I have been house bound more days this winter than any I can remember. For the second day in a row the trains and busses in Boston are not running. With six feet of snow in 30 days and more coming (along with a bitter blast of Arctic cold), traveling the five miles from my home to my studio has become a daily challenge. Walk? Drive? They both are problematic.
How easy it is to take the essentials for granted—a place to work, the needed supplies, sufficient heat. I don’t have the easy portability of my writer friends—I NEED my tools and studio to do my work. My yearning can’t be satiated with just a sketchbook.
During this winter of being sojourned by the fire more days than is normal, I have thought about my longing to work through a different lens. Van Gogh’s life has been the theme of my book reading for several days, both in the form of a new novel, The Season of Migration, by Nellie Hermann, and the much-lauded short biography by artist and writer Julian Bell, A Power Seething.
Van Gogh is one of the artists whose works never grow old for me. All these years I have studied his paintings and drawings, and a million date books, tote bags, fridge magnets and umbrellas cannot kill off the unique relationship he crafted with nature. His work feels embodied, a way of bringing us to that ineffable connection we have all felt with the awesome and sublime sense of our world. Getting that sensation to reside inside a drawing or a painting however is incredibly rare. That was his gift, a deep empathy with the spirit of things, with the world. And it still moves me deeply to see what his hand brought forth during those very few years he was at work.
These two books are a well suited pair. Both authors conjure fresh views into that famous life story—the one that has been so endlessly mythologized—and bring Van Gogh into sharper focus. Neither author attempts to compete with the enormous scope of Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. But both books are gentle in their balanced presentation of his failings and his gifts.
As often as Van Gogh is portrayed as the misunderstood genius, he wasn’t an easy person. As Jonathan Lopez wrote in his review in the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Bell’s fundamental vision of Van Gogh’s identity is heavily indebted to the work of Messrs. Naifeh and Smith, whose demystified presentation of the artist did away with the popular notion of Van Gogh as a hypersensitive innocent too pure for this world. To a considerable degree, that image was derived from Irving Stone’s widely read, fictionalized Van Gogh biography, “Lust for Life” (1934), which invented dramatic situations and dialogue loosely based on Van Gogh’s correspondence…Messrs. Naifeh and Smith revealed instead a stubborn, argumentative and often rude individual. In this they drew upon the profoundly authoritative and resoundingly boring academic biography of Van Gogh by the eminent Dutch art historian Jan Hulsker, published in 1985. There is a great deal of truth to the characterization—Van Gogh tested the patience of virtually everyone he ever met—but the underlying poignancy of the artist’s social ineptitude is not really explored sufficiently in any of the existing biographies.
For all his social awkwardness, penchant for self destruction and proclivities to drama, Van Gogh had a longing in him that was profound. During his early struggles to find his way, Van Gogh’s life was a string of failures. It took repeated disappointments and ejections for him to finally see what it was he was truly designed to do.
In one of his over 600 letters to his younger brother and eventual patron Theo (the complete set now available online here), Van Gogh said he felt obliged to express his most authentic moments of insight with drawings and paintings as a form of gratitude for the privilege of being alive. While it took him until the age of 30 to claim the position of artist for himself, both Hermann and Bell respect the complexity and struggle of the journey he had to make to find his rightful place. From Bell’s book: “The painter may be in hell, but painting is still heaven.”
A version of that gauntlet must be run by anyone who has chosen to be an artist, and those of us who have all own a version of this story. Van Gogh’s arduous life and his stunning work still hold their resonance all these years later.