“What things I might have done”

This is my review of Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh,Gregory White Smith.

This vast biography is a gripping and often heartbreaking account of a tortured genius, probably suffering from what would now be diagnosed as a bi-polar disorder, which both fed his strikingly original work but also hindered his recognition as a great artist in his lifetime.

The joint authors paint a generally unflattering portrait of Van Gogh, although he was clearly well-intentioned, and showed occasional flashes of self-knowledge and touching, excessive humility or regret over past errors. Argumentative and excitable, he upset virtually everyone he met and drove away potential friends and lovers by being too intense, smothering and controlling. The only woman he ever managed to possess was the worn down prostitute Sien Hoornik, with whom he set up house, together with her baby, to his clergyman father's distress, only to abandon her for some new obsession with little evidence of any sense of guilt.

After a number of "false starts" as an art dealer who felt honesty-bound to tell customers the shortcomings of artworks for sale, a teacher, a theological student and a missionary in the grim coalmining area of the Borinage, he spent the last decade of his life as a self-taught and astonishingly prolific artist.

The book is strong on Van Gogh's development as an artist, and the various influences on his work, such as Delacroix's startling use of colour. We see his progression from detailed ink drawings, produced with the use of a grid, through a period of dark paintings, exemplified by his sludge-coloured representation of a group of peasants eating potatoes, to the great explosion of works in colour which began in Paris, expanded under the brilliant blue skies and arid landscapes of Provence, and ended in a final burst of activity in the picturesque riverside town of Auvers near Paris, where he died mysteriously from a gunshot wound.

His complex relationship with his brother Theo is covered in depth, as he cajoled, wheedled and bullied the young art dealer (who had taken over his job) into sending up to half his income each month to pay for the extravagant follies Vincent thought necessary for his work – studios, models for the portraits, and vast quantities of canvas and paint.

The chaotic days in the "yellow house" at Arles leading to the famous incident in which Vincent cut off his own ear are also brought to life, with a detailed comparison of the "chalk and cheese" differences between Vincent and Paul Gauguin who had been persuaded to visit him, as part of Van Gogh's self-deluding dream of setting up a community of artists. The painful contrast is made clear between the nervous Vincent, painting real scenes in the open air with spontaneity and lashings of paint, yet to find a single real buyer for his work, and the confident, manipulative Gauguin, who had just begun to enjoy a market for the pictures carefully planned and produced from memory in the studio, with the focus on symbolism and minimal use of paint.

The book lapses too often into a wordy, overblown, repetitious style from which suitable editing would have shaved off, say, at least 200 pages. This would have left more space to ensure that each reference to a key painting or description of a Van Gogh work is accompanied by a colour plate at a suitable point in the text. Failing this, you can in fact track down on Google imagesmost of the paintings mentioned.

If pressed for time, you may prefer to read Martin Gayford's much shorter, "The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles". Van Gogh's letters are also revealing, and may give a more balanced view through greater focus on his detailed reflections on life and art.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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