Van Gogh and Van Gogh: an Identity Crisis

“I am so glad things have been arranged so that I can work here (Etten) quietly for some time; I hope to make as many studies as I can, for that is the seed from which later the drawings will come” (Letter 144 to Theo, brother, May 1, 1881).

van gogh self portrait blue1889
Self-portrait in front of easel, 1889
In the mental asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausole**

Before Van Gogh became the great artist, before he was even born, there was another Van Gogh.  His name was Vincent too.  The first-born child of Rev. Theodorus Van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Corbentus, this “to be Vincent” came first to the world as a stillborn.  Upon their second child, the one we know, they decided to bestow the same name as their first.  Thus, a second but singular Vincent Wilhelm Van Gogh came into the world.

Van Gogh (artist) was always plagued by the fact that his older brother had the same name as he.  He felt rather more like a replacement child and his ambitious, all-or-nothing enthusiasm for life is evidence of his strides toward overcoming the ghost of the past.

When I read about this I couldn’t help but think of another artist who had the same crisis: Salvador Dali.

Dali, too, was the first/second child.  His parents had their first child whose name was, can you guess?  Salvador Dali.  Unfortunately their son died after 9 months due to illness.  Like Van Gogh’s parents, Dali’s gave him the same name.  Perturbed and expressive about his constant struggle to win over his brother’s shadow, Dali painted a picture (masterpiece 🙂 ) representing the overlapping waxing and waning of his brother’s identity with his own.

Portrait of My Dead Brother, 1963
Portrait of My Dead Brother, 1963

I’ll just give a quick rundown of this piece.  The face is made up of both dark and light cherries.  The dark cherries represent Dali’s brother and the light are his own face.  In the upper lip, if you look really closely, just above you can see two cherries connected at the stem.  This is Dali’s connection to his brother.  For more information on this picture see source: (if you ever have the opportunity, go visit the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, FL it’s definitely worth seeing in person).

Both Van Gogh and Dali struggled daily with ascertaining their own identity from that of their older deceased brothers.  This only adds to Van Gogh’s character as a universally relatable personality.

This theme of identity and “becoming” is so relevant to all of our lives that whether it’s a voice from the past or from the present, we might be able to settle on the idea that this crisis is an integral part of who we are as human beings.  This, we can share then beyond borders of nationality and opinion, so let’s take that chance (Van Gogh at 17) and keep in mind to help others along the way.  The Key2Change might well be found in the struggle to find ourselves.

P.s. 1881 is the year that Van Gogh finally decided to become a full time artist. We’re on our way!


The Complete Van Gogh, Jan Hulsker



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