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VAN GOGH by Steven Naifeh Kirkus Star


The Life

by Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith

Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-375-50748-9
Publisher: Random House

A gripping and almost certainly definitive account of the all-too-short life of a great artist who believed he was doomed to oblivion.

Indeed, few who knew Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) thought he would amount to anything. Fired by religious mania, mental illness and a love-hate relationship with his domineering pastor father, he was a difficult child who became a socially awkward adult. After blowing through a series of failed careers—art dealer, preacher (repeatedly), tutor, bookkeeper—he was well into his 20s before he became an artist. “This painting of yours will be like all the other things you started, it will come to nothing,” said one former employer. But for van Gogh, art, not religion, was the transcendence he had been looking for all along, offering “an imagery of reconciliation with which he could re-imagine his own life of failure and remorse.” His new calling proved every bit as monkish and self-mortifying as his old one, pushing him to create but failing to reward him, forcing him to rely on money from his beloved brother Theo. A desperate and haunted figure, he faced demons both outer (personal and professional rejection) and inner (paranoia, self-hatred, self-mutilation and a lifelong yearning for death). Van Gogh’s life has long been the stuff of tortured-artist drama, but it is hard to imagine it has ever been told better than by Pulitzer winners Naifeh and Smith (Jackson Pollack, 1991, etc.). Their van Gogh is tender, caddish, selfish and sympathetic. The authors occasionally get defensive about their subject, but they offer a credibly argued theory that suggests he died from an accidental shooting, not suicide.

Despite its exhaustive length, the book is brilliantly written and engaging, presenting a three-dimensional and larger-than-life portrait of the artist.