Sun, Oct 23, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

The authors of ‘Van Gogh: The Life’ risk upstaging their wider project with the suggestion that the artist may not have committed suicide

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

He had “a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart”: These words used to describe French painter Eugene Delacroix were memorized by Vincent van Gogh and could just as easily been applied to Van Gogh himself.

From his turbulent emotional life, filled with loneliness and despair, there sprang — in a single, incandescent decade — a profusion of dazzling, vibrant paintings that fulfilled his ambition to create art that might provide consolation for the bereaved, redemption for the desperate. Images that would “say something comforting as music is comforting — something of the eternal” phosphorescent stars cartwheeling through a nighttime sky in the yellow moonlight; a clutch of radiant irises blooming in a lush garden lit by the Mediterranean sun; a flock of crows winging their way across a golden expanse of wheat fields under a stormy sky.

In their magisterial new biography, Van Gogh: The Life, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith provide a guided tour through the personal world and the work of that Dutch painter, shining a bright light on the evolution of his art while articulating what is sure to be a controversial theory of his death at the age of 37.

Whereas suicide by gun has long since become part of the myth of the tortured artist that cloaks Van Gogh, Naifeh and Smith note that there are issues with that hypothesis — like the angle of the shot, the disappearance of the gun and other evidence, and the long hike that the wounded Van Gogh would have had to make to return to his lodgings. Instead they propose an intriguing alternate theory, rumors of which were first heard by art historian John Rewald in the 1930s during a visit to Auvers, the small French town where Van Gogh died.

Publication Notes


By Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

953 pages

Random House

As Naifeh and Smith tell it, a rowdy teenager named Rene Secretan, who liked to dress up in a cowboy costume he’d bought after seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, was probably the source of the gun (sold or lent to him by the local innkeeper). Secretan and his friends used to bully the eccentric Van Gogh, and the authors suggest that there was some sort of encounter between the painter and the boys on the day of the shooting.

“Once the gun in Rene’s rucksack was produced,” they write, “anything could have happened — intentional or accidental — between a reckless teenager with fantasies of the Wild West, an inebriated artist who knew nothing about guns, and an antiquated pistol with a tendency to malfunction.”

The deeply unhappy Van Gogh, the authors argue not altogether convincingly, “welcomed death,” and Secretan may have provided him “the escape that he longed for but was unable or unwilling to bring upon himself.’”

There is no hard evidence for this theory, and it is laid out, discreetly, in an appendix to this biography. Which is as it should be, since the real reason to read this book has nothing to do with speculation about Van Gogh’s death but with the voluminous chronicle it provides of his life and art, and the alchemy between them. The overall portrait of Van Gogh that emerges from this book will be familiar to readers of earlier biographies — most notably David Sweetman’s succinct 1990 study — but it is fleshed out with details as myriad as the brushstrokes in one of his late paintings.

In writing this book (and providing a companion Web site with notes), the authors drew heavily on archival material and scholarship at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and most notably from a new edition of Van Gogh’s letters, which was 15 years in the making and published in 2009. Like earlier biographers, their ability to persuasively depict Van Gogh’s inner life is hugely dependent on these remarkable letters — letters that not only chronicle his manic ups and downs, his creative process and his complex relationship with his beloved brother Theo, but that also attest to his immense literary gifts and his iron-willed determination to learn and grow as an artist.

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