He expressed his truth in letters, and on canvas, immortalized a complex and beautiful soul.*
Pulitzer-winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have gleaned a thorough and insightful portrait of Vincent van Gogh, primarily from meticulous research of his extensive letters to his brother Theo, who was a successful art dealer in Paris and his most ardent confidante and supporter. Vincent's epistolary story reveals thoughts and feelings ranging from spiritual, philosophical and poetic to muddled, indecisive or obsessive, his fevered search for truth in a vision that would inform his artistic development and his greatest achievements.
From childhood, Vincent would display disruptive behavior unpalatable to his minister father and strict mother, who possessed somewhat of a cool, obsessive nature herself. He enjoyed sketching since a young lad and having uncles in the art trade would have given Vincent a good start in his young adulthood, but his erratic manner often alienated people and that employment abruptly ended.
His failed attempt as a missionary, loss of faith, and what he must have seen as rejection from his parents, reawakened in him the sense of abandonment and loneliness that had taken root as early as his schoolboy years when he felt an outcast. Naifeh's and White Smith's extractions from his letters during the production of his early paintings show an internal pathos that reveal what we know today of his developing mental illness, which when spliced with artwork featuring peasant life and nature, a need to express his truth and a progressing avant-garde aesthetic (at the time called nonsense from a madman) define the tortured, harrowed life between swings of violence and utter degradation; and, on the other extreme, illuminate the evolution of his brilliance.
"That mind has for so long been preoccupied with things our society today has made impossible to solve and which he, with his kind heart and tremendous energy, nevertheless fought against. He holds such sweeping ideas on questions of what is humane and how we should regard the world, that one first has to relinquish all one's conventional ideas in order to grasp what he means." - Theo van Gogh
Some of his most revealing paintings are his self portraits as he peers into himself quizzically, searching perhaps for the sentiment he yearns to express in his uniqueness.
"I want to get to the point where people say of my work: that man feels deeply, that man feels keenly....I want to paint what I feel and feel what I paint."
Vincent's passion for landscapes and pictorials of earthliness populate his extraordinary legacy and often reflect his psychological state. In 'Wheatfields with Crows' is depicted the fierce changeability of the multifaceted natural world that filled his vision: the rolling, inconstant rhythms of wheat against the menacing turmoil in the sky - a representation of van Gogh, the artist on the brink of an emotional storm.
Ironically, some of his most acclaimed work, specifically one most popular masterpiece ( and my personal favorite), of undeniable perfection in nature's glorious splendor: 'Starry Night' was painted in the asylum at St. Remy - the explosive bursts of light and roiling quality of the sky are indications of a psychological maelstrom which his doctors claimed were epileptic.
"How your brain must have labored, and how you must have risked everything to the very limit where vertigo is inevitable," said Theo when he saw the swirling, intemperate painting.
I was a little taken aback with the biographers' belief that his tragic end was no suicide, contrary to the accepted norm that the fatal wound was self inflicted, surmising instead that a teenaged ruffian named Rene Secretan, known to brandish a gun and who often bullied Vincent: might have shot him, but that Vincent covered up for the boy in his desire to spare him.
Vincent left behind a life so well expressed in his letters that the authors could create this passionate portrait of an artist as a troubled man, which at 1000+ pages is itself a masterful work of art, a painfully heartrending reflection of an intelligent, colorful yet restless life, who suffered in his quest to articulate meaning in his art, and died not realizing that he had already done just that.
"It must be good to die in the knowledge that one has done some truthful work."