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Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
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A--Van-GoghHarvard Law School graduates Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have collaborated on several books, including Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (1989), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

The Topic: The moody, solitary eldest child of a Dutch Reformed Church minister, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was considered "a strange boy" by the villagers of Zundert. As an adult, Van Gogh dabbled in business, teaching, and missionary work before settling on art, but his early paintings showed little promise until a two-year sojourn in Paris introduced him to French modernism. He later produced some of his most important works--including The Starry Night and Irises--after withdrawing to the French countryside, but his emerging talent coincided with depression, delirium, self-mutilation, and institutionalization. Fatally wounded by a gunshot at the age of 37 (perhaps murdered, the authors controversially suggest), Van Gogh died virtually unknown. His paintings, however, are now celebrated worldwide for their natural beauty, originality, and heartfelt feeling.
Random House. 976 pages. $40. ISBN: 9780375507489

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"A tour de force beginning with his parents' family tree and ending with speculation about who fired the deadly shot, it's an enormous achievement. ... Packed with information about Van Gogh's rotten teeth, spending sprees and children he may have fathered as well as the evolution of his brushwork and palette, this book may indeed be ‘the life' of Van Gogh." Suzanne Muchnic

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars"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. ... 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." Michiko Kakutani

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars"Messrs. Naifeh and Smith present Van Gogh's story in such a fluent and captivating manner that any simplifications seem eminently forgivable. 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

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars"As the authors appeal Van Gogh's case, all our stereotypes are questioned. In beautiful prose, Naifeh and Smith argue convincingly for a subtler, more realistic evaluation of Van Gogh, and we all win." Julia Frey

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars"Is it possible that we have him entirely wrong, that he was just a creep and selfish user who felt that a life in art basically meant never having to say ‘Thank you'? Such is the portrait that emerges from Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith's energetic, hulking and negatively skewed Van Gogh: The Life. ... For all its put-downs and grating cynicism, the book is highly readable and lavishes welcome attention on van Gogh's lesser-known middle period." Deborah Solomon

Critical Summary

In their latest joint effort, Naifeh and Smith strike just the right chord between entertainment and edification as they retrace the intertwined trajectories of Van Gogh's art and his life. They cut through the myths, perpetuated by a French tabloid reporter, surrounding his insanity--though they do so too abruptly, according to some critics. Others took issue with the less-than-flattering portrait of a sulky but shrewd schemer and some contentious theories on his death. "Quibbles like these," noted the Wall Street journal, "should not, however, detract too greatly from this book's overall achievement, which is substantial." Captivating and copiously researched (the 5,000 pages of footnotes were relocated to an online site), Van Gogh is a "magisterial guided tour" (New York Times) of the life and oeuvre of one of the world's most beloved but perhaps misunderstood artists.