One spring night in May, a hundred years after it was painted, Vincent van Gogh’s PORTRAIT OF DR. GACHET was auctioned for a record $82.5 million. Only one of Van Gogh’s paintings sold during his lifetime. Biographer David Sweetman offers perspectives of the man and his work that broaden the narrow view of an outcast, maverick artist whose genius—so intense it bordered on madness—an enlightened modern world has finally recognized.
For one thing, Sweetman sets van Gogh firmly in the context of the artistic and cultural life of the latter part of the nineteenth century. Van Gogh’s idealistic dream of a simple life in a shared community—first pursued in religious, then artistic, circles—paralleled major philosophical currents of his day: John Ruskin, William Morris, and the nascent arts and crafts movement all advocated a life of simplicity and naturalness, based on creative labor.
Although van Gogh fled in disgust the cliquishness, jealousies, and acrimonious factionalism of the Parisian art scene, he there made the acquaintance of post-Impressionist luminaries Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac, and Emile Bernard. Like them, he acknowledged a debt to Japanese prints for innovations in color and composition.
In addition, rather than suffering from naivete about the commercial side of art, van Gogh had himself been an art dealer; whatever his contentiousness, he was well aware how the system worked. Neither was van Gogh an unselfconscious artist. His letters contain “fulsome” explanations of what he was attempting in his paintings.
Finally, Sweetman would replace the word “genius” with “courage” to emphasize van Gogh’s achievement. The artist’s early exercises which have survived show little evidence of native ability. Yet van Gogh struggled to “dominate” his craft to the extent that his work conveys remarkable power. Coming late to art, at twenty-seven, van Gogh seemed driven by a sense of urgency.
Sweetman resists the temptation to reconcile the tensions and contradictions in van Gogh’s life and work with easy psychologizing. Epilepsy and depression were family...
(The entire section is 492 words.)