His Life and His Art

By David Sweetman

Crown. 391 pp. $30

THE LIFE OF Vincent Van Gogh -- who died 100 years ago this year -- has been told so many times that we can hardly be blamed for wondering what there is left to learn. Mostly, the name Van Gogh summons up a few all-too-familiar icons: gigantic sunflowers, a bandaged ear. Yet there's something about those icons and the man behind them that stirs our modern imaginations: his story has a shattering force that defies familiarity and banality.

In his new biography, David Sweetman tells the story coolly, mildly; interestingly, even this anti-romantic approach doesn't quite dampen the headlong rush of the life. The story of the pastor's ungainly son, who tried and failed at several careers before he found his calling in the forefront of the modern movement, has some of the elemental power of a Greek tragedy. The furies are there from the very beginning: strange depressions, maladies that the doctors can't describe run deep in the family. And the twin family professions -- Van Gogh's father was a pastor, three uncles were art dealers -- goad the young man forward, act as the catalyst for his genius. For the couple of miraculous years at the end of the 1880s when van Gogh is one of the greatest artists of a period of great artists, the family furies are, despite van Gogh's never ending psychic torment, bending to his will. And when the terrible, inexplicable end comes, we feel that the furies that he had, triumphantly, controlled, have in their turn taken control.

It's a story that has often been given kitschy, bombastic treatment; and as one begins Sweetman's book, one is glad that he has no intention of treating van Gogh that way. Sweetman's life is a biography in the sober modern manner: the subject is set firmly in the context of his period, and we see how the times make the man. This can be tonic -- and instructive -- in van Gogh's case, because there really is so much in his life that connects with what was going on around him. The early years, with the father who is not quite successful enough in the ministry, and the great mercantile successes of the art dealers elsewhere in the family, may remind us of the struggles between conscience and commerce that echo through the literature of Dickens and George Eliot (favorites of Van Gogh's), as well as of Thomas Hardy, and Ibsen and Strindberg. Van Gogh worked in the art galleries where middle-class taste was being formed in the late 19th century; and when he left the art business, he worked among the impoverished coal miners of Belgium, and felt the rising tide of labor reform and socialism. Finally, he found his way into the glory days of the Parisian avant-garde -- when it was still unclear how the fights with the academy would come out, and it took an almost unimaginable leap of faith to believe in the brave new world that Seurat and Gauguin -- and then van Gogh -- were creating.

Yet Sweetman's emphasis on the context can sometimes give a reader the odd sense that this three-dimensional world has a two-dimensional character at its center. While Sweetman says, quite justly, that van Gogh's "collected letters . . . vie with Delacroix's Journal in offering the most profound insight into the creative process in the visual arts that we possess," he uses the letters only very sparingly, and thus denies us the voice of the man himself. Perhaps Sweetman's feeling is that the letters are a freestanding achievement, and that the biographer should move around them. But the letters dominate our sense of van Gogh: he explained himself so perfectly that all other explanations pale. Van Gogh was one of those deeply troubled people who have, simultaneously, the ability to analyze their troubles: in this he resembles Virginia Woolf, another artist of extraordinary self-analytic skills, who committed suicide when she felt herself plunging into despair. MOST OF van Gogh's most famous paintings were done in a couple of years of manic production. There's a speed and a concision to them: their power lies in the summary clarity. This no-holds-barred energy level was little understood in van Gogh's own time, and so when he died, virtually all of the paintings were standing with their backs to the walls in his brother Theo's house. Now we look back and that lucidity looks like a summation of all the erupting passions of the late 19th century. Van Gogh takes us back to first principles: Whether he's painting a figure or a landscape, his subject is the search for credibility, passion, value, in an increasingly consumerist and faithless world.

In the go-go art world of recent years -- when art stars are made at age 30 -- some people have argued that the misunderstood artist is a romantic myth. Van Gogh's posthumous fame is the classic case that refutes those worldly-success-equals-excellence equations. Here is a genius who was barely regarded in his own time, and now speaks to us with utter clarity -- almost with banality, it sometimes seems. In a sense, posthumous glory is the ultimate glory; but in van Gogh's case, it is also unbearably ironic. This artist, whose portrait of Doctor Gachet recently sold for more than $80 million, had in his own time torn the clothes from his body to make bandages for the poor, and wept through the night for the miners who worked in darkness all day.

Jed Perl, the author of "Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I," writes frequently about art for Partisan Review and for Vogue magazine.