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.