the Borinage, 1879

Slide 17 - Slide

Vincent's family was very worried. He was 26 years old and still had no permanent job, no house, and no wife and children. They gave him all sorts of advice. His sister Anna told him he should become a baker, but Vincent had no interest in that at all.

Slide 18 - Slide

By this time, Theo had a good job at the art dealership in Paris where Vincent had worked. He was the one who advised Vincent to become an artist. The letters that Vincent sent to Theo often included small sketches, and sometimes even a finished drawing of something Vincent had seen. Vincent liked to draw, and Theo thought he had a talent for it. But Vincent wouldn't listen to him right away.
 'I remember very well that when you spoke to me back then about my becoming a painter, I thought it very inappropriate and wouldn’t hear of it.'

Slide 19 - Slide

He later remembered that he hadn't wanted to follow Theo's advice. But in the end, Vincent changed his mind.

Slide 20 - Map

That was in 1880, the year he turned 27. He stayed with the miners in the Borinage a while longer, in the village of Cuesmes. There he began to practice drawing. He also drew copies of illustrations of art works by famous artists.
(If you click on 'Maison Van Gogh' on this map, you can see the house where Vincent lived on Google Maps.)

Slide 21 - Slide

Vincent still had a lot to learn. His father and his brother Theo helped him by giving him money regularly. That allowed him to concentrate entirely on his new profession. From that time on, Vincent wanted only one thing: to be an artist.

Self-Portrait as a Painter, 1887–1888

Now you know more about Vincent. Right?

Let's test your knowledge...

Slide 22 - Slide

The lesson ends with this quiz. There are six questions. Who got all of them right?
What was Vincent van Gogh's year of birth?

Slide 23 - Quiz

What was Vincent's place of birth?

Slide 24 - Quiz

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In which city did Vincent NOT work for his uncle's art dealership?
The Hague
New York

Slide 25 - Quiz

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What was the first thing Vincent did when he lost his job at the art dealership?
He found work in a bookshop.
He became an assistant teacher.
He studied to become a pastor.
He went to help coal miners in Belgium.

Slide 26 - Quiz

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Who advised Vincent to become an artist?
His father
His mother
His brother Theo
His sister Anna

Slide 27 - Quiz

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In what year did Vincent become an artist?

Slide 28 - Quiz

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Slide 29 - Slide

Extra time? You can zoom in on this painting using the link in the next slide.

Self-portrait as a Painter, 1888 

Slide 30 - Link

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