“Don’t be cross with me that I’ve come all of a sudden,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother. He instructed Theo to meet him under the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It was late February 1886. Vincent was about to turn thirty-three. He arrived in Paris to complete an artistic education that had so far yielded no financial returns for his long-suffering sibling paymaster; nor did
Vincent’s career promise the slightest profit in future. Now Theo, a dealer at the art gallery Goupil & Cie, was expected to put him up.
As Julian Bell reminds us in a splendid new biography, Vincent had dabbled as a self-appointed preacher in the grimy coalfields and pit villages of the Belgian Borinage. He had mostly taught himself art on the margins of Antwerp, Brussels, and The Hague. Now he was just catching up with the Impressionists in Paris when the movement was nearly exhausted.
Mostly unimpressed, van Gogh saw the future of modernism in figures like Adolphe Monticelli, a mediocrity in multiple genres whose work he came across at a gallery run by a friend of Theo’s. Along with Seurat and Signac, Hiroshige and Hokusai, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec, Monticelli would help point Vincent away from potato eaters and gray, wintry landscapes toward sunshine and the south. It turned out that Vincent’s obstinacy and sheer otherness, much as they pained friends and family and alienated strangers, bought him the perspective he needed to reach this juncture, where he could pick and choose his sources and stake out a path for himself.
He was, in his daily routine, no less self-destructive than he had been before, drinking, smoking up a storm, making himself ill; and he had still not yet shed the evangelical side of his early art, beating up old shoes he bought at a Paris flea market so that he could paint yet more metaphors of poverty and struggle. Still, Paris became a chrysalis.
Bell has written what he describes, rightly, as an “unmystified” and compassionate biography. It follows the encyclopedic biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, published in 2011, a painstaking, brilliant, almost ceaselessly downbeat account of the life that nonetheless left room for a compact, personal take like this one, by a painter-writer about a painter-writer. Bell’s sympathy for his subject abides; his prose is angelic. He outlines the life without melodrama and with just enough exasperation at Vincent’s loutish, morose, and egocentric shenanigans. The book really comes alive when Bell describes specific pictures and their mechanics. Paintings by Lautrec, he writes, are
woven together out of fine strands of color scribbled, dabbed or hatched onto a warm neutral ground—with an end result in which the weave stayed naked to the eye, so that complementary pairings such as oranges and blues electrically vibrated.
This sort of description can bring to mind how van Gogh talked about his own work. To Émile Bernard, for instance, he wrote near the end of his life about a canvas he painted at the asylum in St.-Rémy, The Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital. “You’ll understand,” he told Bernard,
that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer.
Countless freeloaders, lost teenagers, parents of lost teenagers, and disappointed artists have found consolation in Vincent’s misfortune. His story is the ultimate “I told you so”: a troubled, not obviously talented oddball, who through determination and sheer chutzpah is finally, albeit mostly posthumously, recognized as a genius. Van Gogh is today the most popular artist in the world for the stupendous works he made during the last troubled years of his life—a great secular saint of modernism, whose suffering and sacrifice produced pictures of such idiosyncrasy and luminosity that even Kirk Douglas and obscene sales records and Starry Night shower curtains have done nothing to trivialize the ravishment of seeing the art in the flesh. That his mental instability fueled leaps of creative imagination has only made him seem more noble, in the Romantic vein—albeit, as Bell cautions, “insofar as Van Gogh the painter communicates to us, with an oeuvre that viewers for over a century have found uniquely thrilling and sustaining, it is not our business to call him mad.”
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