In 2011 Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith published a biography of the Dutch artist in cooperation with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The volume at close to 1000 pages is an almost minute by minute account of the tortured life of one of art’s most acclaimed figures. The sequence of disasters that constitute Van Gogh’s history is so depressing that some may find the biography sufficiently depressing to put the book aside. But the classic example of the unappreciated genius who achieved post-mortem fame is so compelling as to demand attention.

As is well known Van Gogh (1853-97) sold only one painting during his life – and that near the end of it. It was bought by the Belgian artist Anna Boch. It’s below. The reasons for Van Gogh’s lack of success are several. His style was unique. In an art environment dominated by impressionists, his almost expressionist paintings were before his time. Also, a major factor in his commercial failure was his personality. He was aggressive to the edge of violence in his opinions. He once threatened his clergyman father with a knife. He was unable to sustain a personal relationship with anyone save his brother Theo and that one was fraught with peril and mutual antagonism. A friendship that started with warmth always ended with anger and separation.

The Red Vineyard – Van Gogh’s only painting sold during his lifetime

He started many jobs in the Netherlands, England, Belgium, and France. All ended in failure. All that he got from them was a facility in English and French. Though his formal education ended when he was 16 he was an autodidact and was learned in literature and art. His letters, most to Theo, are considered to be the finest, despite a lot of bitching about not being sent enough money, among all artists. In short, he was both crazy and brilliant. The debilitating psychotic breaks only came during the last part of his life and coincided with his most productive artistic periods. Of course, they were so severe that he could not work until they had passed.

He came to art relatively late in his life – its last decade. Though he spent some time observing successful artists, he was largely self taught. His draughtsmanship was weak, he never mastered perspective, and he had trouble with hands – always a problem for artists. He was lucky that photography had changed the nature of painting such that something outside of realism was now required. Also, he had to do was die so that the unpleasant personality could be separated from the original and compelling artist.

His first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, was created in 1885 when Van Gogh was living in Nuenen. Its dark and gloomy style was soon replaced by brighter colors and a more forceful brush stroke.

The Potatoe Eaters

Van Gogh’s mental status was always far beyond normal. People often called him crazy behind his back. His father wanted to have him committed to an asylum which made him even more unstable. When asked to do something, anything, he was sure to veer to the opposite often with outbursts of rage.

He has had several psychotic breaks, the most well known is the one that caused him to cut off the lower half of his left ear. This event followed the imminent departure of Paul Gauguin from Arles. Gauguin had moved to Arles from Brittany after a long campaign by Van Gogh to attract him The latter had a deranged vision of a utopian artist’s colony centered around the yellow house in Arles. Van Gough has rented half of it. Like all of Van Gough’s relationships, the one with Gauguin started with enthusiasm and unreal expectations shortly followed by a catastrophic collapse. The self mutilation occurred just before Christmas in 1888.

The Yellow House. Van Gough lived in the right half of the building. He ate his meals in the pink structure at the extreme left.

Van Gough was released from the hospital in Arles in early January. He continued to suffer hallucinations and delusions. His neighbors petitioned the police to remove him from the house as he was as le fou roux – the redheaded madman. He returned to the hospital. After leaving it for the second time he moved into rooms let by his intern at the hospital, Dr Félix Rey. He painted a portrait of the young doctor which he gave to him. Rey did not care for it and gave it away. Today it is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow with an estimated worth north of $50 million.

Dr Félix Rey

In May Vincent voluntarily entered the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy less than 30 miles from Arles. Here he continued his astounding productivity. On or about June 18 1889 he painted one of civilization’s landmarks – The Starry Night. It depicts the east facing view from his ground floor studio in the asylum. It is the only nocturnal Image he painted from that vantage The village is imaginary. The prominent cypress on the painting’s left was a featured theme of his paintings during this period. At first, he did not think much of it as he did not include it in the next shipment of his work that he sent to Theo. He seems to have revised his opinion later on. It’s pure speculation by me, but one must wonder if an artist with a balanced mental equilibrium could have conceived such a dazzling view of the cosmos.

What was the cause of Vincent’s mental disease? Various diagnoses have been offered, but none is dispositive. Among these are bipolar disorder, acute intermittent porphyria, and temporal epilepsy. Between episodes of complete breakdown, there were periods when he functioned productively, but never was his mental state other than crazed. If lunacy were to have a patron saint it would be Vincent Van Gogh. Of all the lunatics who thought themselves capable of greatness, it was inevitable that eventually one such deranged person would appear who really was great.

Along with every work of art Naifeh and Smith describe in painful detail every aberrant feature of Vincent’s behavior. Of his relationships with other artists, the one with Gauguin stands out. The French artist was also possessed with genius. He came to art at an even later age than Vincent. He was past 30 when he became a full time painter. He had a wife and five children whom he abandoned in favor of art and dissolution. He moved in with Vincent only because he thought it would ingratiate himself with Vincent’s art dealer brother, Theo, which in turn might lead to sales of his work, which it did. Theo promoted Gauguin’s work while almost ignoring that of his brother. Gauguin comes across in this biography as a complete scoundrel. Away from his art, his only thoughts were for himself.

The conventional account of Vincent’s death is that he shot himself on July 30, 1890. Naifeh and Smith present a reasonable argument that he was shot by someone else. The teenage boy, René Secrétan who often played cruel pranks on Vincent is offered as the person who fired the fatal shot – whether by accident or on purpose, they don’t say. There’s a fierce debate on the internet about the plausibility of the argument versus the traditional attribution of the artist’s death to suicide. There is little point in engaging in it as it can never be settled. Van Gogh died from a gunshot wound. The rest is conjecture.

Theo’s fate was as terrible as his brother’s. Suffering from advanced syphilis Vincent’s death dealt him a fatal blow. Over the ensuing six months he suffered a complete mental and physical collapse and died a completely broken man. Without Theo, there would be no Van Gough the great artist. Theo provided virtual sole support for Vincent during his decade as the maker of unique images that have captivated the world.

Theo’s wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger arranged for the publication of Vincent’s letters in 1914. In the same year, she had Theo’s body exhumed and interred next to Vincent’s in the Auvers-sur-Oise Cemetery. Her son named after Vincent was the driving force behind the formation in 1973 of the the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The family donated all of Vincent’s works in their possession to the museum. It has the largest collection of Vincent’s work in the world and is visited by millions every year.

Naifeh and Smith’s biography contains every facet of the tortured life of one of world’s the most acclaimed artists. A figure who has captured the imagination of all who know his story and his work. He is the quintessential unappreciated and tormented artist who only after death is recognized as the giant he was. If you would know Vincent’s story and can withstand almost 1000 pages of the combination of mental illness and genius then this book is for you.