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

About the Book

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith galvanized readers with their astonishing Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography, a book acclaimed for its miraculous research and overwhelming narrative power. Now Naifeh and Smith have written another tour de force—an exquisitely detailed, compellingly readable, and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of creative genius Vincent van Gogh.

Working with the full cooperation of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Naifeh and Smith have accessed a wealth of previously untapped materials. While drawing liberally from the artist’s famously eloquent letters, they have also delved into hundreds of unpublished family correspondences, illuminating with poignancy the wanderings of Van Gogh’s troubled, restless soul. Naifeh and Smith bring a crucial understanding to the larger-than-life mythology of this great artist—his early struggles to find his place in the world; his intense relationship with his brother Theo; his impetus for turning to brush and canvas; and his move to Provence, where in a brief burst of incandescent productivity he painted some of the best-loved works in Western art.

The authors also shed new light on many unexplored aspects of Van Gogh’s inner world: his deep immersion in literature and art; his erratic and tumultuous romantic life; and his bouts of depression and mental illness.

Though countless books have been written about Van Gogh, and though the broad outlines of his tragedy have long inhabited popular culture, no serious, ambitious examination of his life has been attempted in more than seventy years. Naifeh and Smith have re-created Van Gogh’s life with an astounding vividness and psychological acuity that bring a completely new and sympathetic understanding to this unique artistic genius whose signature images of sunflowers and starry nights have won a permanent place in the human imagination.

950 pages (hardcover)
October 18, 2011
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This book was a library loan.

I was filling out an interview tonight, and one of the questions reminded me of this book. The reason being, this is one of the best nonfiction books I think I’ve ever read, and I want to tell you why. 

Now, before we dig into the meat and potatoes of this book, you need to know that I’m not a huge Van Gogh fan. Not big on his work. It fascinates me. I love how he used not only color, but texture. However, in all reality, I could mostly take or leave most of his work. It’s interesting, but not really a show stopper for me. So, be aware of that, because you do not need to be a fan of his work to read and appreciate this book. 

Also, you need to know that this book is long. It is L-O-N-G, but the entire thing is more than worth reading. I do suggest you nab a copy of this book at the library or something, because there is a lot of paintings and pictures in here that you won’t really get the full effect of on a black and white e-reader. So if that’s an option, then hit up the library and hunt down a copy. 

Okay, now, the book. 

Van Gogh is one of the most recognizable, known artists today. There are a few things nearly everyone knows about him. He was Dutch. He cut off his ear. He painted Starry Night. What Gregory White-Smith and Steven Neifeh do in this biography, though, is show Van Gogh the man. It’s not a happy book. This is not a light, fluffy read, and it’s not really a huge discourse on how to analyse and properly appreciate his paintings. Sure, his paintings are there, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to show the art he was doing at specific points in his life (and you will see them differently as a result of this book), but really, this is about a man, and it will break your heart. 

Van Gogh was born to a fairly well to do family. At a young age, his parents started realizing that something was a bit different about Vincent that set him apart from other children, and it really goes from there. He was a man who loved to dream, and longed for love, often finding both dreams and love in all the wrong places. A romantic at heart (with a turbulent romantic life), he was prone to getting lost in his own thoughts, and lashing out and feeling misunderstood by those around him. He’d often flit from career to career, often in a bid for acceptance by his family. After reading this book, I think he experienced and understood the world differently than most people around him, and that must have caused him so much pain and frustration.

In essence, this biography is about mental illness at a time when very little was known about mental illness, and even less was known about how to treat it. Here was a man who desperately wanted, yearned for understanding, love, and compassion, and he never quite managed to find any of it. Never quite managed to fit into the world in a way that other people could accept. He was lonely, isolated, and would vacillate wildly between hope and despondency, and flit from passion to passion, always coming back to art when his other ventures failed him (and, tragically, they did). He worried everyone who cared for him, but ultimately they were helpless because back in his day, there wasn’t much to do to help someone like Vincent.

It’s tragic. The entire story of his life is just sad. It’s sad because no one knew how to help him. It’s sad because no one understood, really, that mental illness was a thing that actually existed. It’s sad because he looked for love so much, and so rarely found anyone who would stick around or sync up with him for very long. It’s sad, because really, not much has changed for so many people with mental illness. 

Seriously, this book broke my heart. This might be the only time a nonfiction biography has actually made me cry. 

In the midst of all this is an artist who had a unique style which, like his mental illness, was just not understood at the time in which he lived. For example, he would give his mother paintings, and she’d hide them in her attic rather than letting people see them. He had a style that people just didn’t get. There was one point in the book where the authors told a story about Van Gogh and a friend going out into the countryside to draw landscapes. Then, the artists showed the two landscapes that were drawn, one by Van Gogh and one by his friend and the contrast was marked. Van Gogh had strong, dark lines, thick strokes, a long, lonely distance to the horizon, more focused on the ground. His friend was what you’d expect to see. Light strokes, deft movements, a focus on the distant horizon—mostly sky rather than ground. That’s really Van Gogh’s art in general. He was painting the things no one else seemed to look at, and he painted them in a way that no one else seemed to understand. 

It wasn’t until after his death that this man attained fame for his work, which is just another tragedy in a lifetime full of them. 

I could go on and on about this book. It was really one of the best books I think I’ve ever read, and it showed not just an artist who knew his craft, and blazed his own trail, but a man who yearned for love and understanding in a world that wasn’t prepared or equipped to deal with someone like him. It’s a tragedy, really. A horrible tragedy. This is the story of a visionary. It is neither glorious nor is it delightful to read, but it is very well written and it is important. 

You will never look at his art the same again. 

5/5 stars


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