Monday, December 12, 2022

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Van Gogh Must-Reads

Van Gogh Must-Reads
A Selection of Recent Books on Vincent van Gogh

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The Detroit Institute of Art (DIA)  recently opened a special exhibition celebrating the one hundred year anniversary of the acquisition of a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Back in the 1920's, the DIA's purchase of  a work by Van Gogh  was a bold move. It was the first Van Gogh painting to enter the collection of a U.S. art museum.

Although American private collectors had previously bought Van Gogh paintings, the major U.S. museums continued to refrain from adding works by the Dutch painter to their permanent holdings. In January 1922, Ralph Booth, president of the City of Detroit Art Commission took the plunge, spending $4,200 (the equivalent of $75,000 today) for the Van Gogh self-portrait. Given the prices that a Van Gogh fetches these days, Booth's purchase was the bargain of the 20th Century.

The DIA's exhibition, Van Gogh in America, sounds fantastic, with 74 paintings on display. Considering the adversity which the DIA has faced over the past decade, owing to the budget woes of the city of Detroit, it is great to see that this fine museum is able to savor a well-deserved moment of triumph.

Sadly, I'm not going to be visiting Detroit any time soon and the exhibition is not traveling  elsewhere in the U.S. I will just have to content myself with a consolation prize from the vast range of Van Gogh products which seem to be everywhere this year. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) View of the book store & gift shop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing  Van Gogh-related products

Van Gogh coloring books (for adults and for children), Van Gogh scarves, Van Gogh socks, Van Gogh Christmas tree ornaments, Van Gogh tote bags to hold all these Van Gogh goodies. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Van Gogh doll on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art gift shop

Being an old fashined guy, I will content myself by enjoying the volumes about Vincent van Gogh which have been waiting impatiently on my book shelf for me to read.

In this essay, we will consider four outstanding books on Van Gogh's life, death and redemption: Vincent Van Gogh: A Life in Letters, edited by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen and Hans Luitjen (2020); Steven Naifeh's Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved (2021); Who Shot Van Gogh by Alan Turnbull (2022) and a just published biography of Van Gogh's sister-in-law, Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, the Woman who Made Vincent Famous (2022).

Vincent Van Gogh: A Life in Letters (Thames & Hudson, 2020) is an absolutely essential book for any art enthusiast or scholar devoted to Van Gogh. It is a much shortened version of the incomparable Vincent van Gogh: The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, published in 2009.

A Life in Letters features 76 unabridged letters of the surviving 820 written by Van Gogh. These are mostly addressed to his brother, Theo, but also to his sister, Willemien, and to fellow artists like Emile Bernard. A number of the letters are shown in facsimile. Abundant illustrations, mostly of Van Gogh's drawings, but also some paintings, are carefully juxtaposed with the text of the letters. These letters and sketches are the distilled essence of Van Gogh's incredible life.

Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Emile Bernard, June 19, 1888
 Letter 628A, with sketch of Sower with Setting Sun

Rather than treat a sample of the  letters with short, superficial excerpts, I am going to pick one to comment upon, since it bears directly on the whole of Van Gogh's life.

In the postscript to his August 7, 1883 letter to Theo, Van Gogh wrote "For no particular reason I can’t help adding something here that’s just a recurring thought of mine."

That "something" was his mortality, the years remaining to devote himself to achieve the work he was born to do.

My plan is not to spare myself, not to avoid a lot of emotions or difficulties. It’s a matter of relative indifference to me whether I live a long or a short time. Moreover, I’m not competent to manage myself in physical matters the way a doctor can in this respect. So I carry on as one unknowing but who knows this one thing — ‘I must finish a particular work within a few years’ — I needn’t rush myself, for that does no good — but I must carry on working in calm and serenity, as regularly and concentratedly as possible, as succinctly as possible. I’m concerned with the world only in that I have a certain obligation and duty, as it were — because I’ve walked the earth for 30 years — to leave a certain souvenir in the form of drawings or paintings in gratitude. Not done to please some movement or other, but in which an honest human feeling is expressed.

This "P.S." to Theo is a forecast of Van Gogh's drive to make a positive addition to the culture of Humankind - "a certain souvenir" - regardless  of what it cost him or the people in his life. And the powerful expression, quoted above, was only part of a passion-filled torrent of words which would draw to a close in boldface, "SOMETHING MUST BE DONE."

Something, a lot of things, were done, albeit in such contradictory fashion by Van Gogh that it's difficult to keep track. An impressive attempt to resolve the many mysteries surrounding Van Gogh is provided by Alan Turnbull in Who Shot Van Gogh? Facts and Counterfacts (Thames & Hudson, 256 pages, $ 24.95). 

This provocatively-titled book does indeed investigate the numerous questions concerning Van Gogh's death. But the scope of Who Shot Van Gogh? is far more than a "Crime Scene 1890." Turnbull's book is a careful compilation of the events, comments, opinions (by and about), achievements and failures of Van Gogh's life and afterlife. 

 A prodigious amount of research went into the creation of Who Shot Van Gogh? Turnbull's occasional reflections are quite moving, often profoundly so. However, Turnbull, in weighing the "evidence," does not pronounce definitive judgement. That task is reserved for us, the readers.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887

What Turnbull shows, beyond dispute, is that Van Gogh worked with a life-consuming determination to express and to resolve the visions, doubts and contradictions in his life. Turnbull notes that in his final period of painting,  sixty-nine days spent at Auvers-sur-Oise, Van Gogh completed seventy-two paintings and thirty-three drawings.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Fields with Reaper - Auvers, 1890

Van Gogh described his mode of work as "Quick quick quick and in a hurry, like the reaper who is silent under the blazing sun, concentrating on getting the job done."

Van Gogh the "reaper"  harvested a life's work of masterpieces created in less than a decade, at a cost of lost years of life expectancy. Had Van Gogh not succumbed to a gun shot wound in July 1890,  he almost certainly would have worn-down his strength and energy reserves to a breaking point soon after.

A similar process of "reaping" had scythed its way through just about every friendship and relationship in Van Gogh's life. In one of the topical sections in his book, "Living with Vincent," Turnbull quotes numerous family members, friends and fellow artists on the impossibility of living with Van Gogh. Threats of physical violence by Van Gogh were alleged by several artists, including Gauguin. Some of these remarks may have been exaggerated but comments by his brother, Theo, can be trusted.

After Vincent moved-in, uninvited to his Paris apartment in 1886, Theo wrote to their sister, Wil:

No one wants to come by any more because it always leads to rows, and he's so filthy and slovenly that the household looks anything but inviting. It's as if there are two people in him, the one marvelously gifted, sensitive and gentle, and the other self-loving and unfeeling.

Turnbull thoroughly documents the fact that, while Van Gogh suffered much for the sake of art, he was frequently insufferable towards those who helped  him. He received generous allowances from his father (at one point, amounting to 60 francs, a third of his father's monthly salary) and later from Theo. These hard-earned sums enabled Van Gogh to use expensive paints and art materials at a prodigal rate which astonished other artists. 

Such liberality was not returned with lasting displays of gratitude, especially in the case of his father, whose early death was likely triggered by Van Gogh's belligerence. Family, friends and fellow artists encouraged him only to be dismissed or spurned as his tortured mind dictated.

Turnbull quotes a French officer who was acquainted with Van Gogh in Arles. Van Gogh, Lieutenant Millet observed, acted "like someone who has lived a long time in the desert." 

In an amazing turn of life's wheel of fortune, Van Gogh was embraced as a martyr and saint in the increasingly secular period following World War I. German art historians provided the first "spin" and a crowd of art enthusiasts followed suit. Perhaps with an uneasy conscience about the $4,200 spent on Van Gogh's Self-Portrait, the Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Art for 1923 stated that Van Gogh "was possessed of a divine fire that continually threatened to consume him."                                                                                                                                                                                        Turnbull concludes his discussion of the "Christ of Modern Art" with a quote from Van Gogh to his sister, "I wouldn't wish for a martyr's career in any circumstances." 

How then can we find a common thread or a measure of coherence in the seething mass of "facts and counterfacts" compiled by Turnbull? Steven Naifeh's Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved (2021) provides a unifying theme.  

Most students of Van Gogh's art will immediately recognize Steven Naifeh as one of the co-authors of Van Gogh: the Life (2012). This mighty biography, written by Naifeh and Gregory Smith, was a thoroughly researched and compelling study.  It was controversial book, as it contended that Van Gogh died from a gun-shot wound which was not self-inflicted. 

Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved  avoids the minefield of controversy. This new volume is a sensitive, beautifully illustrated survey of Van Gogh as art student, critic and artist. 

Van Gogh's taste in artists was very much of his era. Naifeh examines his  interest in artistic movements which were already well-established by the time he began to paint in late 1881. The Barbizon painters in France, the Hague School in his native Netherlands and the Graphic Arts movement in England all left a significant mark on Van Gogh. 

Joining the ranks of a particular artistic group was another mater. During the 1870's, Van Gogh worked as a clerk-assistant in the prestigious art firm of Goupil & Cie. He was employed at the Paris branch for a time, placing him in close proximity to the revolutionary exhibitions of the "New Painting" by Claude Monet and his compatriots. Based on his letters, Van Gogh appears to have been totally oblivious of the Impressionist drama during its early years. 

Later, in 1884 when the Impressionists were gaining acceptance, Van Gogh continued to shrug them off. In a letter to Theo, who was encouraging him to consider the techniques of the Impressionists, Van Gogh wrote, "And from what you told me about "impressionism, it's not quite clear to me what it really is."

Vincent van Gogh, Montmartre: Windmills and Allotments, 1887

Eventually, as Naifeh relates, Van Gogh embraced the color palatte of the Impressionists. Almost simultaneously, he explored themes and technical innovations from Georges Seurat and the Pointillists, introduced at the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886. It was never a matter of "either/or." In a memorable summation of Van Gogh's artistic progress, Naifeh writes:

In his race to make up for lost time, Van Gogh jumped back and forth over ideological chasms that brought other artists to blows, combining Impressionist brushwork and the new Pointillist dots ... in the same image.

Van Gogh derived inspiration from particular artists rather than "schools" of painting. Naifeh enables us to appreciate how the influence of painters like Leon-Auguste Lhermitte (1844-1925) was translated and transmitted into works like The Red Vineyard, the only painting Van Gogh sold during his lifetime.

Leon-Augustin Lhermitte, The Gleaners, 1887

Vincent van Gogh, The Red Vineyard at Arles, 1888

Naifeh quotes Van Gogh about Lhermitte, who specialized in depictions of the hard-working peasants of France.

Lhermitte's secret, it seems to me, is none other than he knows the figure in general - namely the sturdy, severe workman's figures - through and through, and takes his subjects from the heart of the people. To  reach the same level as he - one shouldn't talk of that - one must work and see how far one gets. Because talking about it would be presumptuous on my part, I believe, while working, on the other hand, would be a sign of respect and trust and faith in artists like him.

Respect. Trust. Faith. These were potent words for Van Gogh, but fundamentally so in the context of his work. 

"One must work and see how far one gets."

With almost reckless resolve, Van Gogh commenced work on a subject taken from the oeuvre of Rembrandt: The Raising of Lazarus. This occurred in May 1890, only a few weeks before his death. By then, Van Gogh had completely turned against organized religion. Yet here, in his final visual statement of a Christian theme, Van Gogh chose to do so in company with the great Rembrandt.

Van Gogh's painting is based on Rembrandt's engraving and etching, created around 1632, of the incident in the New Testament when Jesus restored his friend, Lazarus, from death to life. Far from a slavish reworking of Rembrandt's print, Van Gogh interpreted this scene from a new, unorthodox point of view.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Raising of Lazarus, c. 1632

Rembrandt positioned Jesus, summoning Lazarus back to life, in a commanding place in his print. Van Gogh seemingly dispenses with Jesus, showing only Lazarus, who has a red beard like his own, and two mourners.


Vincent van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt), 1890

From this vantage point, are we asked to see the event as Jesus did? Or more controversially, is Van Gogh making a statement on the spark of divinity which is in each of us? If so, the unseen protagonist of this picture is "not I, but Christ in me." 

In a way, each art lover has the power of life or death over a painting or sculpture. Each time we stop to look and reflect on a work of art, it awakens to life and, given our degree of interest, responds to love. In Van Gogh's case, we are able to do so because of the incredible act of devotion bestowed upon him and his paintings, drawings and correspondence by his sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger.

A major biography, just published by Bloomsbury Visual Arts, details the decades-long effort by Theo's young wife to preserve and popularize van Gogh's paintings and letters following his death. Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, the Woman who Made Vincent Famous was written by Hans Luitjen, one of the editors of Vincent Van Gogh: A Life in Letters. I became aware of this new book after I started planning this essay, but had to include it, even though I have not completed reading. It is, beyond doubt, a powerful  biography and I plan a full-review in the new year.

Jo Van Gogh-Bonger and her son, Vincent, c. July 1890

The task of preserving the legacy of Vincent van Gogh should have fallen to Theo. But he died, tragically and painfully, six months after Vincent. For the next thirty-five years, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, worked relentlessly "for the glory of Vincent" by organizing exhibitions, translating and publishing his letters and selling paintings and drawings to a growing international clientele. 

In 1924, Jo van Gogh-Bonger sold one of Van Gogh's Sunflowers to the National Gallery of London. It was reluctant decision, as this was one of her favorite paintings by Vincent. But it was a landmark event in his transition to the status of an icon of Modern Art.

Jo van Gogh-Bonger's story is so compelling, because it transcends matters of aesthetics or calculations of monetary value. She nurtured an unshakable  commitment to her dead husband and brother-in-law and to her infant son, named Vincent for his uncle. 

"SOMETHING MUST BE DONE." So Vincent van Gogh had written in 1883 as he made the first real strides in his artistic career. That determination carried over to the life of Jo van Gogh-Bonger and her mission to share Vincent's art with the world.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the 19th century European art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There is a level of against-all-odds courage, in the resolve of Vincent van Gogh and Jo van Gogh-Bonger. They are heroic figures, worthy exemplars for us in the very troubled world of the twenty-first century. That is why we react so strongly to Vincent today and, as more people read the new biography of Jo, I believe  will feel the same high regard for her.

In the words of Steven Naifeh:

Through a seamless, spontaneous interweaving of personal preoccupations and artistic calculations, private demons and creative passions, favorite paintings and favorite novels, Van Gogh was achieving an entirely new kind of art. His letters are filled with the uncertainty of a man who finds himself either on the edge of a new world or at the end of a long limb.

That is where we are today, as 2022 fades into the past and 2023 beckons. We live in a world filled with uncertainty, a world on "edge." But if we keep looking at Starry Night and pondering the passionate words of Van Gogh's letters to Theo, we may just find enough courage in ourselves to keep holding-on and to keep reaching out.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                              Book cover illustrations courtesy of Thames & Hudson, Ltd. and Random House publishing company 

Introductory Image: Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887. Oil on canvas:  13.7 x 10.5 in. (34.9 x 26.7 cm).  Detroit Institute of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) View of the book store & gift shop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing display of Van Gogh-related products.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Van Gogh doll on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art gift shop.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) Letter to Emile Bernard, June 19, 1888. Letter 628A, with sketch of Sower with Setting Sun. Morgan Library and Museum, N.Y.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) Self-Portrait, c.1887. Oil on canvas: 15 5/8 x 13 3/8 in. (40.3 x 34 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum. Gift of Phillip L. Goodwin. #1954.189

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) Wheat Fields with Reaper - Auvers, 1890. Oil on canvas:  29 x 36 5/8 in. (73.6 x 93 cm). Toledo Museum of Art. Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) Montmartre: Windmills and Allotments, 1887. Oil on canvas: 45.5 cm x 59.1 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Van Gogh Foundation)

Leon-Augustin Lhermitte (1844-1925), The Gleaners, 1887. Oil on canvas: 29 1/2 x 37 1/4 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Red Vineyard at Arles, 1888. Oil on canvas: 28 3/4 x 35 7/8 in. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) The Raising of Lazarus, c. 1632. Etching and Engraving: 14 1/2 x 10 1/16 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt)1890. Oil on paper: 19 11/16 x 23 13/16 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Van Gogh Foundation)

Jo Van Gogh-Bonger and her son, Vincent, c. July 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Van Gogh Foundation)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the 19th century European art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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