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Van Gogh: The Life—Not a Beach Book

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by Helen A. Harrison

More than a decade in the making, “Van Gogh: The Life,” (Random House, 2011) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith is the antithesis of light reading, at least in terms of bulk. Weighing in at three pounds and running to 950 pages, the book aims to probe more deeply than ever before into the troubled personality and transcendent achievements of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), the 19th century’s stereotypical crazy artist. Their previous heavyweight biography, “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990, tackled the 20th century’s poster boy for that category. Comparisons are inevitable, and in fact the authors themselves made them at Stony Brook Southampton in 2008, when they discussed their research methods for both books and outlined the similarities and differences between their two subjects.

As for the differences, whereas Naifeh and Smith were able to interview numerous people who knew Pollock, there were no survivors among Vincent’s contemporaries. And while Pollock left few written or oral statements, Vincent was a prolific and eloquent letter writer whose correspondence provides the backbone of their book. In their talk, they noted that a new edition of the letters was forthcoming from the Van Gogh Museum, and that it would include much previously unpublished material. Drawing on this resource, and employing a team of researchers who scoured archives in several countries, they were confident that they could shed new light on an artist whose reputation, like Pollock’s, had been distorted into a pop-culture cliché.

As they did with Pollock, Naifeh and Smith have uncovered, scrutinized and evaluated an enormous amount of material, ranging far more broadly than previous van Gogh biographers. You might expect the result to be a reading experience as heavy as the book itself. On the contrary, the story is engaging, well paced and beautifully told, with much more perceptive attention to Vincent’s art than was devoted to Pollock’s. The pages are peppered with drawings, and 32 color reproductions survey the late masterpieces, which are discussed in depth. But the book is first and foremost the story of Vincent’s life, which began in provincial Holland and ended in Auvers-sur-Oise in France, where he died from a gunshot wound that may or may not have been self-inflicted. Questions surrounding his death are raised in the book’s appendix, and have assumed disproportionate prominence in media coverage. Suffice it to say that Naifeh and Smith make a good lawyerly case for an accidental killing rather than suicide, although other authorities maintain that, 120 years after the fact, the jury is likely to remain permanently out.

For all the detail the authors have mustered, there is one curious omission. Early on it was clear that Vincent was an unstable character, a misfit who veered from one enthusiasm to another in a painful effort to find meaning and purpose in life. The extent to which his problems were psychological, medical, or a combination of the two, is a primary theme, but although Naifeh and Smith mention that he was diagnosed with syphilis, and describe in detail how that disease destroyed his younger brother Theo, they do not discuss its contribution to Vincent’s mental and physical decline.

Four years Vincent’s junior, Theo was his brother’s financial and emotional supporter from 1880 on, which made for a problematic and sometimes volatile relationship. Naifeh and Smith quote extensively from their correspondence, harping on Vincent’s demands for money and complaints about Theo’s stinginess. They also put a negative spin on many statements that could be interpreted more favorably. For example, they read Vincent’s desire for financial success—surely a positive attitude, in light of his dependence on Theo’s handouts—as “mercenary,” and his disappointment at Gauguin’s reluctance to join him in Arles as childish petulance instead of the understandable frustration of a thwarted longing for creative stimulation. It seems that, as with Pollock, the more Naifeh and Smith learned about Vincent the less they sympathized with him. Apart from size, that may be what the two biographies have most in common.