According to David Sweetman, gloom and depression are not the primary characteristics found in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Nor does Sweetman believe, despite the fact that van Gogh committed suicide, that despair was a dominant element in the artist’s thoughts. Sweetman portrays van Gogh as an intense lover of life, growth, change, and renewal. Whatever aberrant behavior or mental disturbances he exhibited resulted from his family’s long history of mental illness, epilepsy, and nervous breakdowns or from alcoholism, digitalis poisoning from an excessive consumption of absinthe, syphilis, poor nutrition, long periods of obsessive work, and too much solitude. In other words, by blaming all of the artist’s bizarre behavior on heredity, environment, chemicals, or disease, Sweetman seems needlessly intent upon exempting van Gogh the artist from being responsible for what van Gogh the man did. Ultimately, neither Sweetman nor anyone else will be able to explain van Gogh’s irrational behavior. Sweetman discusses the famous incident when van Gogh attacked Paul Gauguin with a razor; after being dissuaded from the attack, van Gogh later mutilated himself by slicing off his left ear. Perhaps he was drunk, Sweetman suggests; or perhaps
A classic schizophrenic act?—having failed to harm Gauguin had he then tumed his violence on himself? Or was he simply filled wilh self-loathing at the way he had precipitated the thing he most feared, the alienation of his much needed companion? The explanations multiply. It was later discovered that he was tormented by voices; had these hallucinations begun that night, and had he attempted to silence them by cutting away the offending organ? He always said it was poor circulation which lay at the root of his physical weaknesses; had he sought blood- letting as some sort of remedy?
While all such speculation is endlessly moot, testifying to the extent to which van Gogh shall remain enigmatic, Sweetman succeeds in situating the artist in his society, in re-creating the artist’s quotidian existence and artistic development, in explaining how that development progressed in relation to nineteenth century artistic movements and standards, and in describing beautifully many of van Gogh’s paintings—from early drafts to finished masterpieces.
Born March 30, 1853, to Anna (nee Carbentus) and Theodorus van Gogh, Vincent was the first of six children. Because Theodorus van Gogh was a Dutch Reformed pastor, his famly was relatively scholarly and of high standing in the community of Zundert, Holland. Vincent began his formal education when he was eight, attending his village’s day school for one year, thereafter being educated at home for two years until 1864, at which time he was sent to a boarding school that specialized in teaching languages. He remained at the latter until 1866, when he was thirteen, having become fluent in French and English (he would later develop a sound knowledge of German). For the next year and a half, until he was fifteen, he attended a secondary school in Tilburg, Holland, but left abruptly in the middle of his second year. His sudden departure remains shrouded in mystery, since he was an excellent student and his family did not appear to be suffering any financial difficulties. Sweetman asserts that this abrupt ending of the artist’s formal education “remains one of the great mysteries of his life and is possibly the lost key to much of his subsequent behavior.” Van Gogh’s life entered a hiatus for fifteen months, during which he lived with his family, had no work, apparently nothing to occupy his time, and no plans for his future. What emerged from this fallow period, however, was a young man longing “to dedicate his life to something, to be useful, to be committed to a cause.
During the next eleven years of his life, from the time he was sixteen to his twenty-seventh year, van Gogh was alternately preoccupied with art and religion. He began...
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