If you’re in need of some balm for the soul as this crazy year draws to a close, look no further Van Gogh, the one-eared rescue dog who was saved from the cruel world of dog fighting through the power of art.
In this feel-good tale, the North Carolina boxer pit bull mix, age seven, has become an internet sensation thanks to his colorful abstract paintings. But more importantly, Van Gogh’s canvases also helped the canine creative find his forever home.
A former stray, Van Gogh fell on hard times when he was caught and used as bait in a dog fighting ring. Rescuers found him hiding in a drain pipe, bruised and bloodied, his left ear so damaged a veterinarian had to surgically remove it.
Jacklyn Gartner, the founder of Happily Furever After Rescue in Bethel, Connecticut, was looking at photos of shelter dogs online when she was drawn to Van Gogh’s picture. She founded the nonprofit foster program in 2020 in honor of Tyler, her late pit bull mix, specifically to help shelter dogs that look like pit bulls.
When the North Carolina shelter confirmed there had been no interest in Van Gogh, Gartner enlisted the nonprofit Pilots N Paws to fly Van Gogh to Connecticut on a private plane.
“When he came off, he was wagging his tail and rubbing up against everybody,” Gartner told Today. “He was so friendly right at the start.”
But after four months with a foster family, there was still no one to adopt Van Gogh. So Gartner decided to get creative and see if the pup could live up to his artistic namesake.
“I’d seen TikTok videos of other dogs creating paintings, so why not Van Gogh?” Gartner told the Washington Post. “He certainly had the name and the ear for it.”
She squirted some paint on a canvas, sealed it inside a plastic bag, and spread some peanut butter on top of the bag. Sure enough, Van Gogh began lapping up the tasty treat—and, as a result, smearing the paint to create a colorful and artistic design. He even made his own version of the famous Starry Night, using blue and yellow paint.
“He has a fast and creative tongue,” Gartner said. “It takes more time for us to get the canvas ready for him than it does for Van Gogh to lick off the peanut butter and smear the paint around.”
A week later, Van Gogh had made enough paintings to stage his first gallery show, which doubled as an adoption event. Gartner set up an exhibition on the deck of her Brookfield, Connecticut, home, with pastries and sparkling cider for visitors.
Unlike the human Van Gogh, who famously struggled to attract collectors during his lifetime, the newly minted artistic dog did make a few sales at the show, offering $40 canvases to benefit Happily Furever. But it was after the exhibition, when Gartner posted about it on Facebook, that his budding art career—and adoption prospects—really took off.
“Van Gogh was so excited for his big art debut over the weekend,” Gartner wrote following the opening. “He was all decked out in his Starry Night bandana and waited patiently on the deck for his guests to arrive… but only two people showed. 😢 Van Gogh put many hours and a lot of love into creating such beautiful art and we worked so hard to make this a special event.”
The disappointment was short-lived. The rest of Van Gogh’s 30 pieces of art sold out almost instantly, plus he received 10 commissions. News of the artistic pup’s undeniable talent spread to media company Now This, which made one of its signature short videos about Van Gogh that quickly went viral, with over 288,000 views to date on TikTok.
An online auction followed, selling a dozen more works. In a flash, Gartner had raised over $3,000 for the nonprofit. To complete the happy ending, on the last day of the sale, foster volunteer Jessica Starowitz adopted Van Gogh. Media interest in the story has also helped other Happily Furever find families—and Van Gogh’s art career is just beginning.
“We’ll let him keep painting until he says he’s done with it,” Starowitz told Today. “Probably if we run out of peanut butter or liverwurst or snacks.”
Meanwhile, Van Gogh needed a new foster home because someone in the household was about to have surgery. Volunteer Jessica Starowitz had already offered to care for Van Gogh — even before his fame — and the senior cat she was fostering for the organization had just been adopted.
When Gartner asked Starowitz if she’d still like to foster Van Gogh, she immediately answered yes.
“She came over and met him, and they instantly hit it off. He loved her, and she loved him,” Gartner says. “So after she left, I texted her, ‘Is it too soon for me to ask if you would ever consider adopting him?’”
Sure enough, 48 hours later, Starowitz officially adopted Van Gogh.
“I didn’t adopt him to paint and make money off him,” Starowitz, 44, says. “I adopted him because I fell in love with him.”
They enjoy taking a 2-mile walk together each morning, playing tug in the backyard and snuggling on the couch to watch Hallmark movies. Van Gogh grunts happily whenever she scratches his rump.
Starowitz also works with a positive reinforcement trainer to help Van Gogh feel less anxious around other dogs; she documents his adventures on Instagram.
Starowitz says she’s happy to help the rescue that saved Van Gogh as much as possible and that all profits generated will always go toward the cause. She’s not interested in personal profit — though she wouldn’t mind having him paint a piece for her office once he’s filled his existing orders.
In fact, she’s a longtime fan of Vincent van Gogh’s work and has several prints in her home. Her two sons even gave her a Lego set of “The Starry Night” for Mother’s Day.
Spreading the word about fostering and adopting pets in need is an even deeper passion, though. With shelters across America overflowing with dogs and cats, Starowitz hopes Van Gogh’s extraordinary journey will inspire others to offer an animal a second chance.
“Dogs give you unconditional love, so you just return the favor,” she says. “See how fun it can be.”