A new biography of Van Gogh with a provocative theory

October 22, 2011 • 5:03 am

If you watched 60 Minutes last week (the only t.v. show I make a point of watching), you’ll have seen a two-part report on a new biography of Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. (The NYT has a free excerpt here, and the book has a companion website here.) Much of the show was devoted to Vincent’s mental problems, but also a lot to the “mystery” of how he died. There was also a bit on how literate and intellectually curious Vincent was, something I noted when I read his letters on display in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Van Gogh at 13 (from the Van Gogh Museum via the NYT)

The classic story is, of course, that he painted “Wheatfield with Crows,” and then shot himself in that wheatfield. In a previous post, I impugned the myth of the “final painting,” but did accept the idea that he committed suicide.

Naifeh and Smith’s biography, however, has a different take. Michiko Kakutani gives their theory, which doesn’t involve suicide:

As Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith tell it, a rowdy teenager named René Secrétan, 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). Secrétan 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 René’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 authors also suspect (with more evidence this time) that Van Gogh suffered from temporal-lobe epilepsy.

Kakutani is a tough critic, but she likes the book, and I usually agree with her take:

What Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith capture so powerfully is van Gogh’s extraordinary will to learn, to persevere against the odds, to keep painting when early teachers disparaged his work, when a natural facility seemed to elude him, when his canvases failed to sell. There was a similar tenacity in his heartbreaking efforts to fill the emotional void in his life: ostracized by his bourgeois family, which regarded him as an unstable rebel; stymied in his efforts to pursue his religious impulses and become a preacher; rejected or manipulated by the women he longed for; shunned and mocked by neighbors as crazy; undermined by a competitive Paul Gauguin, with whom he had hoped to forge an artistic fraternity.

The one sustaining bond in van Gogh’s life was with Theo, an art dealer, who provided emotional, creative and financial support.

I’ve visited the graves of Vincent and Theo in Auvers-sur-Oise in France. It was a terribly moving sight: two simple headstones, entwined forever in ivy, as they were entwined in life:

Here are two Van Goghs that I photographed (without flash) at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.  There is no glass on the paintings (I suspect there should be!), so one can get very close to inspect the impasto:

Who doesn’t love Van Gogh? (Yes, I know that at least one reader will report an aversion!) If you do, you can buy this provocative and acclaimed book for only $23 (hardcover!) on Amazon. I’ll be reading this for sure.

28 thoughts on “A new biography of Van Gogh with a provocative theory

  1. I haven’t actually watched 60 Minutes in ages. This is something that I would love to check out. And I won’t be first to say anything about not liking his art. I am a huge fan.

    P.S. So, have they found his painting of the Tardis yet? 🙂

  2. I heard a discussion about the theory on the radio this week and one Van Gogh expert was saying that he hated the boy and was unlikely to have taken the blame for something the boy had done. It seems that the records about his death are very poor so while there is plenty of room for speculation it is impossible to be certain.

    Last year I went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and decided that I really like some paintings and others dislike because of the style, which changed a lot. So of the two paintings above I am not so taken by the lower one with its well defined blocks of colour, that to me seem flat, whereas I really love the top one which captures the gorgeous lushness of a tree and has amazing depth. What was that one called?

    ‘Gorgeous lushness’?! Sound like I have swallowed Brian Sewell! [He is a British art critic who has the plummiest voice you could imagine]

    1. Lilac Bush 1889
      Saint-Remy hospital where VG was receiving treatment

      Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles) From late in 1888
      VG was living their with Gauguin

  3. For those who may possibly have not heard it, congenially recommend Don McLean’s “Vincent” (“Starry, starry night . . . .”) as quite evocative of the turbulent circumstances of Van Gogh’s life.

  4. I love van Gogh, but what’s this:

    the only t.v. show I make a point of watching

    Aren’t you a scientist?
    Don’t you know you’re supposed to be a HUGE “The BigBang Theory” fan .. just like every other scientist?

    ( Like, for instance, http://ituna.org/neil.jpg )

  5. I watched that and found the whole thing fascinating. I tend to believe that he was shot and while he lived for some days after and capable of saying what had happened I believe he was relieved to to be done here. I think that he was used to hostility and being an outcast that the opinions and actions of a teenage kid would have been meaningless to him.

  6. On the occasion I’ve been lucky to see a Van Gogh, they are never behind glass, so I assume it’s the norm. I don’t know if you could appreciate the strokes and textures you mention if it was. Purely anecdotal and speculative on my part, but I think it makes sense. It does always freak me out when I see people getting way to close to them with their fingers and noses at museums.

  7. You should read his letters. There’s over 900 of them. Most to his brother Theo. They show how he really wanted to be someone and do good, but became frustrated every time he neared his goal (as an art gallery assistant, then minister, missionary, miner, sketch artist, pastel artist, and finally, painter.) You can truly see the ups and downs (manic/depression) as you read through these very personal letters. Its haunting and almost bordering on the voyeristic.


  8. “Who doesn’t love Van Gogh?”

    Coeval collectors?

    The letters to his brother edited by Irving Stone in Dear Theo (which when I was in college was nearly as ubiquitous in dorm rooms as Frampton Comes Alive) bears out the observation about how literate and intellectually curious VV was.

  9. I, too, am a Van Gogh fan; I love paintings that are tactile and rich. It sounds like an interesting book, and I’ll put it on my reading list (which is embarrassing long!).

    Alas, without thinking, and without a barrier, I could be one of those obnoxious people with their noses in the paint! I love to look at tactile paintings close-up. Fortunately, my local museums put up barriers that keep honest people from getting too close, and have guards to nab the dishonest people. But it isn’t customary to put glass over most paintings; the reflections interfere with seeing the artwork.

  10. I loveh his paintings but am freaked out when I see them without glass. Fine, they are a bit harder to appreciate when glass is protecting them, but does that tiny effect outweigh the risk of an accidental fingerprint or nose-grease mark, or even dust? Dust is the enemy of every oil painter. Maybe such old paintings are no longer the dust magnets that fresh ones are, but even if they are passive dust collectors, I think it is a bad decision, especially for a rough-textured painting whose pits and furrows will soon be filled with unremovable fine dust. And such dust is even worse than glass in its dulling effects on colors.

    Then again, you would think art curators, who border on the paranoid (no flashes…), would have thought this through. Maybe we are like a creationist telling the biologists about some simple observation that “disproves evolution” (“monkeys are still around —-ha!”), as if biologists are all idiots for never having thought of it. If there is an art curator in the house, maybe he or she can explain the absence of glass.

  11. Thank you for the photos from The Hermitage. When I was in college, of course only art photos from the “Free World” were available. Alas, I have not yet been to Russia…and therefor not the Hermitage, either.


    Theses paintings are magnificent, the Lilac Bush in particular is striking. Breathtaking.

    –le sigh–

    Re. Larian LaQuella in #1:
    His painting of the exterior view of the Tardis is captivating. But that was what drove him mad: In another painting, he tried to capture the interior view of the Tardis…ALL its dimensions…in two-dimensional perspective. Alas.

    1. I was thrilled by JAC’s pics. Never have seen Van Goghs like that, and they would be my favorites, now that I’ve seen them.

  12. I wouldn’t accept the “not suicide” idea simply because van Gogh spent much of his life struggling through things. If we were to accept such a claim on so simple a fact, then there are no suicides. Why would someone give up after struggling for so long? Without conclusive evidence I tend to file these stories along with other speculations of the sort that read “Shakespeare: did the left hang lower than the right?” It is absolutely trivial to come up with alternative realities when there are so few facts well established.

  13. I have a provocative new theory: van Gogh wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare.

    Every really interesting provocative theory involves time travel. So what?

  14. The recent publicity spree attending the book “Vincent van Gogh: the life” by Naifeh and Smith is remarkable. From what we have heard from the popular media, their book seems to be full of “rediscoveries.” In particular, the rumor that two young boys shot Vincent van Gogh has been around for decades. See for example “Vincent van Gogh: Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity” by Wilfred N. Arnold, published in 1992. As described on page 259, the rumor was first recounted to Arnold by Professor John Rewald, — both of us professed no belief in its accuracy. There was nothing substantive to support the rumor then, and Naifeh and Smith offer nothing now. The publicity campaign by Random House, Naifeh, and Smith needs to be judged against the scholarship of others.

  15. Despite increasing support for the temporal epilepsy theory (e.g. see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21616739), the vertigo associated with Meniere’s Disease is still the most likely ailment that tortured Van Gogh in his later years. It is the most consistent diagnosis for the type of tinnitus he reportedly had. (Naturally, I am not in the least swayed by the fact that I do research of the vestibular system or that my father-in-law was the one who made the Meniere’s diagnosis back in 1990.)

    Thanks for the post about the 60 minutes episode – I’ll check it out.

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