10 Van Gogh Paintings You Should Know

Vincent van Gogh is known for his expressive brushwork and fascinating private life. During his short career, he created some of the world’s most beloved artworks.

Apr 18, 2024By Lisa Barham, MA & BA Fine Art

van gogh paintings you should know


Today, Van Gogh’s (1853 – 1890) name and paintings are well-known around the globe. However, like many great artists, he struggled to gain recognition during his lifetime and made very little money from his work. His health issues, tumultuous relationship with Paul Gauguin, and infamous ear-cutting incident, are inextricably linked to his popularity today. Despite his personal troubles, he was an extraordinarily prolific artist. He completed more than 2,000 artworks in a little over a decade, some of which rank among the most famous ever created.


1. Van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear

van gogh self portrait with bandaged ear painting
Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: The Courtauld Institute, London


One of art history’s best-known facts is that Van Gogh cut off his ear. The incident occurred in late December of 1888 while Van Gogh was living and working with Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) at the Yellow House in Arles, France. The pair were known for their turbulent relationship, and following a heated argument Van Gogh suffered from a severe psychotic episode, during which he cut off his left ear.


The following month, he painted his Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, one of only three of his 35 self-portraits that allude to his illness. This work was created at an especially difficult time for the artist. As well as struggling with his health, he faced cold and harsh working conditions in January of 1889, evidenced by the fur-lined cap he depicts himself wearing.


In addition, his dreams of creating a studio in the south of France had been dashed when Gauguin left the Yellow House following the pair’s argument. With this portrait, Van Gogh exhibits his artistic prowess, in his use of color and brushwork, and his determination to continue to paint despite his sufferings. The background objects also hint at the artist’s will to continue working. There’s a painting-in-progress on an easel and a Japanese print, which was a source of inspiration for Van Gogh.

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2. The Potato Eaters

van gogh potato eaters painting
The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh, 1885. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Van Gogh only turned to art at the age of 27, following a string of other unsuccessful jobs. Early in his career he was influenced by Dutch genre painting and used a palette of dark tones, a stark contrast to the famously colorful style he developed later. As he embarked on his new path in life, Van Gogh spent some time living near his parents in the small Dutch village of Nuenen. The rural landscape, farmers, and peasants were an inspiration for the fledgling artist, and he made several paintings of bucolic scenes.


To prove himself, Van Gogh began to work on his early masterpiece, The Potato Eaters. He wanted to create a showpiece and chose a complex composition that demonstrated his skill as an artist. The scene depicts five peasants around a table eating their daily meal of potatoes. The bony hands and rough faces show the harsh reality of country life. The figures are painted in earthy colors, not unlike those of a freshly picked potato. It was the painting’s message and symbolic use of color that was important to Van Gogh and he was pleased with the piece. However, Van Gogh’s brother and an artist friend were not impressed, criticizing the dark colors and mistakes in the figures.


3. Sunflowers

van gogh sunflowers painting
Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: The National Gallery, London


Sunflowers are synonymous with Van Gogh. His famous yellow flowers are some of the most iconic artworks of his career. He painted seven versions of Sunflowers, five of which are on display in public collections around the world. The first four of the series were created in August of 1888, just before Gauguin arrived at the Yellow House. Van Gogh was eager to please his guest and so, knowing that Gauguin liked his earlier sunflower still lifes, he began to create his famous series. He hung two of the paintings in the guest bedroom ready for Gauguin’s arrival.


He may have also chosen the flower for its symbolic nature. The sunflower has been associated with love for centuries, and for Van Gogh, this may have extended to friendship or artistic partnership. In the version of Sunflowers held by the National Gallery in London, there are 15 flowers at different stages of their life cycle. This stylistic choice reflects the vanitas tradition of using objects as reminders of mortality and the worthlessness of worldly goods, a popular device seen in 17th-century Dutch paintings.


4. Café Terrace at Night

van gogh cafe terrace at night painting
Café Terrace at Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo


Although Café Terrace at Night is a nocturnal painting, it is strikingly colorful. The scene shows the Café Terrace at The Place du Forum in Arles on a starlit night. The warm yellows and oranges of the gaslit street contrast with the deep blue of the heavens. Van Gogh created the painting in situ on the evening of the 16th of September in 1888. He had an interest in astronomy and depicted the constellations exactly as they appeared in the sky that night. It is thought that Van Gogh was inspired by the painting Avenue de Clichy (Street—Five O’clock in the Evening), a work made by his friend Louis Anquetin (1861 – 1932). Anquetin’s painting is also an evening street scene with a similar color palette of contrasting warm yellows and cool blues. Van Gogh certainly appreciated the work and included it in his Peintres du Petit Boulevard exhibition in 1887.


5. Starry Night Over the Rhône

van gogh starry night over the rhone painting
Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Since his arrival in Arles, Van Gogh had been eager to create paintings with what he described as night effects. He wrote to both his brother Theo and his friend Emile Bernard (1868 – 1941) about his desire to create a starry sky. Café Terrace at Night was his first attempt at night painting which includes a patch of starlit sky. With Starry Night Over the Rhône, Van Gogh made the sky the centerpiece, creating a dazzling scene of the river Rhône under a sky ablaze with stars. He used an array of blues, including Prussian blue, ultramarine, and cobalt, to reproduce the colors as he saw them in the darkness. The gaslights and warm reflection of the lamps and stars in the water contrast with the deep blue of the night sky. This piece evokes a sense of serenity, enhanced by the lovers pictured in the bottom right corner of the canvas.


6. The Bedroom

van gogh bedroom painting
The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


In 1888, Van Gogh moved into the Yellow House, marking the first time that he had a home of his own. He decorated the house himself, painting several canvases to fill the walls. In October of that year, he created the first of three paintings of his bedroom. The Bedroom shows his simply furnished, but homely, bedroom, complete with his own artwork hung on the walls. Van Gogh aimed to express repose or relaxation with his use of color. Some of the pigment has faded over time, and the walls and door, which were once a vivid purple, now appear as a pale blue. The flattened perspective and lack of shadow is a deliberate choice, made so that the painting resembles a Japanese print. The artist was pleased with the result, commenting to his brother in a letter, “When I saw my canvases again after my illness, what seemed to me the best was the bedroom.”


7. Irises

van gogh irises painting
Irises by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: The Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Irises is one of several paintings depicting the purple flower. This particular piece was painted during Van Gogh’s first week at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, to which he had voluntarily admitted himself seeking refuge from his illness. During his time at the asylum, the last year of his life, he executed almost 130 paintings.


Each flower is unique, attesting to the artist’s study and observation. The use of yellow, complementing the flowers’ purple, adds vibrancy and joy to the canvas. Van Gogh intended Irises to be a study and painted it from nature in the gardens of the asylum. It was his art dealer brother, Theo, who recognized the painting’s quality, calling ita beautiful study full of air and life.” Theo submitted the work to the Salon des Indépendants in September 1889.


8. Wheatfield with Cypresses

van gogh wheatfield cypresses painting
Wheatfield with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Cypress trees became a motif in Van Gogh’s work from 1888 when he considered the potential of using the distinctive trees in his paintings. In April of that year, he commented to his brother in a letter that he needed “a starry night with Cypresses or — perhaps above a field of ripe wheat.” He went on to realize both of these ambitions in his works Starry Night and Wheatfield with Cypresses. In the summer of 1889, Van Gogh created three versions of Wheatfield with Cypresses, two on the same scale and one smaller piece that he gifted to his mother and sister.


He painted outdoors and he wrote of working in the strong, cold wind in the South of France. This wind can be seen in Van Gogh’s distinctive brushstrokes and swirls, animating the trees, fields of wheat, and clouds. Wheatfield with Cypresses is noted for its rich impasto—paint thickly applied to the canvas—and Van Gogh cited Adolphe Monticelli (1824 – 1886) as an influence in using this technique. With this work, he was also responding to paintings by his artist friends Gauguin and Bernard, whose works were continuing to move away from Impressionism and towards abstraction.


9. Almond Blossom

van gogh almond blossom painting
Almond Blossom by Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Van Gogh had a deep appreciation for Japanese printmaking, amassing a collection of over 600 works. It was a big source of inspiration for him, and the influence can clearly be seen in Almond Blossom. Blossoming trees were one of his favorite subjects, and this was a particularly personal painting. He created it as a gift to his brother Theo and his wife to mark the birth of their son, whom they named Vincent Willem after his uncle.


Almond trees are one of the first to flower in the spring, and are symbolic of new life, making it a fitting subject to celebrate the occasion. The Van Gogh family treasured it. The painting was hung on the wall of their home for many years. Later, it became part of the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which was established by Vincent Willem himself.


10. Van Gogh’s Starry Night

van gogh starry night painting
Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York


Arguably Van Gogh’s most famous work, Starry Night was inspired by the view from the artist’s window at the asylum in Saint-Rémy. It shows the night sky dramatically lit by the moon and bright stars, illuminating a small village at the foot of the hills and a cypress tree rising in the foreground. Van Gogh spoke of his inspiration for the painting in a letter to his brother, saying: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.”


Rather than a direct representation of the view, the painting is a mixture of observation and imagination. Van Gogh incorporated memories and emotions. The church, for example, at the center of the painting features a steeple reminiscent of those found in Van Gogh’s native Netherlands. The swirling brushstrokes, that appear to roll across the canvas, add a sense of turbulence to the scene, in contrast to the tranquil feel of his earlier Starry Night Over the Rhône. Starry Night is a masterpiece of Post-Impressionism, of which Van Gogh was a pioneer. His expressive brushstrokes and use of color imbue the painting with a deep sense of emotion and personal response to the world, which is a defining feature of the movement.

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By Lisa BarhamMA & BA Fine ArtLisa is a contributing writer with a background in art. She holds a BA and MA in Fine Art from the University of Kent, and has worked at Tate Modern and the National Gallery, London. She now writes full time whilst travelling and exploring new countries and cultures across the globe.