Naifeh and Smith: Van Gogh: The Life

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
Van Gogh: The Life
(2011, Random House, 953 pages)

Naifeh and Smith, who attracted considerable attention for their Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, have returned with their meticulously researched biography of Vincent Van Gogh. The product of some ten years of research and writing, Van Gogh: The Life is a fascinating, fluidly-written work that draws extensively on Vincent’s voluminous correspondence and that of his family and friends, as well as the huge critical bibliography that has accumulated around the artist and his work over the years. Surprisingly, as beloved as Van Gogh’s work has become, there hasn’t been a detailed biography written about him in many years. So thorough was Naifeh’s and Smith’s documentation that their over 28,000 footnotes wouldn’t fit into the printed volume, and are instead collected at a remarkable website.

The Van Goghs were Protestants living in the largely Catholic town of Zundert, in the south of the Netherlands near the border with Belgium. Anna and Theodorus (or Dorus) had seven children, of whom Vincent was the second. (Following the lead of Naifeh and Smith, I refer to Vincent by his first name, which in his case seems oddly appropriate.) It was a very literate household, and Vincent became particularly known for his extensive reading. But he was also an unruly and ill-tempered child, and spent much of his time out of doors, observing nature. His brother Theo, four years younger than Vincent and in most respects his opposite in character, nevertheless became Vincent’s closest friend, and remained so through both their lives.

Ever solitary and perpetually rebellious, at eleven Vincent was sent to the first in a series of boarding schools, which only increased his sense of isolation. At sixteen Vincent went to work for his uncle Cent, a renowned (and rich) dealer in art prints, at The Hague. This was where Vincent really took an active interest in art, exploring galleries and reading books. But his loneliness and waywardness still haunted him, leading to his being exiled to work at another of his uncle’s establishments, a warehouse in London. From there he was transferred to Paris. Resentful, he grew estranged from everyone in his family as they started to question his mental health (there was a history of mental illness in the Van Gogh family, including confinements and a suicide). Vincent found some consolation in authors like Heine, Goethe, and a particular favorite, Hans Christian Andersen. But just as quickly Vincent rejected all those readings and embraced the Bible and Thomas à Kempis, imposing on himself an almost monastic life as he increasingly identified his sufferings with those of Jesus.

Years later Vincent wrote, “I am a traveler going somewhere and to some destination … [only] the somewhere and the destination do not exist.” He taught at an almost Dickensian school in England, worked at a bookstore in Dordrecht, and studied to enter college in Amsterdam. These gave no satisfaction and, fired by his religious zealotry, he set out to become a missionary and preacher (like his father). As Naifeh and Smith put it, “Ultimately, this was the consoling power that art shared with religion in Vincent’s imagination: both offered an imagery of reconciliation and redemption with which he could reimagine his own life of failure and remorse.” Recurrent rounds of depression, self-mortification (eating sparingly, sleeping on the floor or not sleeping at all, not wearing a coat in the dead of winter), and suicidal thoughts plagued him.

It was around this time that he exhibited his first artwork, a chalk drawing that few saw, and produced his first pen-and-ink drawings. “When I draw, I see clearly. In these [drawings], I can talk with enthusiasm. I have found a voice.” Religion still called him, though, as he left his studies behind and traveled to the Borinage, a bleak coal mining region in southern Belgium, to preach and teach Bible classes. The mineworkers and their families mocked him openly: “Homeless, penniless, friendless, faithless, he had reached the bottom of his long descent. Guilt and self-loathing overwhelmed him.”

By 1881, though, Vincent had righted himself to some extent, as he resumed his art studies and reconnected with his family. Profligate spending – on new suits, models, art supplies – once again caused a chill with his family. At this point Theo stepped in to help with Vincent’s expenses, establishing a pattern that continued for the rest of Vincent’s life. His family having largely abandoned him, Vincent started to see art not as just a calling, but as a battle against the world. Most of his personal connections, however, ended through his anger. As he once admitted, “I am often terribly melancholy, irritable, hungering and thirsting, as it were, for sympathy; and when I do not get it, I try to act indifferently, speak sharply, and often even pour oil on the fire.”

The same was true with Vincent’s occasional romances. He declared his love for and moved in with a pregnant prostitute, Sien Hoornik, who in his imagination Vincent saw as a Madonna, an angel. The authors remark on Vincent’s habit of seeing the world in the terms of the paintings and books he’d encountered: “He dreamed in Andersen, he said, and had nightmares in Goya.” Gonorrhea, probably caught from Sien, put Vincent in the hospital in June-July 1882, at the very same time that Sien was giving birth to a boy named Willem (Vincent’s middle name). As his life at home with Sien and her family remained tense, Vincent again found consolation in art. Interestingly, famous as he is today for his bold use of color, at first Vincent focused on drawing in pen and charcoal.

Throughout this book, Vincent comes off as very intelligent, often sympathetic, but not always that attractive a person: needy and demanding of his family and friends, quick to anger, argumentative, self-pitying, a spendthrift (generally with other people’s money), prone to almost manic extremes of temperament. Vincent himself saw this: “What am I in the eyes of most people, a non-entity, an eccentric or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low.”

Theo continued to try to steer Vincent toward more salable work and a more colorful palette, while also doing all he could to discourage Vincent’s relationship with Sien. To escape these pressures, Vincent took off for the region of Drenthe, described by the authors as “not just a desolate, lonely landscape, but a country within a country: a Siberia of high infant mortality, rampant alcohol abuse, and unrepentant criminality; a wilderness…” Here Vincent experienced “what may have been his first recorded psychotic episode.” Returning to the family home, Vincent spent two rancorous years with his parents, and became known to the small town of Neunen where his family now lived as an eccentric and crank. But he was at the same time creating what are now regarded as his first real masterworks, pencil and pen-and-ink drawings of the landscape around his home. “Vincent’s powers of isolation, simplification, and intensification – honed on years of letter sketches – could now explore the latent life in virtually any object: a chair, a pair of shoes, a sunflower.”

A new romantic entanglement, with Margot Begemann, ended with her suicide attempt and her family sending her away. Life in Nuenen was becoming intolerable for him, and in November he left his family. An attempt to enter Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Art in January 1886 ended in failure, as he and his work were rejected by teachers and students alike. He had by now taken up painting, albeit with a very limited color palette. Inspired by the fictionalized example of the painter Millet, Vincent came to see himself as an artist of the peasant, and produced The Potato Eaters.

Within months he took refuge with Theo in Paris. The artistic foment into which Vincent was entering there is now famous. Decadents and Symbolists challenged society’s conventions, Pointillists turned increasingly to science, Incoherents embraced nihilist entertainments and darkly humorous commentary on popular culture. Artistic life had, as the authors say, “shattered into a kaleidoscope of noisy, competing partisans, fueled by ideas noble and mean, existential and commercial, evangelical and self-serving: a world sustained on the oxygen of cafe arguments, clamorous reviews, and the certainty that history would lavishly reward the art and ideas that triumphed, and ruthlessly discard the rest.”

Unsurprisingly, relations between Vincent and Theo quickly became strained, in part because of Theo’s new romance with his future wife Johanna (Jo) Bonger. Driven by Theo’s commercial success as an art dealer, though, a circle of artists started to form around the brothers, including the young virtuoso Émile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Then, suddenly, in February 1888, Vincent left Paris for reasons still unknown.

He moved to Arles, eventually settling in the famous Yellow House, as he looked for an artist friend to share it with. Paul Gauguin became the focus of Vincent’s entreaties. As part of his campaign to lure Gauguin and start the artist haven he had long dreamed of, Vincent began a series of what are now seen as some of his finest paintings, scenes from around Arles. Many were landscapes and scenes from nature influenced by Cloisonnism, a new boldly colored style derived from the Japanese prints Vincent had come to love. (We’re reminded that one of the reasons for the new emphasis on landscape painting during the nineteenth century was the ready availability of paint in tubes, which allowed painters to be away from their studios at length.) But sex and sexuality were also never far from Vincent’s mind, evident in the few portraits from that time: a sensuous Zouave fighter from Algeria, a young girl of Arles transformed into a Japanese seductress.

Naifeh and Smith describe Vincent’s energetic, even furious style of painting: he “attacked the canvas with both paint and words – muttering and sputtering, coaxing and cajoling, bullying and railing – giving voice to his arguments even as his hand gave them form, texture, and color.” Vincent himself described his work as a “fencing match,” saying “I want to paint what I feel, and feel what I paint.” However quickly he worked, though, his paintings were always preceded by much thought and planning. “Great things do not just happen by impulse,” he once wrote, “but are a succession of small things linked together.” Even the sunflowers that he started painting at this time were completely thought through in terms of composition and color.

Finally Vincent’s entreaties, and a sum of money from Theo, attracted Gauguin to Arles. At first Vincent saw their partnership in grandiose terms, comparing it to the famous friendship between Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarch centuries before. His enthusiasm inspired many masterworks during this time, September and October 1888, including exteriors (The Yellow House) and interiors (Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles) of his home, as well as Starry Night over the Rhône.

Gauguin’s remarkable history is briefly recounted – his upbringing in South America, stockbroker background, marriage and children, embrace and subsequent rejection of Impressionism, travels to Panama and the Caribbean, and artistic ambition. His visit to Arles proved a disappointment to Vincent in many ways. While Theo was completely unable to sell his brother’s work, Gauguin’s attracted much attention and decent sums of money. Gauguin and his personal charm also attracted the lovely Arlésienne women that Vincent couldn’t. The charms of the Provence landscape that Vincent so valued had no particular attraction for Gauguin. Even their manner of painting diverged: Vincent worked quickly and en plein air, bold colors and thick impasto practically leaping off the rough surface of his canvases. Gauguin was much more methodical, doing a number of preparatory sketches for most of his paintings, preferred the studio for his work, and valued carefully modulated colors and an elegant, almost texture-free surface. Gauguin recounted much later, “Between the two of us, the one entirely a volcano and the other also boiling, but inside, some sort of struggle was bound to occur.”

When Gauguin finally left on the evening of December 23, Vincent famously cut off the lower half of his ear and had the piece of flesh delivered to a prostitute named Rachel, one of Gauguin’s favorites. Just a day or two earlier, not coincidentally, Jo Bonger had finally agreed to marry Theo. Their happiness was quickly shattered by news of Vincent’s health. “It was a pattern that would be repeated again and again over the next five months,” say the authors, “as Vincent shuttled in and out of the hospital, in and out of padded cells, in and out of coherence: one brother suffering in silence and self-reproach, the other retreating into optimism and indecision; one haunted by the past, the other looking to the future; both grasping at every straw of hope, minimizing every dread, moving in contrary spirals of denial that pushed them further and further apart with each revolution.” Periods of “darkness,” in which Vincent was overwhelmed by intense fear and hallucinations, alternated with stretches of lucidity.

In February 1889, thirty of Vincent’s neighbors petitioned the authorities to have him jailed or confined to an asylum. Vincent finally had himself committed to the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy. Unburdened by “the great weights of ambition and expectation,” Vincent found the asylum agreeable and peaceful. He also found the doctor’s opinion that epilepsy was his problem a great relief – his behavior was not his own fault. This freedom also seemed to release his creativity, as he started painting in earnest again, his subjects largely the forms of nature then surrounding him, like flowers, cypress trees, and the hilly, undulating landscape around the asylum. His masterpiece of that time, though, was the famous Starry Night from June 1889 – described by the authors as “a night sky unlike any the world had ever seen with ordinary eyes: a kaleidoscope of pulsating beacons, whirlpools of starts, 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.”

But his attacks soon returned. The long-suspect episode of his drinking kerosene and eating his paints, in an apparent suicide attempt, dates from this time. Memories and religious visions crowded into his thoughts. Even when the attacks ceased, a measure of paranoia and fear remained. His only distraction and consolation was painting, and he entered perhaps his most prolific period, creating both new images and copies of old (by the likes of Rembrandt, Delacroix, and his old favorite Millet as well as his own) at a rate of nearly one every other day for the next eight months: “He tested his hand on all the styles of the past, from the thin paint and loose fabric of Paris to the sculptural impasto of Monticelli; from swarms of Impressionist brushstrokes to plates of Japanese color.”

Around Christmas, an article about Vincent appeared in the Mercure de France newspaper. Albert Aurier’s article, filled with hyperbole and extravagant language, hailed Vincent as a genius of extreme temperament. “His is a brain at its boiling point,” wrote Aurier, “irresistibly pouring down its lava into all of the ravines of art, a terrible and demented genius, often sublime, sometimes grotesque, always at the brink of the pathological.” The article was a sensation, and even as he suffered, Vincent’s name and work were receiving attention.

Soon Vincent was well enough to travel to Paris, where he saw Theo for the first time in two years, and met Jo and their new son Vincent. But Paris was too much for him, and within three days he was on the train for Auvers and Dr. Paul Gachet, who had served as a doctor for Pissarro, Manet, and Cezanne. He painted canvas after canvas of the landscapes around Auvers, including the stormy, haunted Wheat Field with Crows (July 1890), long thought to be (but not actually) his final painting.

On July 27, after another typical day in the fields painting, Vincent staggered into town, without his paints and canvases and bleeding from a gunshot wound to the stomach. Even though the wound didn’t appear to be serious, Vincent seemingly gave up on life and quickly faded. At 12:30 on the morning of July 29, he died in Theo’s arms; his last words, half an hour earlier, had been “I want to die like this.” Theo was the only Van Gogh family member to attend the funeral service the following day. Within months Theo himself ended up in the hospital, partly paralyzed, his body ravaged by syphilis, and suffering from bouts of delusion even worse and more violent than his brother’s. He died in an asylum on January 24 or 25, 1891. Years later Jo had her husband and Vincent buried next to one another in Auvers.

Naifeh and Smith devote a sizable Appendix to the circumstances of Vincent’s shooting, laying out an alternative, and controversial, hypothesis that conforms, they say, more closely to the few available facts. They suggest that René Secrétan, a sixteen year old student who with his friends frequently made fun of Vincent, actually shot him for reasons unknown – not in the wheat fields where Vincent often painted, but at a small farm in the opposite direction. Vincent then decided to hide the boy’s involvement, perhaps as some kind of martyrdom, and made up a fictional suicide attempt (despite Vincent’s oft-repeated rejection of suicide and there being no note or any other evidence that Vincent was considering it). The suicide attempt that has been immortalized in books, film, and popular culture, then, may not have happened, at least not in the way typically depicted. This wouldn’t lessen the tragedy of so much of Vincent’s life, but simply would change the final chapter into something less melodramatic, but no less sad.

All the images of Vincent’s work come from the Van Gogh Gallery.

One thought on “Naifeh and Smith: Van Gogh: The Life

  1. Pingback: The Thirty-Two Minutes Top Ten List! | Thirty-Two Minutes

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