Shifting Perceptions About Vincent Van Gogh

It’s kind of funny. A few posts away I was writing about PERCEPTIONS.

And how everything is a question of perception…

Well, my perceptions about Vincent changed. Of course, they changed for a long time and will still change but now I’m talking about some DRAMATIC  shifting in my perception of Van Gogh. It won’t make much difference for anybody else but myself but for me, a life long Vincent Van Gogh unconditioned fan, it does…

First, let’s say that the reading of Naifeh & Smith, ”Van Gogh:The Life” is the cause of this shift. I did not finished the book (900 p and more, common!), I just browsed here and there, the most interesting periods of Van Gogh life (in my perception, of course), the Antwerpen period, Paris, Auvers sur Oise… But that was enough to have a different, less idealized and a lot less flattering image of Vincent… Seeming very well documented, very precise and almost totally lacking in empathy toward Vincent, one wonders why on earth did Naifeh & Smith took such pain to write this book? (ok, except for the potential for fame and money making…those are powerful motivators, no doubt!)


Ok, I AM a bit unfair to the authors. Embittered probably because they succeeded in changing my perception of Vincent to a lot less flattering one (a feat in itself!) which almost nobody did succeed in a very long time.

I have to confess that I am even SCARED to continue reading because I have a dangerous tendency, right now, to identify Vincent with a person whom is very close to me , volens-nolens. A person diagnosed with BPD, a psychiatric ”thing” which did not existed (as a diagnostic) in Vincent times but which seems to be very close of Naifeh & Smith description of Van Gogh’s behavior. Not that I trust much the psychologists & psychiatrists… Not that I consider a science any of those two… But still…

”Menacingly intense”, they say, ”tyrannical  viscosity”, they say. Fear of abandonment, real or imagined. Manipulator. Egotistical. Fanatic. Oh, boy! do I know all those symptoms! (All the above, especially in the Vincent – Theo relationship or in Vincent general behavior).

This shift in my perception of Vincent, as a person not as an artist (but how do you separate the two?!) is still in movement but already did some irreparable damage to my idealized (even if I’ve always tried to be fair) image of Vincent Van Gogh. For the moment, I just wanted to write this down. To be continued…

25 responses to “Shifting Perceptions About Vincent Van Gogh

  1. Maybe it’s a good thing, Danu, that you have a less idealistic view of him. But that has nothing to do with the art. Although the artist’s personality definitely puts its mark on the art, the artifact can, should, and will claim its own existence. A statue is the best example for this. How many times do we stop to admire a public sculpture without knowing anything about its maker? Perhaps it is the ONLY way that we should look at a work of art, without context and history — in its purity.
    As a side note, I dare to mention now that I think Gauguin’s blame in Vincent’s ear cutting incident perhaps is exaggerated. My readings on the event suggest that he took off not because he was a coward but because he was depressed himself….perhaps he was scared of doing something desperate himself. But I am a bigger fan of Gaugain than VanGogh, so don’t trust me. 🙂

    • Thinkagain

      Please finish the book. I felt the same way as you did
      after reading about 3/4 of the book. However, I came away
      with an entirely different feeling by the end of the book …
      as with many lives, sometimes you don’t see the import
      of someone’s behavior until you see their entire story.
      Midway through the book I felt disgust and had little patience
      for the way M. Van Gogh treated his family and friends.
      However, by the end of his book I only felt a
      profound sympathy and sadness for Vincent
      van Gogh and the challenges of his life. He had a profound
      underlying mental illness (not fully understood today;
      brain damage early in life? epilepsy? absinthe poisoning?).
      Yet , he emerged towards the end of his life with deep empathy
      and understanding for the pain he had caused others, and
      tried to make amends using the only talents he had. The
      sorrow he caused himself was many times more scarring
      than anything that could have inflicted upon him. It is somewhat
      amazing to consider what he did accomplish, despite all odds
      against him. Please consider finishing the book to have a fuller understanding of this complicated and intriguing man.

      • In fact, it’s kind of funny! I started by reading the last chapter and I go on (well, off and on) with the rest of the chapters, going the other way around… And my perceptions slowly shifts all the time… This book is very rich! and thanks for the comment and the attention!

  2. Derest Ivanu:
    You’re back at last! And I’m glad! Very glad indeed!
    What can I say to this post of yours I ‘ve waited for so long…?!
    How did I know your viewpoint would be this one?! Don’t ask me…
    Loved it … simply loved your post!
    As I told you before, I haven’t read the book, yet, but I intend to do so. If it’ll change my idea and love for Vincent… we’ll see! However, I’m kind of a “love faithful” type and I’m also used to separate the man/woman from the artist. Sometimes they seem to be two different “people”. Although I am also aware that dealing with day must be different than admiring them from afar.
    When heard about the book I thought: “here it comes again… two people trying to get famous from the dead’s memory, from those who no longer can defend themselves.” Sceptical as I use to be, this was my very first thought.
    With all my respect for the authors’ work, and daring to talk about a book I haven’t read (a mistake, somehow, I know), it is a rather delicate “job” to analyse and diagnosis one’s personality when this one is gone. And here I must ask: supposing that Vincent van Gogh suffered from BPD… was it a crime? Was it his fault? Who are they (or we) to judge his disease and consequent behaviours? Didn’t he suffer enough? (…) Well… regarding this type of mental diseases, and they DO exist, it is always the same old song: they are only regarded as “real” and “understandable” once they affect us or the ones we love…
    I personally carry on thinking that someone who was able to colour and picture the world with so much beauty, sometimes also with so much pain, but above all with a lot of feeling, couldn’t be this “evil thing”… but rather a very, rather sensitive human being, too sensitive, in fact, most of the time tormented exactly ’cause of it.
    And… who Vincent REALLY was, Vincent, the man, we’ll never know. Only Vincent himself. And I guess it’s a bit too late to ask him whatever questions we may wish to see answered. Too late also to be his friend, to get to know him first before becoming his friend. Too late also to love and accept him the way he was.
    I know historians are not there to love people, but to tell the truth. But… how many of them are really fair and try to tell the truth of facts? Being human, they fail. They have their preferences: they love and hate. Or they get paid to tell the “best version” or “just one side of the story”. However they shouldn’t. Their job is to be impartial, basing in facts not in opinions. But we all know it doesn’t happen this way. And history is there to show it to us. We only need to compare different “readings”. A hero becomes a beast and a beast can become a hero in an eye’s blink.
    However, and regarding people, one should be a lot more careful! How can facts or documents say all about someone’s character, when it’s so hard to know ourselves, and even harder to know others?! How can those “deep” studies be trustful, when even the people who should love us, the people we love, e.g. our families, betray us? At the moment of our death we usually are the best of human beings. Nevertheless soon forgotten. And only those who really loved and will always love us, keep us alive and eternal as long as their memory doesn´t betray them.
    Dear Ivanu, I understand your disappointment and sadness seeing your beloved Vincent portrayed like that. I’d feel the same way, too, had I read the book!
    I guess now it’s up to Vincent’s family (if any left, but probably yes) to protect his image… Or… has his family also betrayed him and sold the soul to devil?! (I guess these american authors should have to ask for permission to write the book, or…?
    If there’s any justice on earth, let it be done… At least from those who won’t change their minds and keep on admiring Vincent and his work, no matter what.
    Even if he was a criminal he deserved being loved. Most probably because these are the ones who need it most! But he was no criminal, nor a “harmful” man. How do I know that? Intuition tells me that and I usually follow it. It almost never lets me down!
    Keep on being the way you are, Danu. That’s the one I met and that’s the one I love. A great human being! That’s also the best we can leave behind!

    With love,


    • Thank you for your passionate reply, C! You are passionate about Vincent, as I am myself and passion is sometimes easily misguiding. The 2 authors, Naifeh and Smith (I have no idea what’s the deal with them, how they write together…Maybe like If and Petrov) are fair, I would say for what I’ve rea until now. Very well documented and maybe more like too impartial rather than the inverse. The similarities with BPD are mines, results of a personal experience with this particular relatively new mental illness. Not theirs. And there are just similarities not, maybe, the real deal… I wouldn’t wish to add yet another hypothesis as for what illness was Vincent’s. For me, personally, is not that important. His works are. And his letters which are – and here I have to gently disagree with you – one of the best and most complete documentation about an artist life we have at date! One CAN know A LOT about Vincent’s life and opinions and art, just reading this extensive, marvelous “journal” of his life. Of course, that’s relative and you are totally right about the difficulty to figure another person (or even oneself) out! In fact, and I will write very soon about this, he was a very lucky fellow, Vincent, in many aspects of his life and if his life was what is was, his personal choices were most of the time responsible. Of course he was NO CRIMINAL or “harmful”man! He was just very difficult to live with because of his total sincerity (not the most desirable of social qualities), his fanatical beliefs in art and life, his vehemence, his “tyrannical viscosity”(his neediness?) When you’ll read the book (which I don’t enjoy or adore but it’s an honest and very well documented one) you’ll see there is no need for his family (if there still exists) to protect his image. And he do not need any protection at all because, as you said it yourself – and many others – his best defense are his paintings. And his image is not under attack in the book.They just followed the cold logic of the facts and of the available testimonies. Of course, if he were under attack you and me would fight the attackers till the bitter end! Thanks, again for your kind(to me) and passionate words!

      • You’re right. Passion can be misguiding. But it has always bothered me when it comes to “touching” one’s personality, biography, behaviour when one was not there…
        I admire your honesty and impartiality. I also appreciate your capacity of being fair regarding the authors and their viewpoints. It’s not always easy!
        (BPD is not a recent illness; it used to be called maniac-depressive disease and it “exists” for a long time. Virginia Woolf suffered from it, too, so they say. Scientists (Psychiatrists) have given it a name (BPD I and II) recently, but there’s still a long way to go to find out about its causes and treatments. No cure has been found yet It seems to be inherited (not proved), but one comes to life with it. It can never get worse, depending on life experiences and on the way people can deal with them. As far as I know (and I’m not an expert,,,) BPD can be controlled, not cured.)
        You don’t need to thank me for my kind words. They reflect my thoughts and my feelings. And they are not kind but true words. I’m never kind just for being kind.
        Van Gogh has been for quite some time (since 1991, when I travelled to Amsterdam) my no.1. At that time I also bought a book on his life and work I can’t find now (it happens a lot to me; certainly I lent it and it had no return..) Some of my points of view still remain close to my reading, perhaps. Later I bought a whole collection on the “Impressionists” and, once again, being aware of Vincent’s illness and difficult personality (there are millions of people who also have one!) I thought he had the right to have it. At least he was sincere!!! Why do we all expect “perfection” from those who are /were famous?
        Why are we so less demanding with ourselves?!

        My passionate words also show my character. Whether I love or I hate.
        “It’s in between I freeze” (this sings Leo Cohen)

        And you’re quite special… So special, that I’m happy, really happy that you found me!



      • You admire me trying… I am relatively honest and kind of impartial. I try, that is. I have trouble reading, documenting myself about BPD. It pains me. My elder son was diagnosed with it a few years ago. One day I will tell you more but on the private email. Not in the family tree, as far as I know.

        You were in Amsterdam! wow! it’s my dream to take a tour, to take KLM from Montreal and stay there a few days to see Van Gogh Museum and go also to Kröller-Müller Museum and maybe also to the Rijsk Museum, to see the Rembrandts and Frans Hals… Maybe take a tour also to Portugal and Spain and Italy…Just dreams, for the moment. But I’ve bought lottery tickets for saturday… Who knows?

        What was the author of that book? I don,t pretend to have read everything written about Van gogh but the main author’s I hope I did…and my passion for him dates ehhehe! 1970!

        I know you mean your words and your passion is apparent in your poetry (even if I just guess what it means!) and in everything you write. I am like that a bit, myself. But I try to not hate too much. No restriction in the other direction. Following Dalai Lama and Aldous Huxley wisdom: to be kind, which is not as easy as it sounds…

        I also love my countryman Leonard Cohen, I would say he came into my life not too long after Vincent, singing Joan of d’arc…
        and, yes, we wait impatiently to know our second grandchild… I wish you all the best too, C! and thanks!

  3. Reblogged this on nós.

  4. I won’t! (:-)
    I am totally in accord with what you say: a life artist and his art should not be judged together. Because, yes, an artwork is maybe the best an the purest product of a life which could be pretty much a mess (as it was Vincent’s, Gauguin and so many others…) From the same book, yet, Gauguin still stands in evidence as an almost insufferable egotist, calculated and calculating all the time in his favor. I suppose anyone’s life, if scrutinized with a powerful enough magnifier glass could be a mess…

    • You know exactly what I mean, I hope! We all go through changes, some bad some good… But we can try that our essence, our good nature, our values and beliefs remain the same.
      And I’m quite sure no one will take your love and admiration for Vincent away from you!
      How could he fight his own nature? Could he do anything against his geniality / disease? WHO are we to put all this in question?! We are not Vincent! We are not “other Vincents” and it’s so very easy to talk when you’re not “in their skin”!

      • Do not worry, C! My image of Vincent evolves, that’s all. Don’t think my love for his work and my admiration for his painting and letters could whiter and die! And maybe it’s a good thing, to have a more complex (and maybe more close to the real truth) image of him instead of a very partisan and maybe unilateral perception of his “legend”… As for “who are we” question, I don’t know yet! I’m still working on this one! (:-) ) But probably when we ask essential question about vincent or another great artist we also ask important, essential, questions about ourselves…even if, probably, we are not geniuses… In his time, vincent himself did not consider himself as a genius even if he KNW, no doubt, that he painted some pretty awesome paintings…

      • I’m quite sure no genius considers himself a genius… Fortunately!
        I understand quite well your “I’m still working on this one”. And yes, you’re right. The process of knowing others and questioning things is also a way of questioning ourselves and getting to know us better. Anyway… I prefer humans to legends, so…
        And perfect people are not interesting at all!



      • Me too, C, me too…Have a great evening! (or is it night ?) I think I,m done for the day, especially because today seems to be the day! my daughter is possibly hours away from giving us a second boy grandchild!)

      • 23:56H here…
        Oh, boy! A new baby is coming… Nervous, anxious, ha?!
        Possibly a night with no sleep! For the best of reasons… Wish your daughter a brief hour (here we say it like this) and welcome the baby for me!
        Wish you all the best!


  5. There is also the links between genius and madness. I think it’s about stepping outside the norm. If you are outside the normal restraints of behaviour, you get a bit – or a lot – disoriented. There are fewer landmarks to guide you so your behaviour doesn’t tend to follow rules. That applies to art and personality.
    Van Gogh may be the only artist who was massively prolific, populist and also a brilliant designer. the sheer output tends to overwhelm me.

    • Even if he produces a lot and very quick, Vincent is not so massively prolific (of course, if one consider only the numbers and a reasonable quality; if one considers masterpieces – even if that’s a hard candy too: who establishes the norm for masterpiece? – yes, you are probably right…As for the links genius-madness (fascinant subject, that one!) in his specific case, Vincent NEVER painted or draw a single work while “mad” (in the rare 3-4 times he had attacks, first in arles, 23 of Dec. and then again in arles, St. Remy de Provence etc) he was totally incapacitated…One cannot say he produced masterpieces BECAUSE he was also mad, at times, but he created masterpieces IN SPITE of his madness!

      • It’s like the links between alcoholism and writing with Hemmingway etc. They tend to reach for the booze either after they’ve peaked or to drown the fact that they’ve lost it. Maybe VG painted from relief at the bouts of madness had freed him.

  6. It just tells me that he was human. Maybe his poverty, even though self imposed, created sorrow that the authors could not possibly understand. And maybe just having a new twist to a new book meant a lot of attention. I don’t care how flawed he was because I only need to look at his art to find some beauty. I am very interested to see what else you have to say, and your view of his life. I think the person he hurt the most was himself. I’m mad at him for leaving too early, but such is life right!! Great post!

    • As the famous ending of Some Like iT Hot, “Nobody’s perfect!” And I don’t think he was flawed, as such. A lot of factors to consider. Anyway, as you said, it’s enough to look at some truly unique and outstanding paintings of him to forgot about the flaws. For me, it’s kind of personal because I lived (still do) about the same situation of him and Theo (me, mostly being in Theo’s situation). And it’s not very pleasant. In fact, more I get old, more I wonder if Leibnitz wasn’t right saying that we live in the best of the worlds POSSIBLE. Which is also to say that what happens HAS to happen, that all the circumstances before and after, cannot happen otherwise…So, I am not mad at him. One cannot live at that intensity and live long. Cannot imagine a 85 years old Vincent Van Gogh…

  7. Hi Danu
    I fell in love with van Gogh’s work in around 1963, when I visited an exhibition of his works in Israel and it left an indelible impression on me. No matter how crazy he was, his work is so powerful, his touch of the brush is so unique that you cannot but be impressed. I was surprised that he could not sell a painting during his lifetime, because what impresses me today should have impressed others as well, but…that’s a different issue. Having said that I think that the artist personality matters very little in artwork. What matters is whether the work is good or bad. Of course this is also a subjective issue, but in my view it’s all that matters. In music things are much the same, with so many people listening to Wagner despite the fact that he can be considered an ideologue for Nazism. Eminescu was a xenophobe, yet his poetry is immortal and we can go on with examples. My bottom line is that one should distinguish between the art and the person, so that you can be disappointed with his persona and can still love his art.

    • Nobody, myself least of all, says otherwise, Rafi! My perception (not perseption which, evidently, is a typo…) of his as a person changed, it is now more complex and less indiscriminate ecstatic (there are some testimonies of contemporaries – same as his presumed killer in Nasfeh & White Smith book – saying he was masturbating in the woods; so what?!) not at all my perception of his work, most of it being really genial. Even if, even there there are some bad Van Gogh, one doesn’t have to be indiscriminate ecstatic even there… If you looked at my Facebook page or my Fine art america site you can see I even made a copy/ replica of one of my favorite. But just like you, when I saw a few originals I was simply ecstatic, ha, ha…

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