To follow their Pulitzer prize-winning “Jackson Pollock,” Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, two Harvard law-school graduates, have spent 10 years re-investigating the life of Van Gogh: the facts and the factors — hereditary, historical, sociological and cultural — which produced an artist whose work, like Pollock’s, is today worth untold sums. The resulting 900-page biography reads like a novel, full of suspense and intimate detail. Their accompanying Website, still incomplete, promises images for every art work described, contains a huge (if somewhat unsearchable) bibliography, and provides unexpectedly fascinating research notes. We can almost hear the authors debating: Do we trust this witness? Was Van Gogh a victim or a perpetrator? Or both?
Van Gogh accurately perceived that forces outside his volition provoked his unrelenting cycles of rage, depression, intense anxiety, sudden despair and incomprehensible terror. He had temporal lobe epilepsy, a genetically influenced physical disorder that causes constant alternations between aloof withdrawal and overwhelming anger, irritability and dejection, self-denial and extravagance, religious ecstasy and sinner’s guilt. He tried to banish his demons through bizarre acts of discipline and self-mortification, punishing himself with fasting, exhaustion, heat and cold, sleeping uncomfortably on his walking stick, then flogging himself with it. When nothing worked, he consoled himself with alcohol and prostitutes, ending up paranoid, hallucinatory and impotent.
Van Gogh’s pathological nonconformity and constant job failures overwhelmed a well-meaning family haunted by suicides and mental illness. Casting himself as the prodigal son, he unhesitatingly manipulated his stony, Protestant clergyman father, his “melancholy” mother and his brother, Theo, using emotional and economic blackmail. At last, when Vincent was 27, delusional, unemployed and unemployable, his father attempted to have him committed to a mental asylum. Vincent fled.
Finally he discovered art — one of his few remaining “social graces” encouraged by his family. Too eccentric for art school, he took a learn-to-draw course at home, obsessively repeating its exercises throughout his career until he died, nine years later. Having failed at teaching and preaching, desperately lonely, yet incapable of empathy, he fantasized that art would establish a durable connection — bring him a family, a community of artists, a woman or a friend with whom to live and share everything. Van Gogh’s letters predicted both his disastrous personal relations and his enduring artistic glory.