Not very long ago I finished reading “Van Gogh: the life,” by the Pulitzer Prize winning team of Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. The book is the latest in a long line of biographies about the troubled Dutch painter. But this one is so well written and Van Gogh’s life story is portrayed so darkly and tragically, that I found it almost impossible to even pick the book up at times. My reaction to the book was that visceral. Sometimes I felt as if I was going mad simply by reading it.
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Please allow me an opportunity to explain.
Published by Random House in October, 2011, “Van Gogh: the life” is a 953 page volume of vivid descriptive writing and wicked attention to detail. The book seamlessly divides itself between biography and art history lesson. The life and work of Vincent van Gogh is presented in nearly microscopic detail. There are great long passages in the book describing (in luscious detail) van Gogh’s painting techniques. So, too, are hundreds of pages devoted to the scope of the early “Impressionist” movement.
What hurts the most about the book is how Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith present Vincent’s life in the strongest light imaginable. No shame in his life is left unexamined. And Van Gogh’s entire adult life is nothing if not a shame. Living like a bum off his faithful yet long suffering brother, Theo, Vincent was the consummate loner caught in the middle of an ultra conformist society. And to top it off, Vincent died at 37, of an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound, just as his art was about to be discovered. It could only have happened to Vincent.
There were several occasions, I must admit, the thought of reading more about van Gogh’s miserable life would become intolerable and I would set the book down and try not to think about anymore. Then, maybe a month later, I would I would begin to feel guilty about the money I had spent for the book, and I’d pick it up and begin the process again. This happened at least three times over nine moths.
Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith have been colleagues since graduating from Harvard Law School in 1977. Over the decades they have collaborated on many books and articles. Their biography “Jackson Pollock: An American Sage,” was published in 1989. It won the Pulitzer Prize. The book was also made into an Academy Awarding winning film starring Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Herden in 2000.
The only remotely original piece of information contained in this book is the authors’ assertion that the death of the painter was probably not a suicide - but a murder instead. The book presents a rudimentary amount of evidence to support the murder theory (including an appendix titled “A Note on Vincent’s Fatal Wounding”).
In the appendix, Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith, restate the already well known facts of this 122 year old case: No physical evidence of the shooting was ever produced. No gun was ever found. None of the painting equipment that Vincent had taken with him that day in July 1890, was ever recovered. The location of the shooting was never conclusively identified. No autopsy was preformed. The bullet that killed van Gogh was not removed. Eventually, each reader must leave it to their own imagination to decide exactly where the facts (or lack of facts) fall in this case.
On the one hand, this biography fascinated me in magical ways and ultimately got under my skin. It was inspirational learning about van Gogh in its own small way. But I must state once more, that I never grew to appreciate the hopelessly depressing portrayal of Vincent van Gogh as presented by the authors so vividly in this book. I simply was not ready for it all. The book gave me pause.
Truth be told, I am glad to be done with the whole business. And I will probably never forget the experience of reading this book again.