The light-splashed colors of Vincent van Gogh's late paintings belie the dark narrative of his tragic life. Or, in another way of looking at them, the riotous pigments and swirling images reflect the state of his addled brain, maybe even epilepsy. Either way, he remains simultaneously one of the most acclaimed and pitiable figures in the long history of art, a doleful story familiar even to non-art lovers.
Now here is his story again, laid out again in staggering detail (868 pages, 6,000 pages of 28,000 notes available online) in Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, authors of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackson Pollock: An American Saga.
It's a tour de force of biography, 10 years in the making and containing new revelations about an already much-examined life. This is thanks to the authors' (and a team of translators) access to newly translated letters of van Gogh, a man for whom writing letters was almost as important as painting. Or breathing.
This is a well-written book, extraordinarily thorough and admirably restrained, even sympathetic to its subject. Nevertheless, van Gogh (1853-1890) emerges in these pages as a deeply unsympathetic, unlikable man, no matter that much of his infuriating, bipolar behavior was likely the result of his toxic inheritance of family insanity.
It is not an easy book thanks to all of the above. Prepare for mourning.
The yawning gulf between how van Gogh was perceived during his lifetime and how he is perceived now is heartbreaking, reminding us that the artistic verities of one era don't always carry into the next. (Recall that "impressionist" originally was a journalist's sneering epithet.)
In contrast with his end-of-life paintings, the expressive and emotion-drenched pictures that are the familiar wallpaper of our culture today, Vincent's early drawings were stubbornly dark, morose and utterly noncommercial. Even his late paintings, produced in a feverish last few years, were off-putting to his contemporaries, including many of the major painters of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist period. He never sold but one painting in his lifetime, did not get a good press review until just weeks before his death.
Yet today his paintings routinely command eight and nine figures; the list of 40 top-selling paintings of all time includes seven by van Gogh, rivaled only by Picasso's 10.
Vincent seems to have been born with a personality disorder at the very least. Despised and eventually rejected by virtually everyone he ever encountered, including members of his exasperated family, his name today adorns museums and exhibits that attract millions of admiring pilgrims. Hit pop songs have been written about van Gogh; few sing about Gauguin or Monet.
Vincent was intelligent, educated (spoke multiple languages), well-read and well-versed in art theory. He was also angry, alienated and extremely odd from childhood, born into a family of middle-class Dutch respectability with experience in the art world and a hidden history of madness and suicide over multiple generations, which the authors document. Van Gogh was sometimes so incoherent and inconsistent he could argue opposite sides of an artistic argument in the same letter, the authors report. Throughout his life he caromed between depressed isolation and religious ecstasy, self-denial and extravagant overspending, tenderness and paranoia.
Later, Vincent contracted from prostitutes a common ailment of the period, syphilis, which in the late stage leads to insanity. His beloved younger brother, art dealer Theo van Gogh, who supported him financially, artistically and emotionally via the mail, also had syphilis and died raving in an asylum just six months after Vincent.
The authors also discuss the probability that Vincent suffered from latent temporal lobe epilepsy, which seized hold of him with what they call a "fireworks of electrical impulses in the brain." They make a plausible argument that Starry Night (1889), one of the most famous and beloved paintings ever put to canvas, was at least influenced by a disordered brain.
"Guided only by 'feeling and instinct,' like the ancient Egyptians, he painted a night sky unlike any the world had ever seen with ordinary eyes: a kaleidoscope of pulsating beacons, whirlpools of stars, radiant clouds, and a moon that shone as brightly as any sun — a fireworks of cosmic light and energy visible only in Vincent's head," they write.
Yet what might have led to great art definitely put Vincent in an insane asylum, with half of one earlobe famously sliced off. At the end, he was trapped in a cauldron of furious delirium and terrifying hallucinations, not to mention impotence and rotting teeth. He was dead in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, at age 37 by his own hand (the official story), or was helped along to the afterlife by a gang of tormenting French schoolboys with an old gun (maybe). This latter revelation, which has received a good deal of attention, is plausibly argued in a detailed appendix.
No matter how he died, the previous 850 pages of this book make it plain that Vincent wanted to die. He was dying anyway — of syphilis, of loneliness and despair, of guilt he was a burden to his family, of the fear he was a failure as an artist, unloved and unappreciated until it was too late.
So why return to this sad saga, especially in such detail? In our post-modern era it's considered uncool to explore the artist behind the art. Not so in Vincent's era, the authors explain. No one more than he believed in the importance of biography in art; he always said that his art was a record of his turbulent life.
"No one could truly see his paintings without knowing his story," the authors write, and then quote Vincent: "As my work is, so am I."