Lessons from Vincent van Gogh

Last Saturday, in Amsterdam, I held my third field trip for children. My topic was, ‘Vincent van Gogh: His Life and His Art.’ The reaction of the children showed me how strong his impact still is and how much we can all draw from his experiences and life story.

In today’s blog, I’d like to share some insights with respect to the education of children, so that we can all benefit from his wisdom and hardships.

Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch painter born in 1853, was a poor student. We read that he was an introverted child who stayed alone a lot of the time. At age 15- years, Vincent was pulled out of school because his parents didn’t have the money to pay for his studies and, after all, he was a poor student. He was, however, an avid reader and his passion for literature became one of the constants in his life. Perhaps this partly explains his talent as a writer, writing in many languages with equal talent, wit and poise, as well as the quantity of letters sent to his brother, Theo.

Interesting, is it not, that this skill of writing was not attested to by his school?

Vincent never really fit it to society, though he tried for a long time. It seems his poor manners, lack of social skills prevented his from maintaining long-term and close relationships, as we see from the arguments he had with most painters in Paris. His intense temperament, and lack of ability and awareness to manage his emotions alienated him from his milieu. Information on Emotional Intelligence was not available in those times to support him.

At the age of 26-years, he failed the entrance exam of the Amsterdam Theology University after 18 months of study, even though he has truly and passionately applied himself due to his intense and burning love for God and his willingness to sacrifice everything to become a pastor and share this love. No, he failed mostly because the amount of new information, in Latin and Greek, algebra and history, was simply too much to assimilate for a young man who had left school so early. Then, he tried again – in Brussels, this time – but the Church again repelled him, considering his zeal and unconventionality as suspicious and dangerous! So, he left for the countryside without a diploma or any support or money, refusing to speak with his family who exhorted him to study something, anything in order to receive a certification. But, at this point, he refused to go back to school believing that he would learn more from a farmer.

Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if at school, children were allowed to pursue their own interests?

How many students rebel and waste their years of schooling because they do not understand why they have to go to school to learn about subjects that don’t interest them nor are taught in a way that stimulates their participation and curiosity? For example, most children have an innate interest in learning about the world they are in, but the study of Geography may not cater to that enthusiasm, ignite their passion or engage them further. It is especially true for Gifted Children, who are more likely to rebel, as did van Gogh, when the subject matter does not allow them to be spontaneously curious.

How can we work to change this?

I admire van Gogh’s persistence and strength of character in the face of his challenges. Despite his rejection from earlier enterprises, at 27-years old, he now chooses to become a painter. Throwing himself into his new vocation with his signature energy, he designs his own personal training, that allows him to follow his curiosity and intuition. He quits Paris Cormon Academy after only 4 months, because of the slow pace of learning – one week to paint a nude – and refuses to be bound by their rules! Instead, he branches out on his own, visiting many museums in Paris and meeting with, and absorbing the techniques of, Toulouse Lautrec, Monet (who loved his painting), Seurat and Signac. Look at the paintings of his time in Paris – so very diverse; one can hardly recognize the future painter of The Yellow House!

Can we encourage our children to be deeply curious and question every aspect of the world they are in, and the people they are with, just like Vincent did?

Applying the same zeal that he did to his religious studies, Vincent now wants to become a master of the portrait and declares that he, “will do one hundred of them if he has to; even more, if there is further need to perfect himself.”

Learning persistence from a young age is one of the predictors of success and happiness later in life. So, encouraging our children to try, fail, try and fail again, to pause and try again with refined perspective will benefit them. Pursuing your dream, regardless of how much work and how long it takes is the recipe for building the life you want to live. These skills of resilience and grit are essential, but are they taught in school?

After one year in Paris, Vincent again follows his intuition to leave Paris and start anew. Despite the negative reaction to his decision, he takes the train to settle in Arles, in the South of France. There, the light overcomes him. And, it is in Arles, that the crystallization of his talents occurs. Alone, he integrates all of the techniques he has learned and begins to paint in a new way. It is in the South of France that some of his greatest masterpieces were born: Starry Night, The Bedroom, The Portrait of Joseph Roulin, and the Night Café. After 35 years of research, he has found his own voice. His courage to be true to himself pays off.

How can we support our children in listening to themselves, while supporting them by providing rules and limits? There is a fine line between flexibility and freedom, and between disciplining and controlling. A healthy dose of both can contribute to the building of positive directionality, as well as to our children developing a respect for the world.

Eventually, living in a world of isolation takes a toll on Vincent, leading to the ear cutting episode and he is admitted into Saint-Rémy asylum. Later, he moves back closer to Paris and dies at the age of just 37-years old, leaving us with 900 paintings, more than a thousand sketches and 900 letters. He constantly lived in a state of quasi-poverty, often having no money for food because he spent the money his brother sent him on painting supplies. Even though his demise was so regrettable, he experienced moments of absolute joy in practicing the craft he enjoyed more than anything else. We should all be so lucky!

Strikingly, he did not believe that he would be remembered or his paintings noticed.

I wonder, if Vincent van Gogh was reborn today and immediately supported with the right tools to manage his overwhelming emotional intensity and to channel his energy into positive relationships with better communication skills, would he feel the need to alienate himself from society and take his own life?

We are better equipped to manage mental health issues today than in van Gogh’s time and as a result can take better care of our Gifted Children who are also the most vulnerable in achieving inner balance and thereby, make a positive contribution to the world.

If you would like to continue this discussion, please leave a comment below.

Thank you,


Marion Franc offers different services to support intuitive and talented children, teenagers, and their parents work with their child’s sensitivities and abilities. She works with families in Paris, and via phone/skype – in English, French and Spanish (with a possibility in Italian and Mandarin). To explore working together, please send an email at: info@caringforthegiftedchild.com

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4 thoughts on “Lessons from Vincent van Gogh”

  1. Without the conventional schooling he got, he probably would not have evolved the way he did.

    Depending on the perspective, this can be a good or a bad thing. I would say a bad thing because in my opinion you should strive to feel happy most of the time, of which I doubt that he was.

    Also, anyone as misunderstood as him would feel depressed (would be hard to find like minded people in the 19th century without internet) and we must not forget the mental issues which he suffered which could have been aided by genetics, the poisonous fumes of his oil paint and the lack of proper food due to money troubles.

    So it is really about the cards you are dealt with I am afraid and the capacity you have received dealing with them so that they will work in your favor.

    It all feels like a big lottery in a way where improvisation upon the results is the only way.

    • Hi Floris,
      Thank you for your contribution.
      And, that is the question- how can we better support our most gifted, and vulnerable, individuals achieve inner harmony and positive sense of self, while experiencing fulfilling relationships, in the 21st century?
      All the best,

  2. By placing them in a group of empathic people with the same interests I would say😄 And let them create what seems right to them:) and of course exposing them to as much cultural stimuli as possible, like that visit to the van gogh museum:):)

  3. Floris ,

    I would like to ask you exactly why you believe that “‘we should strive to be happy most of the the time “.

    What would be so worthwhile about continual happiness ? It is as elusive as continual positivity.

    Life is about everything xxx

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