Posted in Non Fiction

Van Gogh: The Life


With his plans for the Yellow House slipping toward failure, his yearning for that future poured onto the canvas as he labored more tenderly than ever before to express a transcendent truth through color and brushstroke: to capture the one human emotion shut out of the Cafe de la Gare, the most important one: the hope – no matter how faint or how far – of redemption.”Is this all,” he asked despairingly, “or is there more besides?”

If Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography Van Gogh: The Life does nothing else for me, it answers the question that, yes, the pronunciation of Vincent Van Gogh’s last name is not the way most (or most Americans, anyway) pronounce it with “gogh” rhyming with “go”. The biography never actually gives a correct pronunciation but simply states that the artist’s name is virtually unpronounceable.  I’ve wondered about this ever since I watched an episode of Dr. Who in which the Matt Smith version of the Doctor and his companion (Amy) go back in time to visit Vincent. They say his last name like they are clearing their throat which is closer to the Dutch way of saying it.

Of course, this biography is much more than an answer to that question. The authors combine a text book quality (it’s almost 900 pages) and a story-telling ability that make the book vastly informative while pulling the reader emotionally into the tragic life of one of our most well-known artists.

They take the common knowledge of Van Gogh or what might be called the “pop culture” aspects such as Starry Night, sunflowers, and the self-inflicted wound to his ear and let their story build to these and other events with fascinating details. I’ve said before that a good story doesn’t have to have a surprise ending, in fact, a story in which one might already know what happens but yet still makes one want to go there could actually be considered a better story. Van Gogh: The Life is an excellent example of this. For much of his life as an artist, Van Gogh consistently went against the advice of those closest to him and used only black and white, pen and ink drawings or charcoal and pencil. I enjoyed the manner in which the authors bring the reader (or at least this reader) along to the point of exasperation making them want to scream “Just use color! Stop with the black and white and use color!”

And Vincent eventually does.

One surprise aspect of the book, though, might be the case the authors make for Vincent’s untimely death not being a suicide. Suicide has become “legend” while the more likely scenario would be an accidental gunshot wound – from somebody else. Heartbreakingly, Vincent’s death propelled him to the astronomical fame he never even remotely found during his life.

I’ll add this as one of my favorite Van Gogh paintings even if it’s not as well-known as some of his others – Portrait of Camille Roulin:

vangogh painting



3 thoughts on “Van Gogh: The Life

  1. I somehow missed this post last week. I’ve been interested in Van Gogh since I had to do a art project involving him in junior high. Alas, I don’t know much about him beyond the “pop culture.” Might have to remedy that.

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