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Book Review: Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Posted By Ed Voves On December 15, 2011 @ 9:18 am In Art,Biography,Books,Non-Fiction Reviews | No Comments

Van Gogh: The Life
by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
Random House, 953 pp.
CLR Rating:


Odd Man Out

During his short, tumultuous career as an artist, Vincent van Gogh painted vivid studies of the sun-drenched landscape of the south of France, portraits of the redoubtable people who lived there and ethereal depictions of starry nights.

If one had to pick one representative work for van Gogh’s life, however, it would not be any of these renowned and beloved paintings. Instead, it would be his version of “The Sower.” This was an image borrowed from an earlier painter, Jean-François Millet. Striding across a plowed field, the Sower casts handfuls of seed in what is really an allusion to the spread and nurturing of spiritual ideals. This was Vincent van Gogh’s image of himself – or rather of what he wanted to be.

In their new biography of van Gogh, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith demonstrate that his obsession with religion and determination to build a faith community were the motivating forces of his life. Even after he no longer accepted the strict Christian theology which his parson father had preached, Van Gogh remained inspired by powerful convictions aimed at building a better world – through social justice, the power of art, harmony among human beings.

These praiseworthy principles van Gogh sowed with a manic, zealous determination. As he did so, van Gogh also sowed seeds of discord in his family, confusion and contempt among the poverty-stricken miners and peasants he sought to help and acrimony among fellow painters and members of the art community. Van Gogh’s life was one of good intentions that always led him to the gate of hell.

Van Gogh was born in 1853, the son of a respectable Dutch clergyman, Theodorus van Gogh, and his wife, Anna. The couple’s first child was stillborn, but was dutifully named and buried as Vincent van Gogh in 1852. “Vincent” was a favored name, handed down in the van Gogh family from generation to generation, and so it was reapplied to the first surviving child.

From an early age, this Vincent was described as “een oarige” – “a strange boy.” Was van Gogh bipolar or bedeviled by mood disorders, perhaps influenced by being named for a dead sibling? It is impossible to say and the authors sensibly refrain from turning their account of van Gogh’s life into a psychobiography.

What Naifeh and Smith do recount in exhaustive detail is the long-simmering domestic crisis of the van Gogh family. This tragedy affected each of the six children, Vincent being only the most pronounced of its victims. The van Gogh family’s plight was chiefly due to the effect of applying Victorian family values at a time when Christianity was already being undermined by a crisis of religious belief. As Theodorus and Anna van Gogh tried to raise their children with a strict and loving hand, the very foundations of Christianity were collapsing under their feet. This spiritual malaise was brilliantly evoked in Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem, “Dover Beach,” which described the ebb-tide of “The Sea of Faith” and its “melancholy, long withdrawing roar.”

The first half of this biography of van Gogh can be described in exactly these words: a “melancholy, long withdrawing roar.” From his shy, reclusive boyhood through his repeated, botched attempts as an art dealer, teacher, evangelical preacher and realist painter, van Gogh tried and failed to engage with the world. Each effort was marked by initial zeal and enthusiasm, followed by a humiliating retreat to the parental household and a round of spiteful recriminations, chiefly directed at his father. This in turn was followed by further delusional plans, which often involved drawing in his talented younger brother, Theo. Then, the cycle would begin anew.

In 1869, his uncle Vincent, whom everyone called “Cent,” arranged for him to get a position with the prestigious art firm, Goupil & Cie. From that promising start to 1886, when he roomed with his brother Theo in Paris, van Gogh’s life was an unrelieved succession of failures. Van Gogh was a brilliant man, able to speak English and French, well-read, passionately religious and committed to the liberal political ideals of his era. Yet every initiative during those years ended in disaster. He was fired by Goupil in 1876 for being insensitive to its patrons. His attempts at being a schoolteacher in England and an evangelical minister in the dreary coal-mining region of the Borinage were marked by increasing emotional desperation and physical torment.

For an artist who vied with Rembrandt in painting self-portraits, van Gogh seldom allowed himself to be photographed. The one surviving photo, from his days at Goupil’s, shows a scowling, tousled haired young man with troubled, searching eyes. It is the face of a man destined to be a prophet or a lunatic.

Whatever his mental state, van Gogh was an inspired artist. His early graphic works, the sublime Potato Eaters and the series of portrait studies upon which this masterpiece was based, the nature studies that earned praise even from his skeptical parents – all these demonstrate van Gogh’s marked ability to create a unique visual creed.

The great difficulty with this biography is the extent that van Gogh’s artistic quest becomes submerged in endless accounts of family recriminations. Add to this van Gogh’s conspiracy theories about vindictive Goupil managers and his stormy denunciations of Uncle “Cent,” the break-up of his studies with the noted landscape artist Anton Mauve and disputes even with his beloved brother, Theo. Some insight into these tumultuous relationships is of course necessary. But without the balancing commentary on van Gogh’s later explorations of color and the human form, the first half of this very detailed book – like van Gogh’s life – is often a trying experience.

In the second half of the biography, the “French Years,” the authors demonstrate remarkable ability to paint vivid “word portraits” of van Gogh at work. Here is a representative sample of the superb, compulsively readable narrative of the book’s concluding chapters.

He painted the way he talked: thrust and parry, assault and retreat. Barrages of brushwork swept across the canvas again and again, like summer storms. Furious exhortations of paint, as intense as fireworks, were followed by wary, ruminating reassessments as he recoiled from the image, arms folded, plotting his next volley. Then, just as suddenly, his brush would dart to his palette, dabbing and stirring, searching for a new color; then rush to the canvas, bursting with new arguments and fresh fervor.

Naifeh and Smith provide important insights into aspects of van Gogh’s career that are frequently over-shadowed by the celebrated attempt to create a “School of the South” with Gauguin in Arles. They discuss van Gogh’s initial rejection of Impressionism while working for Goupil’s in Paris and the influence of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints upon his painting. Van Gogh’s dismissal of the attempt by Symbolist painters like Gauguin to revive religious imagery in modern art, despite his own spiritual leanings, is another important theme covered in the book.

The brilliant commentary that characterizes the latter half of Van Gogh: The Life also underscores why he never really joined the ranks of any of the prevailing art movements of his age. Van Gogh was never a full-fledged Impressionist nor was he a Symbolist. Even to characterize his work as “post-Impressionism” fails to do justice to his infatuation with earlier artists like Millet or the Barbizon master, Charles Daubigny. Van Gogh blazed a trail toward modern art by trying to evoke the art of the past.

Van Gogh was certainly encouraged in this Janus-like attitude to art by his brother Theo. Naifeh and Smith comment that both brothers “saw art as a ‘regeneration of the old, not a rejection – a gradual evolution, not a revolution plotted by some – and they relentlessly looked for continuities between the images that attracted them and the old ones they had long revered.”

So in art, as in everything else in his life, van Gogh remained alone, alienated from all except Theo, with plenty of tense moments of estrangement even in their relationship as well. Any attempt to work in tandem with another artist was bound to end in recriminations. Gauguin, sly, selfish and manipulative, was simply the worst possible candidate for Theo to encourage and bank-role to work with his brother in the Yellow House in Arles.

Did van Gogh suffer from some psychological malady? Was he a “latent epileptic” to use the 19th century terminology used by the doctors who treated him after his ear-slashing breakdown in 1888? Or was his constant attempt to create surrogate families an attempt to heal childhood wounds sustained in the parsonage of Zundert, where his father and mother tried – and failed – to create a model Christian household in an increasingly amoral world? Naifeh and Smith draw no conclusions here, though they certainly provide a novel interpretation of the way van Gogh died.

Perhaps the last word about the compulsions that drove him to a brief moment of immortal art should be left to van Gogh himself. In an 1887 letter to his sister Wil – who spent the last forty years of her life in an insane asylum – he wrote his own epitaph: “When one has fire within oneself, one cannot keep bottling up – better to burn than burst. What is in will out.”


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