Review

Van Gogh: The Life

by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

What people will most likely focus their attention on with regards to the new biography of Vincent van Gogh is the not-altogether new theory surrounding the death of the now-legendary Dutch painter. Ripples of controversy have already surged out after the contents of the book's appendix were revealed. Within that separate section of the book lies a revived, but plausible, analysis that van Gogh did not kill himself with a gunshot to the chest, as the long-standing story has maintained. Instead, they posit the notion that he was shot, either accidentally or intentionally, by a young boy named Rene Secretan, who was part of a group of teens that used to torment and mock him when he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise. 

"This is a beautiful book. Dotted with samples of van Gogh's artwork, readers are given a visual to go along with the extraordinary text."

While his untimely death at the age of 37 is a vital part of the story of van Gogh, simply focusing on that element of this bold and sensational new biography, VAN GOGH: THE LIFE, fails to put the majority of the attention on the most outstanding and heartbreaking aspect: the life.

Van Gogh was born into a hard life: the son of a cold minister father and a mother who bore a bleak view of the world. A serious boy, he worked hard to gain the favor of his parents, and their opinions and approvals were hard to come by. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith use years of research and archival documentation to illustrate a young life full of heartbreak and disappointment at failing to ever secure the blessings or warmth of his parents. It drove him to lonely walks and solitude, which began the notion that he was a strange boy. Girls were few in his life, usually rejecting him, and ultimately the only true companion his life would ever find was his younger brother, Theo, who would eventually become his art dealer and sole true supporter.

Van Gogh would move into the art world not as a painter but as a seller, working for his uncle in The Hague before being exiled to London as a disappointment to the van Gogh name. While in England, he sought to take in all the art knowledge he could, refining his own craft, but eventually would abandon art for ministry. As yet a further blow in his efforts to appease his father, he failed his exam for theology. His father fought with him with increasing regularity and sought to have him institutionalized. Theo advised him to go to Brussels and take up art study with Willem Roelofs. That he listened to his brother has been a great boon to the world.

The book highlights a great continuing theme in van Gogh’s life: loneliness. Relations with immediate family, cousins, uncles, and even those friends he would obtain as he made his way through the art world would always end in rows, with the other party ceasing contact. He would see the inside of more than a couple of mental wards, sometimes of his own admittance, but the notion that he was crazy is less likely. He did experience severe bouts of depression, but he also is now believed to have suffered from a form of epilepsy that supposedly had run rampant throughout his family. Once again, Naifeh and Smith point to documentation of historical record and patterns of behavior to substantiate this theory.

The book reads smoothly and evenly, and it's fascinating to see the evolution of the conflicted young man as he grows into the artist, modifying his style as he seeks to devour knowledge and as he moves in circles with famed artists. All the while, he would fail to see any success of his own during his lifetime, and constantly relied on the monetary support of his brother and sister-in-law. His output of work in the short life he lived is extraordinary, and the work he engaged in, particularly in the last year of his life, was ahead of its time.

Those who may not be art savvy will be lured in by the style of VAN GOGH: THE LIFE. It is evident from the very beginning that there is a love for the work that is brought to the pages by the two authors, who worked tirelessly for many years. They received the cooperation of the Van Gogh Museum and were given access to some family correspondence that had never been published before. True, the letters of van Gogh are available for your reading pleasure --- and they should be read, as van Gogh was an exceptional writer --- but Naifeh and Smith have made the point that one cannot simply trust the words of van Gogh completely, for he tended to hide his problems or displeasures in an effort to keep his brother from worrying or from disappointing his family. On the whole, the letters serve as a great starting point, but the authors have mined the history of the period and drawn on so much more that surrounded van Gogh to bring the mythic life to a more tragic and heartbreaking reality.

This is a beautiful book. Dotted with samples of van Gogh's artwork, readers are given a visual to go along with the extraordinary text. The theory of van Gogh's death is well worth investigating more fully, but the real gold is in the life: the struggles and the heartbreaks of a man misunderstood for nearly all of his days, overlooked and ignored even by those who should have loved him most, and whose sole calm in a stormy life was a brother who believed in him, though neither of them would ever see the true legacy he would leave behind. VAN GOGH: THE LIFE is a must-own book.

Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on November 23, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: October 18, 2011
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 992 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0375507485
  • ISBN-13: 9780375507489