Review | Van Gogh: A Life

Van Gogh: The LifeVan Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve never read a book so thoroughly detailed. At times it felt like a day-by-day account of his 37 years. The book establishes early on that Van Gogh was at best “quirky” and at worst had a few disorders, but hey, who doesn’t. I’m not a psychologist, but when you are sleeping with your walking stick in your bed to punish yourself, I don’t know, that’s probably a red flag for later developments. For the first 600 or 700 pages, I developed a dislike for Van Gogh; he’s an unlikeable loser. But by the end there is empathy and compassion for all that he went through.

Of course, he could have just gotten a job at some point, but then the world would be the lesser for not having his art.

He taught himself, researched, studied, applied new techniques, which all lead to him ‘becoming’ Van Gogh. The book doesn’t really spell out exactly why Van Gogh and his art became a worldwide phenomenom. It doesn’t critique the art; the book just details the life.

Most people are familiar with the art from Van Gogh’s final two years, the fact that he cut off his ear and killed himself. Obviously, those few items don’t tell the whole story, and the whole story which at times is repetitious is ultimately fascinating. He lived in interesting times in Europe and in art. Everyone wrote letters, kept family histories. Van Gogh exists at this crossroads between the old ways of society of manual labor and a new era. He was a craftman who appreciated the working man. He was relentless. You have to appreciate that.

At the end, I was sad that he passed; he had found his stroke, his style of painting that combined many of the interests and influences that became beloved by the world. But I was also relieved for him. He did not have an easy life. When he died, he became the embodiment of the suffering artist. The world learned of this solitary figure and fell in love with what they took to be a romantic figure.

The book theorizes that he did not kill himself and they make a very understandable and believable case that he did not.

The authors read everything that Van Gogh wrote and everything that Van Gogh read. The level of researching is amazing. The writing pulls you through a lengthy and detailed story, a life worth examining.

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