He began late and died young. Yet, over a span of 10 years, Vincent van Gogh completed nearly 900 paintings and 1,100 sketches, lithographs, and other works.
The troubled Dutch artist became obsessed with his subjects and returned to them again and again, painting near duplicates of sunflowers or cypress trees. With manic brushstrokes and dramatic flourishes of his palette knife, van Gogh carried Post-Impressionism into new realms. He received little recognition during his life, but now his work sells for millions and is reproduced on posters, t-shirts, and coffee mugs. Even a feature-length animated film celebrates van Gogh's compelling images.
Which paintings by van Gogh are the most popular? Here, in chronological order, are 10 contenders.
"The Potato Eaters" is not van Gogh's first painting, but it's his earliest masterpiece. The mostly self-taught artist may have been imitating Rembrandt when he chose the dark, monotone color scheme. However, van Gogh's treatment of light and shadow foretells his landmark painting, "The Night Café," done three years later.
Van Gogh spent a couple of years doing preliminary sketches, portrait studies, and lithographs before he completed the version of "The Potato Eaters" shown here. The subject matter illustrates van Gogh's affection for the simple, rugged lives of common people. He depicted the peasants with gnarled hands and cartoonishly ugly faces illuminated by the dim glow of a hanging lantern.
In a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh explained, "I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and — that they have thus honestly earned their food."
Van Gogh was pleased with his accomplishment. Writing to his sister, he said "The Potato Eaters" was his best painting from his time in Nuenen.
Van Gogh broke free from the dark palette of his Dutch-inspired art when he painted his explosively bright sunflower paintings. The first series, completed in 1887 while he lived in Paris, showed sunflower clippings laying on the ground.
In 1888, van Gogh moved to a yellow house in Arles in southern France and began seven still lifes with vibrant sunflowers in vases. He applied the paint in heavy layers and broad strokes. Three of the paintings, including the one shown here, were done exclusively in yellow hues. Nineteenth century innovations in paint chemistry expanded van Gogh's color palette to include a new shade of yellow known as chrome.
Van Gogh hoped to establish a cooperative artist's community at the yellow house. He painted his Arles sunflower series to prepare the space for the arrival of painter Paul Gauguin. Gauguin called the paintings "a perfect example of the style that was completely Vincent."
"I feel the desire to renew myself," van Gogh wrote in 1890, "and to try to apologize for the fact that my pictures are after all almost a cry of anguish, although in the rustic sunflower they may symbolize gratitude."
In early September 1888, van Gogh painted a scene he called "one of the ugliest pictures I have done." Violent reds and greens captured the gloomy interior of an all-night café on Place Lamartine in Arles, France.
Sleeping during the day, van Gogh spent three nights in the café working on the painting. He chose the jarring effect of simultaneous contrast to express the "terrible passions of humanity."
Oddly skewed perspective pitches the viewer into the canvas toward an abandoned pool table. Scattered chairs and slumped figures suggest utter desolation. The haloed lighting effects are reminiscent of van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters." Both paintings expressed a grim view of the world, and the artist described them as equivalents.
"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day," van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. The artist's love affair with the night was partly philosophical and partly inspired by the technical challenge of creating light from darkness. His nocturnal landscapes express mysticism and a sense of the infinite.
In mid-September 1888, van Gogh set up his easel outside a café at the Place du Forum in Arles and painted his first "starry night" scene. Rendered without black, "Café Terrace at Night" contrasts a brilliant yellow awning against a Persian-blue sky. The cobbled pavement suggests the luminous hues of a stained glass window.
There's no doubt that the artist found spiritual solace in the nightscape. Some critics take the idea further, claiming that van Gogh incorporated crosses and other Christian symbols. According to researcher Jared Baxter, the 12 figures on the café terrace echo Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" (1495-98).
Travelers to Arles can visit the same café at Place du Forum.
During his stay in Arles, van Gogh wrote in detail about the colors he found in his bedroom at Place Lamartine ("the yellow house"). In October 1888, he began a series of sketches and three oil paintings that showed nearly duplicate views of the room.
The first painting (shown here) was the only one he completed while still in Arles. In September 1889, van Gogh painted the second version from memory while convalescing at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. A couple of weeks later, he painted a third, smaller version as a gift for his mother and sister. In each version, the colors grew slightly dimmer and the pictures on the wall over the bed were altered.
Collectively, van Gogh's bedroom paintings rank among his most recognizable and most beloved works. In 2016, The Chicago Institute of Art built a replica inside an apartment in the City’s River North neighborhood. Bookings poured in when Airbnb offered the Chicago room at $10 a night.
Less than two months before severing his ear lobe during a major psychotic break, van Gogh painted the only work that officially sold during his lifetime.
"The Red Vineyards at Arles" captured the vibrant color and shimmering light that washed through southern France in early November. Fellow artist Gauguin may have inspired the vibrant colors. However, the heavy layers of paint and energetic brush strokes were distinctively van Gogh.
"The Red Vineyards" appeared in the 1890 exhibition of Les XX, an important Belgian art society. Impressionist painter and art collector Anna Boch purchased the painting for 400 Francs (about $1,000 in today's currency).
Some of van Gogh's most loved paintings were completed during his year-long convalescence at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. Gazing through a barred window, he saw the pre-dawn countryside illuminated by enormous stars. The scene, he told his brother, inspired "The Starry Night."
Van Gogh preferred to paint en plein air, but "The Starry Night" drew from memory and imagination. Van Gogh eliminated the window bars. He added a spiraling cypress tree and a steepled church. Although van Gogh painted many nocturnal scenes during his lifetime, "The Starry Night" became his most famous.
"The Starry Night" has long been the center of artistic and scientific debate. Some mathematicians say that the swirling brushstrokes illustrate turbulent flow, a complex theory of fluid motion. Medical sleuths speculate that the saturated yellows suggest xanthopsia, a visual distortion brought on by the medication digitalis. Art lovers often say that the whirls of light and color mirror the artist's tortured mind.
Today, "The Starry Night" is considered a masterpiece, but the artist wasn't pleased with his work. In a letter to Émile Bernard, van Gogh wrote, "once again I let myself go reaching for stars that are too big—a new failure—and I have had enough of it."
The towering cypress trees that surrounded the asylum at Saint-Rémy became as important to van Gogh as sunflowers had been in Arles. With his characteristic bold impasto, the artist rendered the trees and surrounding landscape with dynamic swirls of color. The heavy layers of paint took on added texture from the asymmetrical weave of the toile ordinaire canvas that van Gogh ordered from Paris and used for most of his later works.
Van Gogh believed that "Wheat Field with Cypresses" was one of his best summer landscapes. After painting the scene en plein air, he painted two slightly more refined versions in his studio at the asylum.
After leaving the asylum, van Gogh received homeopathic and psychiatric care from Dr. Gachet, who was an aspiring artist and who appeared to suffer from his own psychological demons.
Van Gogh painted two similar portraits of his physician. In both, a dejected Dr. Gachet sits with his left hand on a sprig of foxglove, a plant used in the heart and psychiatric medication, digitalis. The first version (shown here) includes yellow books and several other details.
A century after it was completed, this version of the portrait sold to a private collector for a record-breaking $82.5 million (including the 10% auction fee).
Critics and scholars have scrutinized both portraits and questioned their authenticity. However, infrared scans and chemical analysis indicate that both paintings are the work of van Gogh. It's likely that he painted the second version as a gift to his doctor.
While the artist often praised Dr. Gachet, some historians blame the physician for van Gogh's death in July 1890.
Van Gogh completed about 80 works during the final two months of his life. No one knows for certain which painting was his last. However, "Wheatfield with Crows," painted on about July 10, 1890, was among his latest and is sometimes described as a suicide note.
"I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness," he told his brother. Van Gogh may have been referencing several very similar paintings completed in Auvers, France, during this time. "Wheatfield with Crows" is especially menacing. The colors and images suggest potent symbols.
Some scholars call the fleeing crows harbingers of death. But, are the birds flying toward the painter (suggesting doom) or away (suggesting salvation)?
Van Gogh was shot on July 27, 1890 and he died of complications from the wound two days later. Historians debate whether the artist intended to kill himself. Like "Wheatfield with Crows," van Gogh's mysterious death is open to many interpretations.
The painting is often described as one of van Gogh's greatest.
The memorable paintings shown here are only a few of the countless masterpieces by van Gogh. For other favorites, explore the sources listed below.
Van Gogh enthusiasts may also want to take a deep dive into the artist's letters, which chronicle his life and creative processes. More than 900 correspondences—most written by van Gogh and some received—have been translated into English and can be read online at The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh or in print editions of the collection.