Van Gogh: The Life

Van Gogh: The Life

Van Gogh: The Life

Van Gogh: The Life


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

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.

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • The Washington Post • The Wall Street Journal • San Francisco Chronicle • NPR • The Economist • Newsday • BookReporter 

“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

“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)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375758973
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/04/2012
Pages: 976
Sales rank: 108,384
Product dimensions: 6.24(w) x 8.96(h) x 1.80(d)

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.

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1

Dams and Dikes

Of the thousands of stories that vincent van gogh consumed in a lifetime of voracious reading, one stood out in his imagination: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Story of a Mother." Whenever he found himself with children, he told and retold Andersen's dark tale of a loving mother who chooses to let her child die rather than expose him to the risk of an unhappy life. Vincent knew the story by heart and could tell it in several languages, including a heavily accented En- glish. For him, whose own life was filled with unhappiness, and who forever sought himself in literature and art, Andersen's tale of maternal love gone awry possessed a unique power, and his obsessive retellings protested both a unique longing and a unique injury.

Vincent's own mother, Anna, never understood her eldest son. His eccentricities, even from an early age, challenged her deeply conventional worldview. His roving intellect defied her limited range of insight and inquiry. He seemed to her filled with strange and "starry-eyed" notions; she seemed to him narrow-minded and unsympathetic. As time passed, she liked him less and less. Incomprehension gave way to impatience, impatience to shame, and shame to anger. By the time he was an adult, she had all but given up hope for him. She dismissed his religious and artistic ambitions as "futureless wanderings" and compared his errant life to a death in the family. She accused him of intentionally inflicting "pain and misery" on his parents. She systematically discarded any paintings and drawings that he left at home as if disposing of rubbish (she had already thrown out virtually all his childhood memorabilia), and treated works that he subsequently gave her with little regard.

After her death, only a few of the letters and works of art Vincent had sent her were found in her possession. In the final years of his life (she outlived him by seventeen years), she wrote to him less and less often, and, when he was hospitalized toward the end, she never came to visit, despite frequent travels to see other family members. Even after his death, when fame belatedly found him, she never regretted or amended her verdict that his art was "ridiculous."

Vincent never understood his mother's rejection. At times, he lashed out angrily against it, calling her a "hard-hearted" woman "of a soured love." At times, he blamed himself for being a "half-strange, half-tiresome person...who brings only sorrow and loss." But he never stopped bidding for her approval. At the end of his life, he painted her portrait (from a photograph) and appended a poem with the plaintive question: "Who is the maid my spirits seek / Through cold reproof and slanders blight?"

anna cornelia carbentus married the Reverend Theodorus van Gogh on a cloudless day in May 1851 in The Hague, home of the Dutch monarchy and, by one account, "the most pleasant place in the world." Reclaimed from sea-bottom mud containing the perfect mix of sand and clay for growing flowers, The Hague in May was a veritable Eden: flowers bloomed in unrivaled abundance on roadsides and canal banks, in parks and gardens, on balconies and verandas, in window boxes and doorstep pots, even on the barges that glided by. Perpetual moisture from tree- shaded ponds and canals "seemed every morning to paint with a newer and more intense green," wrote one enchanted visitor.

On the wedding day, Anna's family sprinkled flower petals in the newlyweds' path and festooned every stop on their route with garlands of greenery and blossoms. The bride made her way from the Carbentus house on Prinsengracht to the Kloosterkerk, a fifteenth-century jewel box on an avenue lined with linden trees and surrounded by magnificent townhouses in the royal heart of the city. Her carriage passed through streets that were the envy of a filthy continent: every windowpane freshly cleaned, every door recently painted or varnished, every copper pot on every stoop buffed, every lance on every bell tower newly gilded. "The roofs themselves seem to be washed each day," marveled one foreigner, and the streets were "clean as any chamber floor." Such a place, wrote another visitor, "may make all men envy the happiness of those who live in it."

Gratitude for idyllic days like these, in idyllic places like this-and the fear that they could all be lost in a moment-shaped Anna Carbentus's life. She knew that it had not always been this way, either for her family or for her country.

In 1697, the fate of the Carbentus clan hung by a single thread: Gerrit Carbentus, the only member of the family to come through the wars, floods, fires, and plagues of the previous hundred and fifty years alive. Gerrit's predecessors had been swept up in the panoramic bloodletting of the Eighty Years' War, a revolt by the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries against their brutal Spanish rulers. It began, according to one account, in 1568 when Protestant citizens in towns like The Hague rebelled "in a cataclysm of hysterical rage and destruction." Victims were tied together and heaved from high windows, drowned, decapitated, and burned. The Spanish Inquisition responded by condemning every man, woman, and child in the Netherlands, all three million of them, to death as heretics.

For eighty years, back and forth across the placid Dutch landscape, army fought army, religion fought religion, class fought class, militia fought militia, neighbor fought neighbor, idea fought idea. A visitor to Haarlem saw "many people hanging from trees, gallows and other horizontal beams in various places." Houses everywhere were burned to the ground, whole families burned at the stake, and the roads strewn with corpses.

Now and then the chaos subsided (as when the Dutch provinces declared their independence from the Spanish king in 1648 and the war was declared over), but soon enough a new wave of violence would wash over the land. In 1672, the so-called Rampjaar (Year of Catastrophe), little more than a generation after the end of the Eighty Years' War, another fury boiled up from the tranquil and impeccable streets of The Hague as crowds swept into the city center, hunted down the country's former leaders, and butchered them to pieces in the shadow of the same Kloosterkerk where Anna Carbentus would later celebrate her marriage.

But neither war nor these paroxysms of communal rage posed the greatest danger to the Carbentus family. Like many of his countrymen, Gerrit Carbentus lived his entire life on the edge of extinction by flood. It had been that way since the end of the Ice Age, when the lagoon at the mouth of the Rhine began to fill up with rich, silty soil that proved irresistible to the first settlers. Gradually, the settlers built dikes to keep the sea at bay and canals to drain the bogs behind the dikes. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the invention of the windmill made it possible to drain vast areas, truly large-scale land reclamation began. Between 1590 and 1740, even as Dutch merchants conquered the world of commerce and established rich colonies in distant hemispheres, even as Dutch artists and scientists created a Golden Age to rival the Italian Renaissance, more than three hundred thousand acres were added to the Netherlands, increasing its arable landmass by almost a third.

But nothing stopped the sea. Despite a thousand years of stupendous effort-and in some cases because of it-floods remained as inevitable as death. With terrifying unpredictability, the waves would top the dikes or the dikes would crumble beneath the waves, or both, and the water would rush far inland across the flat countryside. Sometimes the sea would simply open up and take back the land. On a single night in 1530, twenty villages sank into the abyss, leaving only the tips of church spires and the carcasses of livestock visible on the surface of the water.

It was a precarious life, and Gerrit Carbentus, like all his countrymen, inherited an acute sense, a sailor's sense, of the imminence of disaster. Among the thousands who died in the battle with the sea in the last quarter of the seventeenth century was Gerrit Carbentus's uncle, who drowned in the River Lek. He joined Gerrit's father, mother, siblings, nieces, nephews, and first wife and her family, all of whom perished before Gerrit turned thirty.

Gerrit Carbentus had been born at the end of one cataclysmic upheaval; his grandson, also named Gerrit, arrived at the beginning of another. Starting in the middle of the eighteenth century, across the Continent, revolutionary demands for free elections, an expanded franchise, and the abolition of unfair taxes merged with the utopian spirit of the Enlightenment to create a force as unstoppable as war or wave.

It was only a matter of time before the revolutionary fervor hit the Carbentus family. When troops of the new French Republic entered Holland in 1795, they came as liberators. But they stayed as conquerors. Soldiers were billeted in every household (including the Carbentuses'); goods and capital (such as the family's gold and silver coins) were confiscated; trade withered; profits disappeared; businesses closed; prices soared. Gerrit Carbentus, a leatherworker and father of three, lost his livelihood. But worse was yet to come. On the morning of January 23, 1797, Gerrit left his house in The Hague for work in a nearby town. At seven that evening he was found lying on the side of the road to Rijswijk, robbed, beaten, and dying. By the time he was carried home, he was dead. His mother "insanely hugged the lifeless body and let a stream of tears flow over him," according to the Carbentus family chronicle, a clan diary kept by generations of chroniclers. "This was the end of our dear son, who was a miracle in his own right."

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

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)

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