Vincent van Gogh Background Information for Teachers and Parents

Grade Levels: K-3

This page contains information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about Vincent van Gogh’s life and art. The information is designed to complement the BrainPOP Jr. movie  Vincent van Gogh. It explains the type of content covered in the movie, provides ideas for how teachers and parents can develop related understandings, and suggests how other BrainPOP Jr. resources can be used to scaffold and extend student learning.

Encourage art appreciation! Help children look at art in a new way and get inspired by artists. Help them understand how art has changed over time and how important artists throughout history have shaped the way people practice art today. This movie will explore the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. Many children have been exposed to his work and might have heard he “cut his ear off.” This movie will address some misconceptions about his life, discuss his techniques, and share some significant works. Van Gogh led a very tumultuous life, and many details are not appropriate for K-3 students. We recommend focusing more attention on his work and technique, and encouraging children to try his techniques in their own art.

Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in the Netherlands. As a young boy, Van Gogh was quiet and serious. He often recalled his childhood as gloomy, cold, and sterile. He experienced difficulties in school and abruptly left when he was fifteen. He eventually began working at an art gallery, first in The Hague and then in London. He became more and more disenfranchised with the art industry and was consequently dismissed from his position. As a young man, Van Gogh was devoutly religious, and he decided to apply to a theological school, but he failed the entrance exam. Then he took courses at a missionary school, but failed.

Throughout this time, Van Gogh often sketched the people and things around him. Review with children that a sketch is a quick, rough drawing of something. He sent his sketches to a few friends and his closest brother Theo. Explain to children that we know much about Van Gogh’s life because of the letters he left behind. Many of these letters include sketches that eventually became paintings. Van Gogh finally decided to pursue art and began taking painting lessons from a cousin-in-law, but that was short-lived. Help children understand that Van Gogh is mostly a self-taught painter. He practiced, explored, and experimented to develop his skills and style.

One of Van Gogh’s first major works is The Potato Eaters. You may wish to show children a picture of the painting. Many of Van Gogh’s works are available on the Internet, or you may even have the opportunity to view them in museums. The Potato Eaters shows farmers gathering around a table by candlelight. The faces of the subjects are crude and rough, the colors are dark and the brushstrokes are not defined. Van Gogh had stated that he wanted to show the simple lives of hard-working farmers and keep the feel of the painting raw and less refined.

Help children understand that artists’ works can change over time. As Van Gogh began to practice his art, he was influenced by a group of artists who were approaching art in a different way. These artists used small brushstrokes or painted tiny dots to create a picture. Other more traditional artists usually used dark colors to make their work more realistic, but these newer artists were using brighter and lighter colors to convey an idea or feeling. Van Gogh began using these techniques in his own work. Remind children that a technique is a way to do or create something. Van Gogh began experimenting with different brushstrokes and colors. As a result, his artwork changed and differed significantly from The Potato Eaters. We recommend exploring a few of Van Gogh’s works in chronological order to see how his artwork changed over time.

Van Gogh painted a variety of subjects. He painted still lifes, which are paintings of an object or a group of objects. He explored how light hit various objects and focused on how the appearance of objects can change in different lighting. You may wish to hold an object such as an apple in the shade, and then up to the sunlight to illustrate this point. Van Gogh also painted landscapes, or scenes in nature or the outdoors. He often painted places that inspired him, such as haystacks or rural areas, or places he visited, such as restaurants and cafes. He also painted self-portraits, which are paintings an artist creates of himself or herself.

Throughout his artistic career, Van Gogh led a tumultuous personal life. He was prone to bouts of anger and depression. Many of his self-portraits reflect his life-long struggle with these difficult emotions. After an argument with the artist Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh became so upset that he cut his own ear lobe. Help children realize that Van Gogh did not cut his whole ear off, which is a common misconception that should be addressed. He cut part of his lower lobe, but survived and painted two portraits of himself with the bandaged ear. Later, he checked into a psychiatric hospital to get help for his depression. It was there in the hospital that he painted some of his most famous works, including The Starry Night andIrises.

Show The Starry Night to children and analyze the work together. The painting depicts a night setting, but the sky is a mixture of blues. How does this color choice affect the feel of the artwork? The brushstrokes are thick and swirled, lending the sky a sense of movement. He puts dark and light colors side by side to make the colors jump out. The night landscape feels alive. Analyze other paintings together, encouraging children to pay attention to the brushstrokes and use of color. What patterns of shapes or colors do they see?

Help children incorporate different techniques into their own artwork. Explain that artists learn their craft by looking at other artists’ work. They observe, experiment, and explore!