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Book Review

A richer, detailed portrait of van Gogh

A detail of Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits (pencil and ink on paper) from 1887. A detail of Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits (pencil and ink on paper) from 1887. (Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam)
By Roberta Silman
Globe Correspondent / October 18, 2011

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Until now we have had largely one-dimensional books about Vincent van Gogh, beginning with “Lust for Life,’’ published in 1934 and made into a movie in 1956. It focused primarily on his troubled relationship with Paul Gauguin when they lived in Arles and its abrupt ending when van Gogh cut off his ear - the artist as tortured soul.

We also have had his amazing letters. Van Gogh (1853-90) was fluent in several languages and an excellent critic of French and English and Dutch literature, which sustained him even more than art during the first 25 years of his life. But while the letters are valuable they can also be deceiving, because van Gogh was an unreliable narrator, and sometimes you have the feeling that they are written in a code that only he and the recipients truly understand.

Now, at last, with “Van Gogh: The Life’’ by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, we have what could very well be the definitive biography, comparable to Hilary Spurling’s work on Matisse or John Richardson’s on Picasso. In it we get a much fuller view of van Gogh, owing to the decade Naifeh and White Smith spent on research to create this scholarly and spellbinding work. Against all odds the pair, whose most recent triumph was “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,’’ on which the movie “Pollock’’ was based, have managed to slough off ossified impressions and speculations and gotten into van Gogh’s skin, making it possible for us to experience anew his heartbreaking relationships with his family and a much wider circle of friends and acquaintances.

The book quickly introduces us to the family, starting with van Gogh’s grandparents and his parents and their difficult relationships with their five children, the oldest of whom was Vincent, born on the birthday of their first child, also called Vincent, who died in infancy. Van Gogh was “strange’’ from early on, and the struggles he endured to be accepted by almost everyone he encountered, starting with his parents, are devastating. Sent away to boarding school when he was clearly not ready, van Gogh forever longed for home, but whenever he returned, it was always a short-lived disaster.

So were his attempts at art dealing, teaching, and preaching which took him to Paris, England, and the Brabant section of Belgium, all vividly portrayed by the authors. We discover whom he fell in love with, what he read, what artists he loved - Millet and Rembrandt were favorites - and the complexities of his relationship with Theo, his younger brother and financial supporter, who was as troubled in his way as Vincent, and whose death less than six months after his older brother’s was as mysterious.

When all else failed, van Gogh committed himself to his art, and the last third of this magisterial work details his attempts to find his place in the world. There are wonderful insights into the brilliant last paintings (100 in a year) he produced while dealing with the chronic mental illness that threatened him every day of his life. Acknowledging the many speculations for the cause of that illness, Naifeh and White Smith conclude that it was “latent’’ or nonconvulsive epilepsy. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about this remarkable book is the appendix, modestly titled “A Note on Vincent’s Fatal Wounding,’’ which reveals new information about his death.

Noteworthy, also, is that this biography has propelled us into the digital world. Because the notes for “Van Gogh’’ ran to 5,000 typewritten pages, they are on a website titled www.vangoghbiography.com.

One of my favorite quotations from van Gogh is his exhortation to Theo: “Admire as much as you can . . . most people do not admire enough.’’ How pleased he would be to know how much his art has been admired for more than 100 years. And how pleased we should be that Naifeh and White Smith have rendered so exquisitely and respectfully van Gogh’s short, intense, and wholly interesting life.

Roberta Silman, author of a children’s book, a story collection, and three novels, can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.

VAN GOGH:

The Life

By Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Random House, 976 pp., $40