Van Gogh: The Life
Dutch Expressionist painter Vincent van Gogh is one of the most renowned and enigmatic artists in history. His international fame and his mysterious life story led to the creation of an unchallengeable mythology surrounding him.
The recently published biography, Van Gogh: The Life, co-written by Colby graduate and critically acclaimed author Gregory White Smith ’73, raises questions about the truth behind this mythology and explores the passion and tumult of van Gogh’s mind and art, which no biography has ever done before.
White graduated from the College with a degree in English literature. He then went on to Harvard Law School, where he met his partner and co-author Steven Naifeh, who was studying art history at the time. In 1991, they wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning biography, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. When brainstorming which artist would be the focus of their next project, Smith and Naifeh wanted a truly interesting and well-known artist.
“We wanted someone not just significant but really iconic,” Smith said. Smith and Naifeh had three main criteria—his or her art must be important, his or her life must have been fascinating and it must be an original work, someone whose life had not been explored before. “After thinking about it, we knew it had to be van Gogh,” Smith said. “His art is enjoyable and profound. His life story is sympathetic and elevating. And it intrigued us as to why his work is so unique and universal.”
Smith said that nobody had ever truly researched and written about van Gogh’s art as an expression of his life before. He attributed this to the fact that in the 20th century, artists had become more important than their art in the critical lens. Critique was more concerned with celebrity than with the actual art. In the 19th century, art critique was used more as a marketing tool than as an analysis of the artist’s work. For van Gogh, having come in at the tail end of the Impressionist movement in the late 19th century, his work had not been subject to the level of study that writers and musicians had. “We wanted to bring a level of biographical scrutiny to van Gogh that was accepted and expected of other professions,” Smith said.
One of the bigger challenges that the authors faced was that neither understood Dutch. At the time they were researching, there were roughly 750 letters sent to and from van Gogh and about another 1,000 letters that circulated amongst his relatives (many of which mentioned him—he was the black sheep of the family.) Smith and Naifeh hired 11 translators to go through this vast amount of postage, most of which had never been translated before, as well as about a dozen secondary source books.
Perhaps the greatest challenge that the pair faced involved the lore surrounding van Gogh and the repercussions of going against that mythology. With the publication of Irving Stone’s biography, Lust for Life, in 1934—the only true biography that existed at the time—and the Hollywood adaptation of that book in 1956, many people had a fixed image of who van Gogh was even if they did not know much about him. “We had no idea that we’d find contradicting evidence,” Smith said, “but we just wanted more information and to uncover as much truth as possible. But if you start to break down the mythology, you get in trouble.”
“Everyone seemed to know at least few things about him,” Smith said. “They knew he was crazy, they knew he cut his ear off and they knew he shot himself.” About two-thirds of the way into writing the book, they began to encounter inconsistencies regarding van Gogh’s death. Before, it had been widely believed that van Gogh had shot himself with a revolver in a wheat field in France and died the following day. However, much of the evidence for this story seemed weak to Smith and Naifeh, leading them to investigate how his death actually occurred.
Last week, Smith and Naifeh returned from a six-week long book tour that traveled to major U.S. cities, as well as the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Royal Academy in London. “The Royal Academy was definitely the biggest deal for me,” Smith said. “Not only did van Gogh go there, but it’s a large group of academies, and many of the most important discoveries of the past few centuries have been presented there.” Smith and Naifeh plan to continue biographical work but have not yet decided on a new focus.