Circular brush strokes are seen in a detail from the oil painting “Portrait de l’Artiste,” September 1889, a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh. (John Schults/Reuters)

“A Power Seething,” the subtitle of Julian Bell’s short, fervent biography of Vincent van Gogh, comes from a letter Vincent sent his brother Theo in 1882. Although his new calling as an artist looked to be just as unprofitable as everything else he had tried, it was already beginning to feel like a compulsion: “One feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must be done.”

Raised with his younger siblings in a rural backwater on the Dutch-Belgian border, Vincent grew up rambunctious and filled with “feral strength.” He was hard to contain indoors, whether in school, at home or at work. After failing to hold a job in his uncle’s art dealership, a passion for religion and a sympathy for the poor drove him back to study in hopes of becoming a minister like his father. It was a disaster. Fleeing settled society, he went to live among the villagers in Belgian coal country, an “apocalyptic, black-soot heaven,” where he began, as fiercely as he did everything else, to make sketches.

Julian Bell, himself a painter, offers a respectful portrait of van Gogh that doesn’t downplay the artist’s stormy nature or subordinate his art to his personality. Vincent’s madness, when it flares, is more sadness than passion. Does it really matter why the erratic misfit severed a chunk of his left ear and delivered it, at the very end of 1888, to a woman at his favorite brothel in Arles? Only because it’s the crisis everyone knows, its gruesome theatricality lodging in our memory along with the (not quite true) fact that the artist never achieved fame or fortune during his lifetime. Together, these details seem to prove the myth that greatness in art is a matter of insanity plus time.

Bell rejects this reductive equation, showing through quotations from the letters and his own sharp analysis of the paintings how hard van Gogh worked and how deeply he thought about art, its history and place in the world. It’s also clear how important other people were to his eventual success — particularly his younger brother Theo, an art dealer in the family business who bought Vincent’s paints and paid his rent. Bell sees their mutual dependence as a benevolent Dutch twist on the standard 19th-century antagonism between bohemians and the bourgeoisie. In the van Gogh extended family, art paid well for the dealers, who in turn sustained the artists. In effect, Theo was his brother’s loyal, put-upon patron, right up until the end, when he sat watching Vincent die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Theo lived only a few months more, and it was his widow, Johanna, whose sensitivity and savvy eventually turned Vincent into an icon.

Scutts is a freelance writer and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

“Van Gogh: A Power Seething” by Julian Bell. (New Harvest)
Van gogh

A Power Seething

By Julian Bell

New Harvest, 163 pp. $20