Sorry — but really, who doesn’t feel relief upon finishing a volume that runs 870 pages?
I read a paper-bound galley of Van Gogh: The Life and had a hard time just managing its physical bulk. This is not a book to take on the subway or to toss in a backpack as airplane reading. Nor is it a book you can finish in one or even six sittings. It is, though, the new definitive biography of Vincent Van Gogh and nobody is going to touch that status for years and years.
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for their earlier biography of Jackson Pollock. For this tome (which took more than a decade to produce) they had the cooperation of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and access to an astounding amount of material. Very early in the book, as I read the names of the flowers that bloomed in the Van Gogh garden in Zundert when Vincent was a tot, I realized that the authors were going to share with their readers the vast majority of what they were able to find out, both directly from Van Gogh’s letters, and from their very thorough sifting through contextual material. Fortunately, Van Gogh: The Life has the mysterious quality of readability that keeps you turning the pages despite the avalanche of detail, and despite the fact that we all know how this story ends. The authors have pulled off a remarkable feat by writing a book that succeeds as both reference and narrative.
If only they were not so judgmental! Vincent, in their view, is reckless, manipulative, intolerable to live with, full of self-pity, and a lousy draftsman. For instance, describing his 1884 series of canvases depicting weavers in Nuenen, Smith and Naifeh write: “Despite years of trying, Vincent had yet to master the human figure. In The Hague, he had used the controlled environment of his studio, the perspective frame, tricks of posing and endless trial and error to overcome the halting awkwardness of his earliest attempts. But in the cramped weavers’ cottages, his ineptitude was fully exposed.” Then comes a paragraph speculating about Vincent’s obsession with the weavers, who were seen in those days as “rootless men of unconventional habits and unaccountable means.” From there, the authors conclude that “Vincent no doubt taunted his parents, just as he taunted Theo, with descriptions of his daily visits to the homes of these disruptive agents…. If Dorus and Anna raised objections, he no doubt shouted them down.” Then the authors add that “at mealtimes he brought his paintings into the parsonage dining room and propped them on the chair opposite, defiantly inviting the weavers to his parents’ table.” Well — you know, that does seem kind of hostile. And yet it turns out that when you go to the notes on vangoghbiography.com (more in a moment on this), there’s another way to interpret Vincent’s odd behavior. His sister claimed that he would merely sit looking at the painting he’d been working on that day. That seems much less bizarre, doesn’t it?
I know it’s a tiny detail, but there are hundreds of them in this book. Time and again, the characters are seen to be behaving badly: Vincent is in the asylum in Arles and Theo, rather than visiting him, devotes his free time to corresponding with his fiancée Johanna about wallpaper. Doctors make inaccurate diagnoses despite lack of expertise. Everyone is blamed for something.
Yet the scale of Naifeh and Smith’s achievement outweighs their snarkiness. If you’re in any doubt about that, check the book’s website (vangoghbiography.com), which offers hundreds of complex footnotes as well as archival photos, author bios, and reproductions of the paintings. My favorite section offers guidelines on further exploration of the Van Gogh scholarship, including links to help you purchase copies of some of the books in question. I only wish the authors had been as generous to their subjects as they are with their sources.