Vincent van Gogh: fact or fiction?

Fact or fiction:

how much do you know about Vincent van Gogh?

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Slide 1: Tekstslide
Art and designLower Secondary (Key Stage 3)Upper Secondary (Key Stage 4)Higher Education (degree)

In deze les zitten 35 slides, met interactieve quizzen en tekstslides.

time-iconLesduur is: 30 min


There are many stories about Vincent van Gogh, but not all of them are true. This interactive lesson will introduce the class to the best-known facts – and myths – about Vincent.


General learning objectives
The class will be introduced to Vincent van Gogh.
The class will learn the difference between fact and fiction in regard to Vincent's life.
Materials required
Students can use their mobile phones for the quiz.
The lesson can also be completed without mobiles.

Optional variations
To save time, you can use a smaller number of multiple-choice questions. Alternatively, you can spread the lesson over two or more class sessions.

Background information
More information about Van Gogh's friends and acquaintances
More information about Van Gogh and his illness
More information about Van Gogh's unrequited loves

Onderdelen in deze les

Fact or fiction:

how much do you know about Vincent van Gogh?

Slide 1 - Tekstslide

Vincent van Gogh is a world-famous artist. That may be why there are so many stories about him. But what parts of those stories are fact, and what parts are fiction? We'll find out this week by playing a quiz.

Discuss the terms 'fact' and 'fiction' if necessary.

Vincent van Gogh

Slide 2 - Woordweb

Before the quiz, ask the class: What do you already know about Vincent?

Instructions for the quiz: Students can use their mobile phones to answer the questions. The class can also do the quiz without mobiles, and the answers can be marked on the digital whiteboard (click on the pencil icon for this option).

Quiz: Fact of fiction?

Slide 3 - Tekstslide

Introduce the quiz 'Fact or fiction'. Each question relates to a different claim about Van Gogh. The students must decide whether the claim is true or false. (If the students aren't using mobiles, have them each keep track of their own personal score.)

Was Vincent a solitary artist?
Yes, he led a solitary life.
No, he had a lot of friends and acquaintances.

Slide 4 - Quizvraag

Ask a few students to say which answer they chose and why. Then discuss the correct answer, B: Vincent was not a solitary artist. He went on outings and exchanged ideas with many fellow artists and other friends. And when they were far apart, they corresponded, keeping in touch by writing each other letters.

The next few slides show a few of Van Gogh's many friends.

Anthon van Rappard. Vincent spent time with this painter in the Netherlands.
Theo. Vincent's brother, and his greatest source of support. They wrote each other hundreds of letters – sometimes two a day!

Slide 5 - Tekstslide

Tell the class: In the Netherlands, one of Vincent's friends was Anthon Van Rappard. The two of them painted together. Vincent discussed ideas about art with both his brother Theo and Van Rappard, in letters and in conversations. This sometimes led to conflicts.
'My dear friend Rappard
I just received your letter — to my surprise. You hereby get it back.

Slide 6 - Tekstslide

Continue: For example, when Van Rappard criticised Vincent's painting The Potato Eaters, Vincent was furious and returned the critical letter to Van Rappard at once with a brief note.
Click on the hotspot to read Vincent's note.
Here is a link to Van Rappard's letter.
'And why must the woman on the left have a sort of little pipe stem with a cube on it for a nose?'
'And why may that man on the right not have a knee or a belly or lungs? Or are they in his back? And why must his arm be a metre too short? And why must he lack half of his nose?'
'Why not study the movements? Now they’re posing. That coquettish little hand of that woman at the back, how untrue!'

Slide 7 - Tekstslide

Ask the students what they think Van Rappard might have disliked about The Potato Eaters.

Click on the icons to show Van Rappard's criticisms.

Ask the students if they agree with this criticism and how they might have responded to it.
John Peter Russell. Vincent got to know this Australian painter in a studio in Paris.
In Paris, Russell painted this portrait of Vincent.
The two of them remained in contact after Vincent left Paris. Vincent sent Russell twelve drawings from Arles.

Slide 8 - Tekstslide

Tell the class: Alongside his brother and Van Rappard, Vincent had other friends and acquaintances. 

Soon after he went to Paris in 1886 to live with his brother, he began taking drawing lessons from the French painter Fernand Cormon. In Cormon's studio Vincent met other painters, like John Peter Russell.

Émile Henri Bernard. Vincent met this French painter, who was 15 years younger, in Paris.  They sometimes worked side by side in Bernard's parents' garden.
Bernard made this self-portrait especially for Vincent. He signed it 'Emile Bernard, à son copaing Vincent'. 'A son copain' is French for 'to his friend'. Bernard added a  'g' to 'copain' as a joke about the accent in the Provence region, where Vincent was living by then.

Slide 9 - Tekstslide

Continue: Vincent and Émile Bernard wrote letters to each other and exchanged works of art.

During Vincent's time in Arles, he asked Bernard and Gauguin (who had gone to Pont-Aven together to work) to paint each other's portraits in exchange for two of his own works. Instead, they each painted a self-portrait with a small portrait of the other artist in the background.

Émile Bernard, Self-Portrait with Portrait of Gauguin, 1888

This is the Yellow House where Vincent and Paul Gauguin lived and worked together.
Here you see a broken-up road. Vincent had gas installed in the Yellow House so that he and Gauguin could work after sunset by gaslight.
This is the kitchen where Gauguin cooked tasty meals.

Slide 10 - Tekstslide

Continue: Vincent wanted to found a 'Studio of the South' in Arles, a group of artists whose work Theo could sell in Paris. The first and only artist who actually came to live in the Yellow House with Vincent was Paul Gauguin.

The Yellow House, 1888

Paul Gauguin. The man of the world. Not many artists travelled to such faraway places as Gauguin. For example, he went to the Caribbean island of Martinique.
Vincent described Gauguin's painting The Mango Trees as 'high poetry'.

Slide 11 - Tekstslide

Continue: Vincent and Gauguin had different working methods. Gauguin usually worked from memory, while Vincent often painted directly from reality. Their different ideas about art led them to argue ever more fiercely.
Joseph Roulin. He worked as a postal employee at the railway station in Arles. Because Vincent often went there to send paintings to Theo, he became good friends with Joseph.

Slide 12 - Tekstslide

Continue: Vincent also had friends who were not artists. Joseph Roulin is a good example. He was a postal employee in Arles. Vincent and Roulin had a special bond. They often ate together; for example, Roulin sometimes invited Vincent to his home for a meal with his family.

Joseph Roulin, 1889, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Vincent described the Roulin family members in these portraits as 'the man, his wife, the baby, the young boy and the 16-year-old son, all characters and very French, although they have a Russian look.'

Slide 13 - Tekstslide

Continue: Vincent painted portraits of the whole Roulin family, including the baby Marcelle.

Vincent, solitary? Fiction!

Slide 14 - Tekstslide

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Vincent and women

Slide 15 - Tekstslide

Continue: Vincent had romantic relationships with several women. One of them was Agostina Segatori, shown in this painting. He never married. Many people claim that Vincent liked to visit prostitutes and even had a serious relationship with one of them.

In the Café: Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin, 1887

Did Vincent really have a relationship with a prostitute?
No, Vincent was only interested in art.
Yes, she was a woman named Sien. They lived together for a while.

Slide 16 - Quizvraag

Ask a few students to say which answer they chose and explain why. Then discuss the correct answer: B. Vincent did have a relationship with a prostitute. He lived with her and her children in The Hague.
Vincent & Sien

- Sien (Christine) Hoornik occasionally worked as a prostitute.
- Vincent lived with Sien and her children in The Hague.
- He hoped that by living with them he could 'rescue' them. They lived mainly on Vincent's money.
- Van Gogh's family was not happy with the relationship.
- After a year and a half they separated.

Slide 17 - Tekstslide

Explain: Vincent often felt a connection with people going through hard times, like Sien. He felt a strong urge to help them.

Sorrow, 1882

  • In nineteenth-century Europe, it was not socially acceptable for a man and woman to live together without marrying.
  • In those days, it was not unusual for unmarried men to visit prostitutes.

Slide 18 - Tekstslide

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Yes, Vincent did have a relationship with a prostitute. Fact!

Slide 19 - Tekstslide

So yes, it's a fact. Some of the evidence is in Vincent's letters to and from his brother Theo.
Vincent and poverty

Slide 20 - Tekstslide

Tell the class: Many people think Vincent van Gogh was poor. But was he really?
Was Vincent poor?
No. He had enough money.
Yes. He lived hand to mouth..

Slide 21 - Quizvraag

Ask a few students to say which answer they chose and explain why. Then discuss the correct answer: A. Even though Vincent hardly earned any money, he didn't live hand to mouth. Vincent had several sources of income.
Go on to the next slide for more information.
Sources of income
  • Vincent received money from his younger brother Theo every month.
  • He also sold a few paintings and drawings, but did not earn enough that way to support himself.
As a successful Paris art dealer, Theo could easily support Vincent financially.

Slide 22 - Tekstslide

Continue: Theo sent Vincent money every month in exchange for paintings. That money made it possible for Vincent to live and paint. It was about the same amount a working-class family with four children needed to survive.

Vincent was not poor. He just couldn't handle money very well. He often spent it too fast and didn't have enough left at the end of the month. He spent most of his money on painting materials, food, prints and live models.

Slide 23 - Tekstslide

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Vincent, poor? Fiction!

Slide 24 - Tekstslide

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In 1888, Vincent cut off his left ear and gave it away.

Slide 25 - Tekstslide

You can find more information here about the incident and the argument with his artist friend Paul Gauguin that preceded it.
Is it true that Vincent took his ear to a woman in a brothel?
No. He buried it in a park near the Yellow House.
Yes, the story is completely true.

Slide 26 - Quizvraag

Ask a few students to say which answer they chose and explain why. Then go to the next slide and discuss the correct answer: B.
Vincent's ear
  • After Vincent cut off his ear, he gave it to a young woman.
  • She is often said to have been a prostitute. That is incorrect.
  • She worked as a cleaning woman in a brothel.

Slide 27 - Tekstslide

Explain: Vincent cut off his entire left ear, and not just his earlobe, as people thought for many years. Vincent had some kind of mental illness, but we do not know exactly what it was.

Vincent took his ear to a woman in a brothel. Fact!

Slide 28 - Tekstslide

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His last painting?

Slide 29 - Tekstslide

Tell the class: Many people have claimed that Wheatfield with Crows is Vincent's very last work. Take a good look. Can you imagine that it might have been?

What's your opinion? Could 'Wheatfield with Crows' be Vincent's last painting?

Slide 30 - Quizvraag

Ask a few students to say which answer they chose and explain why. Any answer is fine, because you asked them to imagine what might be possible. Then tell them that, in fact, this is not Vincent's last painting, even though people thought so for many years. The dark, stormy sky filled with crows and the dead-end path seemed to be symbols of his impending death. But that's a persistent myth.
Last painting

- Tree Roots is Vincent's last painting. - It's unfinished.

- Notes made by Andries Bonger (Theo's brother-in-law) tell us that Vincent made a sousbois ('underwood') painting shortly before his death. That must be Tree Roots.    - This painting was on Vincent's easel just before he died.

Slide 31 - Tekstslide

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This photo from 2012 shows what Vincent was painting: trees growing against a steep rock face.

Slide 32 - Tekstslide

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Wheatfield with Crows, Vincent's last work? Fiction!

The myth that Wheatfield with Crows is his last work originally comes from Irving Stone's romanticised biography of Vincent, Lust for Life (1934). It was reinforced by the film of the same name (1956).

Slide 33 - Tekstslide

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Is there anything we DON'T know about Vincent?

Slide 34 - Tekstslide

Tell the class: Despite all the letters Vincent wrote and all our research, there's still a lot we don't know about Vincent. For example, we don't know what illness he had.

What would you like to know about Vincent?

Send your question to:

Slide 35 - Tekstslide

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