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Van Gogh: The Life [Paperback]

Steven Naifeh , Gregory White Smith
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Book Description

Dec 4 2012
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who galvanized readers with their Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Jackson Pollock, have written another tour de force—an exquisitely detailed, compellingly readable portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Working with the full cooperation of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Naifeh and Smith have accessed a wealth of previously untapped materials to bring a crucial understanding to the larger-than-life mythology of this great artist: his early struggles to find his place in the world; his intense relationship with his brother Theo; and his move to Provence, where he painted some of the best-loved works in Western art. The authors also shed new light on many unexplored aspects of Van Gogh’s inner world: his erratic and tumultuous romantic life; his bouts of depression and mental illness; and the cloudy circumstances surrounding his death at the age of thirty-seven.
Though countless books have been written about Van Gogh, no serious, ambitious examination of his life has been attempted in more than seventy years. Naifeh and Smith have re-created Van Gogh’s life with an astounding vividness and psychological acuity that bring a completely new and sympathetic understanding to this unique artistic genius.
Praise for Van Gogh: The Life
“Magisterial.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“This generation’s definitive portrait of the great Dutch post-Impressionist.”—Time
“A tour de force . . . an enormous achievement . . . Reading his life story is like riding an endless roller coaster of delusional highs and lows. . . . [A] sweepingly authoritative, astonishingly textured book.”—Los Angeles Times
“Marvelous . . . [Van Gogh] reads like a novel, full of suspense and intimate detail. . . . In beautiful prose, Naifeh and Smith argue convincingly for a subtler, more realistic evaluation of Van Gogh, and we all win.”—The Washington Post
“Brilliant . . . At once a model of scholarship and an emotive, pacy chunk of hagiography.”—The Daily Telegraph (London)

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The definitive biography for decades to come.”—Leo Jansen, curator, the Van Gogh Museum, and co-editor of Vincent van Gogh: The Complete Letters

“In their magisterial new biography, Van Gogh: The Life, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith provide a guided tour through the personal world and work of that Dutch painter, shining a bright light on the evolution of his art. . . . What [the authors] capture so powerfully is Van Gogh’s extraordinary will to learn, to persevere against the odds.”Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Captivating . . . Winners of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Jackson Pollock, [Naifeh and Smith] bring a booming authorial voice and boundless ingenuity to the task and have written a thoroughly engaging account of the Dutch painter. Drawing on Van Gogh’s almost uniquely rich correspondence . . . the authors vividly reconstruct the intertwined stories of his life and his art, portraying him as a ‘victim of his own fanatic heart.’ . . . Their fine book has the potential not only to reinvigorate the broad base of popular interest that Van Gogh already enjoys but to introduce a whole new generation to one of art history’s most remarkable creative spirits.”Jonathan Lopez, The Wall Street Journal

“Could very well be the definitive biography . . . In it we get a much fuller view of Van Gogh, owing to the decade Naifeh and Smith spent on research to create this scholarly and spellbinding work. . . . How pleased we should be that [these authors] have rendered so exquisitely and respectfully Van Gogh’s short, intense, and wholly interesting life.”—Roberta Silman, The Boston Globe
“This generation’s definitive portrait of the great Dutch post-Impressionist . . . [The authors’] most important achievement is to produce a reckoning with Van Gogh’s occasional ‘madness’ that doesn’t lose sight of the lucidity and intelligence—the profound sanity—of his art.”—Richard Lacayo, Time
Brilliant . . . Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith are the big-game hunters of modern art history. . . . [Van Gogh] rushes along on a tide of research. . . . At once a model of scholarship and an emotive, pacy chunk of hagiography.”—Martin Herbert, The Daily Telegraph (London)

About the Author

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith are graduates of Harvard Law School. Mr. Naifeh, who has written for art periodicals and has lectured at numerous museums including the National Gallery of Art, studied art history at Princeton and did his graduate work at the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University. Together they have written many books on art and other subjects, including four New York Times bestsellers. Their biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga won the Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It also inspired the Academy Award–winning 2000 film Pollock starring Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden as well as John Updike’s novel, Seek My Face. Naifeh and Smith have been profiled in The New Yorker, The New York Times, USA Today, and People, and have appeared on 60 Minutes, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, Charlie Rose, and the Today show.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece Feb. 11 2012
This is an amazing book. It is big but I read every page. When Vincent died, I felt like I had lost a member of my family. I've finished the book. My days with Vincent are over. I will miss him!
Congratulations to the authors. I will be reading Pollock!
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Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a must if you care a little bit about Vincent Van Gogh. Not only it's almost exhaustively researched, using all the possible available sources (and the best, those from the Van Gogh Museum, original letters and such) but it's also a great, dramatic and full of surprises and novelties (which is an exceptionally feat, considering how much it was written on Vincent's life and work). If you want only one book in your library about Van Gogh, this is the one. (they don't pay me to advertise them). Especially the very detailed and precise fact narrating (in a pleasant, interesting and not too" scientifical" and " intellectualist" manner) of his more unknown periods (the first ones, Borinage, Drentha, etc), his relations with the parents, the father and mother (but allowing also for their side of the story to be seen: Vincent could be a pain in the arse, sometimes and his mental sickness is apparent a lot sooner than it's usually covened; I would say Borderline Personality Disorder combined with epilepsy, but that hazardous...Most interesting part, the so called "suicide" of Vincent, which the authors prove convincingly that, maybe, almost certainly, wasn't one. More like a stupid prank accident which Vincent assumed the consequances. He would have done it anyway, sooner or later...A great, great book...
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5.0 out of 5 stars Greatest Book on Van Gogh Nov. 26 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book goes into detail on Vincent's mental illness: he walked 30 to 60 miles a day to get rid of it, yet it didn't work. He did things on the spur of the moment, he pissed off his models and the communities he lived in. He was a 'baby' yet also very intelligent. He studied prints. He made his family unhappy; not because he was an artist, they were happy with that, but that he dressed shabbily, that he couldn't make it in the real world as an employee.

This book is very well written. Who are these guys? Great research. Lots of colour photos of art as well.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A life revealed Feb. 13 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book an exceptional read. I had not realized that Van Gogh had had intimate knowledge of the art world of his day. He was no outsider estranged from the scene of the day. This is a superb chronicle of a tormented genius struggling to express himself.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  178 reviews
253 of 266 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My New Favorite Book EVER Oct. 25 2011
By BiogDevourer - Published on
I read biographies almost exclusively. So when I first saw the fascinating "60 Minutes" piece on the new VanGogh biography I thought to myself, why do we need another book on VanGogh? Lots of books, movies, pop songs, dormroom posters - even Starry Night on the start-up screen on my celphone. Haven't we had enough of Vincent Van Gogh? Turns out we haven't. This may not be the first source on Van Gogh that I've ever seen but it is the first time I've ever actually met him.

This book was the fastest, freshest 800 and some pages I've ever read. So often, a biographer forgets that his subject did not LIVE as a subject of a book. (Ok, Washington did, but still...) So we get research, information, quotes, blah blah blah. But in VanGogh: The Life, I could feel Vincent experiencing his life as vividly as I experience my own.

We walk WITH Vincent through his powerful, wrenching life with writing that is immediate, facts that are fresh - even a little surprise about the alleged suicide - told with a psychological accuity that obliterates that tired 'tortured artist' cliche which has passed for VanGogh biography in the past. And you get a bonus master class in art history to boot! All presented with such a complelling, almost novelistic narrative, that Vincent's demise arrives nearly as a tragic surprise. Because you wind up knowing this guy and actually rooting for him. I felt real suspense reading a book about a man whose life was generally known to me. But still you will weep at his deathbed with the only other person who ever cared about him.

Oh... and if you're a fan of grown-up words and luxurious sentences - and I am - then just read this book for the experience of literature. When's the last time you got to do that? A PLUS!!
171 of 194 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another Author's Perspective Oct. 26 2011
By William J. Havlicek, PhD - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As an art history professor and author of a book on Van Gogh, I have spent many years researching the life, motives and actions of Vincent Van Gogh. I am convinced that he was a heroic man. He was a consistent champion of the underdog, and on numerous occasions took blame for the misdeeds of others. The idea that Vincent wanted to protect the boys who accidentally shot him is consistent with his personality. Emotionally and intuitively, Vincent's accidental shooting and his protection of the young boys makes perfect sense, and offers a far more reasonable conclusion to an extraordinary life--one that was from beginning to end selflessly devoted to the Gospel theme of loving another in place of oneself. To Vincent Van Gogh, it was about cherishing daily life in pursuit of eternal salvation, though his path to redemption was uneven and even at times tortured. And perhaps--as Naifeh and Smith have suggested in their book--this act of compassion in shielding those young boys from blame, and in preventing his brother Theo from further undue stress, may well have been a coup de grâce...a final effort to propel himself into the eternal life to which he had long aspired.

In my view, Van Gogh: The Life is a book any serious Van Gogh fan should own for the impressive amount of information that Naifeh and Smith present. For instance, the authors offer the reader a portrait of conventional Dutch social life in the nineteenth century and the complex and conflicted role Vincent played within that era. Other notable features of the book include an astute discussion of the importance of music in Van Gogh's aesthetic formation. Passages of the book are simply beautiful and noteworthy. A systematic framework for more study of his fascinating life has been provided by the almost interrogatory nature of this compilation--not surprising given the background of the authors.

Nonetheless, I recall an admonition that Van Gogh made about information gathering and the artist. Vincent said that it was the task of the artist to emphasize the obvious and eliminate the extraneous. Van Gogh: The Life underplays what is in my estimation crucial in grasping Van Gogh, namely his sacred view of life. This universal view shaped his thought process and as an artist guided his choices of subject matter. Van Gogh loved the uplifting message of forgiveness embodied in the Gospel message of Christ. This appears poignantly in his many overtly religious works which Van Gogh painted in the last months of his life such as: "The Good Samaritan", "The Raising of Lazarus", "The Pieta" and "The Starry Night" of 1889. This was a time in which Vincent said he had a "terrible need for religion."

According to Naifeh and Smith, the light of his faith had been extinguished at the time of this father's death in 1885; Van Gogh's quest for the sacred had effectively ceased. Yet the evidence of Van Gogh's own letters in the ensuing years cannot be dismissed. Treating the sacred dimension of Van Gogh as fundamentally pathological rather than as a universalizing world view strips his art and life of its transcendent meaning and message. My conviction about the role of the sacred in fully understanding Van Gogh is widely shared by other 21st century Van Gogh scholars who are part of a reappraisal of religious themes in art. Notable museum exhibitions have also stressed this concept by displaying the overtly religious works of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Delacroix and many other renowned figures in the canon of a Western art. The sacred embrace that emerges from Van Gogh's art, letters and life outshines his illness, and provides all humanity with eternal hope.
46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful synthesis of the life of a genius Nov. 16 2011
By T. Sales - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
My wife and I went to the Van Gogh Museum soon after it opened in 1973. It is still perhaps the most interesting museum we have ever visited. That's because it had--what is today called--a "back story." You can view his paintings in chronological order, against the backdrop of what most would admit is the folklore of Van Gogh.

Based on a decade of research and collaboration with the museum, this book fact-checks and synthesizes those stories into a compelling analysis of how Van Gogh 1) failed in every career endeavor, 2) painfully and begrudgingly gained the respect of other Impressionist painters while selling only one painting, 3) could create masterpieces in hours, and 4) left a decade's worth of work that soon became wildly popular and priceless.

The other comments focus on the circumstances of his death. True, there is little in the book about that, but really his whole life reflected his inability to get along with local townspeople and how gangs of boys tormented the hobo in their midst. The book is absolutely a psychological study of Van Gogh's fears, motivations, hopes and dreams, but the authors also do a wonderful job of showing how all that lead to bizarre behaviors that turned so many against him. One wonders whether he would have discovered a new kind of art without the mental and physical mockery swirling all around him.

This collaboration also suggests the direction that art, history, libraries and museums may be heading in the future. The Van Gogh Museum is now promoting Vincent and Theo's letters on their website so anyone can interpret them and decide for themselves what may have driven such an original artist. With so many resources--drawings, paintings, letters, outside experts--available to them, there's no telling how they may be able to make Van Gogh come to life as new media become available. I can imagine walking past those paintings again with this information projected and playing all around you. In the meantime, Van Gogh: The Life does a wonderful job of suggesting how a sick and obsessed individual could invent a whole new way of seeing the world.

Edit - Added June 23, 2012: Since posting my original review above on Amazon, I've gotten into doing more reading and posting reviews. With a broader appreciation of the reviews now, I came back 6 months later to look at what later reviewers have been saying about Van Gogh: The Life. I wanted to add to my original review on the topic so many have raised since -- Why did the authors treat Van Gogh so badly in their interpretations and analysis?

I too love Van Gogh's art, the way he saw life, and captured his subjects so quickly in such an original way. Some experts have written that people love Van Gogh because he believed in himself, refused to compromise, and only after death was recognized for his genius ... that so many of us want to have greater success in life and be recognized for it and, thus, Van Gogh becomes a symbol and a role model to so many. It strikes me that when people look to role models with reverence as they do Van Gogh, that he's not allowed to be a person who's just not nice. Some have pointed out that he sounds nice in his letters, so how can he not be a good person? In response to this, I would ask how can someone who has a totally original view, who gets no support except from his brother, who never gets positive feedback, who never (except once apparently) sells a painting NOT be a difficult person to live with?

I am also a huge fan of Frank Lloyd Wright for similar reasons. He had an original way of seeing architecture that was organic, growing out of the environment in which it was placed. Wright didn't design buildings and features that looked cool. Rather he came up with treatments that aligned with their surroundings. He simply followed that principle throughout his life to build structures that seem like they just couldn't have been envisioned by anyone at that time. He too never compromised, even though critics and even many of his clients rebelled at his ideas. Unlike Van Gogh, Wright was hugely successful and recognized for his genius probably for 50-60 years of his life. He essentially walked out on his family as he became more successful, he was seen as egomaniacal and his living situation inspired one of his servants to kill a number of people on the compound with an ax. I guess he wasn't such a nice person either. But not being easy to live with doesn't make him any less of a genius.

When the authors and the Van Gogh Museum see the conflict that they've stirred up, they must be delighted to have gotten readers to passionately discuss and react to their artist 120 years later. They've gotten people to speculate about how possible psychological afflictions, substance abuse, creative vision, and life experiences all contributed to his work and legacy. I don't see that as character assassination ... they've provided a dialogue to get people thinking.
39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Indictment of Van Gogh Jan. 21 2012
By karlcsr - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
Maybe unfair, but that is the title that springs to mind after reading this book about this famous artist.

The authors did not like Van Gogh. They might have found him interesting, but every aspect of his life was given a negative spin in this book.

If there were two ways to portray an event, the negative filter was placed over it.

A letter expressing praise and appreciation to his brother, of course, was not sincere, but a softening up before an appeal for additional living expenses.

The direct statement in this book: Vincent killed his brother, Theo.

Theo died of a syphilitic infection of the brain.

Vincent van Gogh suffered from mental health issues. This is clear. I did not see an attempt at understanding this condition. No kudos given for his valiant attempts to live with this affliction.

Judgment. Pinpoint dissection of his eccentricities.

The criticism does not stop with Vincent himself. His father devoted his life to his ministry and, I am confident, was as supportive as humanly possible with his difficult son. Theodorus van Gogh carefully apportioned funds to the needy of the congregation and seemed amazingly open-minded regarding doctrine for the era he lived.

I find no fault that the authors mention the fact the productive-minded Calvinist removed a widow from a working farm, but to ensure the negativity of this action, the authors bring up the fact again about a hundred pages later in the book, just to make sure we get the point.

Child psychologists the authors are not. That Vincent got his personal characteristics because of certain negative behavior of his father? Ridiculous! Vincent's personality differed from that of all the other children. Why? Because Vincent was Vincent. He was determined to make his own path. There was nothing to derail Vincent from being his own brand of van Gogh.

His mother does not escape the same lens. She appears to be zealous in caring for her family, but let's instead portray her as stifling. Ann van Gogh loved the Christmas season? Why not phrase it instead she "decreed" Christmas would be a happy time. Interesting choice of words.

Are those who suffer with, let's say, bipolar tendencies difficult at times? Yes.

Has my own dear artist friend at times been quite contrary? Yes.

But taken as a whole, they are (we are all) God's children with gifts to give. Would not an attempt at understanding, rather than merciless dissection (and judgment?) of their somewhat aberrant behavior be of benefit?

Although van Gogh was afflicted with these issues, he attempted valiantly to make his way through life, before collapsing back home in defeat. His efforts at self-sufficiency before becoming reliant on his brother Theo are epic in nature.

But instead, every one of his efforts is carefully catalogued and, through their literary prose, practically condemned for his shortcomings therein.

Van Gogh's honest self-analyses are labeled "rare." It got to the point that any act that could be met with approbation, I would automatically start anticipating the negative verbiage that would accompany the passage.

An example, in other reading about van Gogh, it speaks of his "promotion" and the positive letter of recommendation given to van Gogh before heading to London's Goupil office. In this book, it is portrayed as an exile with the letter just being necessary to rid themselves of the young man.

True, perhaps, but an example of the constant lens employed in this book.

His ability to maintain friendships and familial relations are critiqued to the point of fatigue.

Yet Theo and his brother lived together reasonably amicably for two years in Paris after decades of turmoil.

I noticed my own cynicism growing as I read the book. The Potato Eaters is written about as an abject failure and quite miserably received, before my coworker helped point out the beauties therein: the offering of the cup to the fellow family member, etc.

Wikipedia quotes Theo's positive comments on this work, while this author only points out their criticism.

Perhaps it might be best to read this book in conjunction with another book on van Gogh to give a balanced perspective.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Walking Beside a Giant Jan. 1 2012
By Grady Harp - Published on
VAN GOGH: THE LIFE is a well-titled book. This is not the usual academic biography that attempts to place an artist in the survey of art before during and after his lifetime: this is a extraordinarily fine written book by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith about the person Vincent van Gogh, offering more information about the man, his creativity, his struggle with mental illness, his support systems, his fellow artists, the place where he lived and painted and was institutionalized and the factors that lead to his ability to create canvases that remain today over a hundred years after his death some of the most sought after, collected and reproduced for every home's decor works of art.

It is to the authors' credit that they place van Gogh center stage, allowing the reader to come into direct contact with this troubled genius. The degree of research is staggering and the result is a first exposure for many of us of the correspondence between Vincent and his patron brother Theo, letters written by the artist as well as letters written TO the artist. It seems one of the main reasons for placing this volume before the public is to investigate the death of the artists- was it the usual suicide of other books and movie fame or was it indeed a murder. For many readers that is the highlight of this volume. For the rest of us it is a book of such magnitude that it raises van Gogh even higher in the echelon of the world's greatest artists.

Be prepared to spend considerable time reading this book. Yes, it is so well written that the reader wants to read the entire story in one evening, but to absorb all the myriad facts and to walk beside van Gogh through his tortured life the story needs time and compassion to appreciate it thoroughly. This is probably one of the finest books on an artist's life that has been written. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, January 12
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