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Van Gogh: The Life – Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

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Wheat Field with Crows was not the last painting Vincent Van Gogh ever made. And he most likely did not kill himself, despite popular legend. He did suffer all his life from serious and escalating mental illness and he started out to be an art dealer, not an artist, taking his place in the bourgeois family business. Van Gogh: The Life, an exhaustive examination of the painter’s biography, uses voluminous correspondence and close scrutiny of historical materials and the paintings to explain the trajectory of a genius.

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith track Vincent Van Gogh’s maternal and paternal families, his early upbringing as the son of a local pastor in Holland, the economic and political events that affected the family fortunes, his complex relationships with his parents and siblings, and the demons that gripped him with increasing ferocity. Failure and desperation drove Van Gogh to paint, first as a way to earn a living when his attempts to work for his uncle as a dealer of fine prints were an unmitigated disaster. Later he strove to earn his brother Theo’s respect and extricate himself from financial dependence on Theo, a goal he would never come close to realizing. And finally, the feverish bursts of painting held the nightmares in his mind at bay, staving off the devastating breakdowns that triggered episodes of bizarre behavior and incapacitated him for months.

He wondered in his letters how much more he might have painted had he been a stable and less intense person. His fragile mind was damaged by a family that couldn’t understand or support him. His family was torn apart by the public spectacle of a drinker, a madman, a restless habitué of the city’s seedier neighborhoods. Vincent satisfied his need for female companionship with prostitutes who often posed for him and occasionally lived with him. But he longed for a successful conventional life, even as his temperament and temper pushed him farther toward the margins. He was brilliant but the world was slow to apprehend and embrace his art. He tortured Theo for attention and money, and tortured his friends with chaotic behavior and angry verbal condemnation.

The biography fills in the life behind the iconic paintings. Starry Night has a heartbreaking backstory. The irises and the olive trees are a desperate attempt to capture a way of seeing, a singular beauty that the ugliness in his skull could not touch. Everything hurt him: letters from parents and siblings; rejection by women, employers, art dealers, exhibition juries; Theo’s happiness in his impending marriage and his eventual child; the criticism of his peers and rebuffs from artists like Gauguin. Van Gogh had the miserable fortune to live when mental illness was barely recognized and could not be accurately diagnosed and treated. Compounding the tragedy were the family genes—none too healthy—and his own brilliance. He knew how badly his life and his precarious mind served him and he tried repeatedly to create a tranquil home and loyal companionship for himself.

The ear incident is precisely and horribly described and the gunshot that would kill him is examined in the light of all the evidence and lack of evidence around the event. Naifeh and Smith make a convincing case for the theory that Vincent Van Gogh was the victim of a spoiled teenage bully’s prank, not a suicide attempt. If they are right, then he died protecting two boys from a charge of murder—and maybe chose death as a merciful release from the devastating monsters inside his own head. In the end you wonder if there would have been any Van Gogh masterpieces if the boy and the man had a more peaceful and traditionally productive life. With a wife, children, a thriving business and a family that accepted him and approved of him, Vincent Van Gogh might have been content to sell art made by other people and luxuriate in the comfort of his own emotional constancy and material success.

Van Gogh: The Life   Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith | Random House   2011