Tag Archives: Van Gogh: The Life

Shifting Perceptions About Vincent Van Gogh


Van Gogh and I

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……

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The Vanished Van Gogh


Van Gogh and I

It takes no doubt some very big intellectual “cojones” to reveal a Vincent Van Gogh like the one Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith just did, relative recently, by publishing ” Van Gogh:The Life”. This book goes a long way against the tide, against the legend and conventional myth of Vincent Van Gogh. Of course, the myth admits Vincent was a “mad” genius (and essentially, he was, but the accent is on GENIUS not on mad…) but the way the 2 authors extend the madness to, practically,his whole life is, to say the least, unusual, singular.

A weirdo from the beginning to the end, a maniac, a paranoid, quarrelsome, sometimes generous, sometimes blatantly ungrateful human being, the Naifeh & Smith’s Vincent is quite an unpleasant person to deal with. Failure after failure are minutiously described, with an almost scientific accuracy. And these 2 authors are very convincing. Not that…

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How to Decide if a Biography of Van Gogh deserves to be Read?


Recently, a good friend gave me the gift of an unknown, for me, biography of Van Gogh, “Vincent Van Gogh – A Life” by Philip Callow, 1990, at Elephant Paperback, Chicago.

Since TIME is of a very sensitive nature for me (as, maybe, it should be for everyone since it’s impossible to buy it or re-generate it…) I have to come with new ways of choosing my readings. Van Gogh being, still, after cancer healing and nutrition and meditation books, a preferred and important reading subject for me.

It took me cca 5 minutes to decide that Callow’s bio of Van Gogh wasn’t worth reading, at least, not by me. Maybe if you don’t know anything about Van Gogh (or just the media gossip, here and there) this book will be readable. But for me, or someone who read most of Van Gogh biographies, or at least, the important ones, this is an amateur, dilettant, bio. How did I arrive at this conclusion?

Well, first of all, I’ve browsed the bibliography. Aside from Vincent Letters (which, of course, are a sine qua non of ANY biography of Van Gogh) only very few of the important, interesting biographers of Vincent were there: Marc Edo Tralbaut. Only 2 other big names, but with general works, Herbert Read,  with “The Meaning Of Art” and Rainer Maria Rilke with “Letters to Cézanne” (as I’ve mentioned, works not directly related to Vincent).

So, this was a good hint this was only a commercial, conventional biography of Van Gogh, one written without the preparation or the special skills needed (the author “studied engineering and the teaching of English before turning to writing” ). Well, I’m not a stickler against engineers or English Teachers turned to writing. I think everybody deserves a chance.

But then I came to the supreme test, for me, of a good biography of Vincent. I’ve read the last chapter, the one about the death of Vincent and, eventually, his immediate post-mortem events. And there, without any doubt, I concluded that Philip Callow’s bio was, for me, worthless. No need to read, again and again, the conventional ( and false) legend of the death of Vincent. The “suicide” (taken as a given, no doubt, no inquiry of the question; of course, one cannot judge a 1990 bio of Vincent with the  StevenNaifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 2011 bio in mind, even if, for me, it’s not feasible any more; it’s kind of branded in my mind!) the good “friend” Paul Gachet doing his thing as a “family” doctor, etc. (Gachet wasn’t really a friend of Vincent, not at the end of his life; after some authors, who did extensive research on the matter, he was even a shameless profiteer not only of Van Gogh – who was his “profiteer masterpiece” though – but of all the Impressionists and post-impressionists who crossed his path: Pissarro, Monet (the “good” doctor even had the main responsibility in Monet’s wife untimely death) etc.; but that’s an entirely different subject…) Anyway, reading the chapter I was kind of bored and kind of disgusted of the conventionality and dulness of it.  Not to mention the conventional “Theo” dying after 6 months thing.  Lets say the truth, Theo’s death was, of course, precipitated, by Vincent’s. But he died of 3rd state syphilis. And their relations where a lot more complex and interesting than the conventional “loving” brother thing. (Let’s say that Vincent could be, really, sometimes, a pain in the arse for his family…) Some pretty good dual biographies are out there that really deserves to be read…

When I thought my time was quasi-infinite I’ve come across a lot of quirky , poetical, far-fetched biographies or writings about Vincent. But, at least, they were not boring and dull. So, if you came across this particular biography, do not read it. You’ll waste precious time. Even the 60-70 years old “Lust for Life” by Irving Stone (a serious biographer and writer) is better as a biography of Vincent. In fact, that’s a a classic. And if you have the time to read only ONE biography of Vincent Van Gogh, go with Naifeh and White Smith’s bio. It’s the best to date (and I assume it will be for the next 25 years at least…)

By the way, they don't pay me to advertise their book. The book advertise itself, by it's outstanding value...

By the way, they don’t pay me to advertise their book. The book advertise itself, by it’s outstanding value…

I hope my little tips of how to decide if a book about Vincent deserves reading would help you to gain time. Because, I know it now, time is the most precious thing you have. Don’t waste it.

The Vanished Van Gogh


It takes no doubt some very big intellectual “cojones” to reveal a Vincent Van Gogh like the one Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith just did, relative recently, by publishing ” Van Gogh:The Life”. This book goes a long way against the tide, against the legend and conventional myth of Vincent Van Gogh. Of course, the myth admits Vincent was a “mad” genius (and essentially, he was, but the accent is on GENIUS not on mad…) but the way the 2 authors extend the madness to, practically,his whole life is, to say the least, unusual, singular.

A weirdo from the beginning to the end, a maniac, a paranoid, quarrelsome, sometimes generous, sometimes blatantly ungrateful human being, the Naifeh & Smith’s Vincent is quite an unpleasant person to deal with. Failure after failure are minutiously described, with an almost scientific accuracy. And these 2 authors are very convincing. Not that they are lirically passionate (like so many of the authors that made a sentimental, often edulcorate myth of the “mad genius” Van Gogh…) They are more like the enthomologist looking with a “manic” (a word they use quite a lot!) attention at an interesting bug through a microscope… Of course, they already exercised this kind of  “focus” on Jackson Pollock, another genius with mental problems…

For me, a fan of Vincent Van Gogh for more than 40 years, it is kind of paradoxically funny, to sing the praises and pay and hommage to them, the 2 guys who ruined “my” Van Gogh for me. For I cannot close my eyes and see “MY” hero Vincent anymore. Vanished.

As I am about to finish my reading of their brick of a book (which I start to read from the end – the fishy “suicide”, Naifeh & Smith variant – and now I will finish in the middle…) “my” Vincent is there no more, lost and vanished. I suppose, even our personal myths grow old, wither and die…

What is still here? Well, it is “their” Vincent, a troubled, bizarre, too passionate (with a short fuse and a short – if intense – flame), paranoid, impossible to live with, mad (truly and ugly mad, from the beginning, and not conveniently romantically mad like in the Hollywood movies…) human being. I’m not a psychiatrist but, if I were, probably I would have diagnosed his sickness as Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness which was not in the books back in the 1890 ties… (May the Lord forgive me the sin of adding yet another dilettante diagnosis of Vincent’s sickness! I just couldn’t help myself, for very personal reasons…)

Eventually, their Vincent proves to be quite an unglamourous figure. A sad, unhappy, difficult being. Difficult to deal with. And if there was, no doubt, a lot of suffering involved, the most of it was self inflicted, the result of his mental sickness.

Van Gogh, for me, is NOT a hero and a model anymore. At least not as a person. Oh, boy!

File:Vincent Willem van Gogh 102.jpg

Of course, his body of work is still there, his letters, his drawings, his paintings. Not all of them are masterpieces (even if treated as such by the Auction Houses; but then, did you looked at that little horror of a Scream by Munch they sold for 120 millions or such?!) but the inevitably few who are…well, those sunny, colorful, a la prima, perfect paintings and drawings they do for sure tip the balance in his favor. Maybe it was God’s scope to make him the way he was and give him so much unhappiness and pain. So that he can draw and paint those awesomely happy, luminous and colorful images that are now a part of our everyday life. Those masterpieces – the pure essence of a life so full of failure and self – inflicted sufferings – are redeeming. More than enough to tip the balance from Vincent, the madman, to simply “Vincent”. “Vincent”, the way he signed his paintings. Vincent, the genius.

What about Vincent’s suicide?


This is just a tentative essay of my immediate reactions to the Naifeh & Smith book. I will probably come back with more.

A news of a brand new hypothesis of Van Gogh’s death  was how I discovered the latest book about Vincent,  “Van Gogh the Life”. Some article on the internet about their hypothesis saying that, in fact, Vincent did NOT committed suicide.

The truth is that I’ve tried to cheat a bit and read everything on Amazon. But they are not born yesterday, either. So, the essential pages were missing on the PDF thing available for freeloaders, poor artists, like myself. I had to regularly buy it. And I do not regret it because, even if I don’t love it or adore it, it’s an honest book, very well documented and written.

Did Vincent committed suicide? or not? That was the question. (My question for this post, not the book’s! In fact, I wouldn’t say they give a lot of space or excessive importance to the question). Almost no other author, until Naifeh & Smith, even considered another possibility than suicide. I have to confess I have my very frail and thin doubts because, in fact, there was a bit of a mystery and lots of confusions and contradictory facts, but I am just another Vincent’s fan and his legend can be, at times, pretty intimidating.

What’s to remain of his legend if one substracts the madness, the cutting of the ear and SUICIDE ? (I could verify and it was JUST an EAR LOBE, documented also in Naifeh & Smith; they tend to become a reference, weather one love them or not…)

So, here it is, in noce, the Naifeh & Smith (one has the tendency to think Smith & Wesson!) variant of Vincent’s death. They argue, convincingly, that in fact Vincent GOT shot by some young prankster (the most probable culprit: a young, reckless, rich playboy, playing cowboy (sorry for the pun!) – Vincent called “Puffalo Pill” to their endless amusement at his Dutch Buffalo Bill pronunciation! – by the name of Réné Sécretain). Based on his own testimony, and some others too, the authors conclude, after a convincing demonstration based on facts and logic, that Vincent, in circumstances unknown, was shot with an old, trigger sensible revolver belonging to Réné Sécretain either by accident or by recklessness (a prank gone bad). He returned to the Ravoux inn (but not from the far away location presumed, the romantic wheat fields but from a lot more nearer and prosaic location, a dung heap of a farm in Chaponval) to die, assuming the shooting both in order to protect the culprit but mostly because it suited him well at that precise timeline – he was extremely depressed and felt his whole life was coming to an end. ( Theo’s health and family situation made a burden out of Vincent and he feared another attack, etc.) Life, by this accident, did what he would probably do himself sooner or later. Vincent just took this opportunity as a godsend, accepted it and, after long hours of quiet and secret conversation with Theo, his brother and mecena, he expired.

I have to say I was (still am) convinced by this late hypothesis of Vincent’s death. At this moment in time, with the known facts and testimonies, Naifeh and Smith’s variant seems to be the truthful one.

Anyway, why is his death SO important (other than to reinforce a legend, a myth, very powerful and, as they say nowdays, “viral”) ?

What is really important is the beauty, the joy that his many masterpieces bring in our life. The rare feat of a man who, against many contrary odds, succeeded to create an amazing body of artworks.

The legend of the mad genius, the myth of the cursed artist…well, they are just that, legends, myths. Destined to fulfill our collective need for heroes and fiction.