Tormented Genius Essay - Critical Essays

Alan Honour


Tormented Genius makes no pretense at originality. For the most part, Honour is content to follow the depiction of van Gogh’s personality and work in an earlier biography of the painter, Passionate Pilgrim: The Life of Vincent van Gogh (1955), by Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson. In consideration of his young readers, Honour softens some of van Gogh’s more outrageous behavior and some of the more sordid episodes in his life. For example, he describes Sien, the woman with whom van Gogh lived between 1882 and 1883, as a “wanderer”; she was in fact a prostitute who infected van Gogh with gonorrhea.

Honour examines van Gogh’s troubled mind in a fair-minded, commonsense manner. He does not indulge in esoteric theorizing about what van Gogh was suffering from (everything from epilepsy to schizophrenia has been suggested by other biographers). For Honour, van Gogh’s life (as opposed to his art) was a failure, “for he never learned to control his emotions.” He could not find a happy medium but veered from one extreme to another until he was emotionally drained. He was trapped in a vicious cycle, unable to recognize his own faults but always ready to spot those of others. Taking a cue from a letter that Theo van Gogh wrote to his mother—in which he said “There are two human beings in Vincent, the one extraordinarily gifted, sensitive, and gentle, the other selfish and insensitive”—Honour adopts this framework of the two van Goghs....

(The entire section is 601 words.)