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4.5 out of 5 stars
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4.5 out of 5 stars
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on 7 August 2017
An excellent in-depth biography
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VINE VOICEon 14 March 2013
If you are thinking of buying this book (which I strongly suggest you do), then you should know a few things in advance. The basic text is 868 pages plus appendices. It took me (a fast reader) over two months to complete and despite some very intelligent writing about the pictures, this is not an art historical analysis but a biography. Yet these observations not withstanding, this is still a magnificent piece of work. It succeeds for many reasons. Firstly, it uses, and sticks to the primary sources about the artist so one always feels the narrative is grounded in fact. Given that the most extensive resource is the letters between Vincent and his brother Theo, there is a sense in which the book becomes the story of the relationship between two brothers, but it is none the worse for that except that it means periods like Van Gogh's 2 years living with Theo in Paris are given rather short shrift as obviously they were not writing to each other. The authors are clearly convinced that it is impossible to separate the life and art of the artist and very convincingly relate many works to particular people and moments in Van Gogh's life-the views of Nuenen church to his dead father for example or the idealized views of the Yellow House in Arles which they rightly portray not simply as an invitation to Gauguin, but the very evocation of a "New Art of the South". However, do not come away with the impression that this book is anyway dry or academic, its rigorous research and learning are lightly worn with intriguing insights and telling detail on nearly every page. The Vincent who emerges from this account is a demythologized one far removed for the self indulgence of Hollywood's Lust for Life portrayal. Here is the man unadorned-awkward, selfish, illogical, inconsistent and with little idea of where his life or art is going for most of his life and yet it is these very weaknesses which ultimately make the story and the man to say nothing of the art, so compelling for by the time you finish this volume, you feel as if you have traveled the lonely and agonizing path which Van Gogh trod to create Starry Night or The Cafe at Arles. Here the sublime paintings are seen through the prism of a life full of false starts, failed relationships, misconceived ideas and towards the end, distressing mental illness. Much has been made of the authors new interpretation Van Gogh's death or murder, but this is simply another example of where they have gone back to the facts rather than the legend. The illustrations are perfectly acceptable, but sometimes important works are not reproduced and readers may want a book with more reproductions to hand to truly appreciate all the points made in the text. I have read many art biographies over the years, but can confidently assert that none has afforded so many new perspectives or food for thought as this. It will undoubtedly redefine your understanding of the artist and his work and will not only appeal to those interested in art, but also to lovers of fine biography.
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on 18 September 2014
An excellent work of scholarship in combining the various aspects of Van Gogh's life, work and personality into one coherent whole: somewhat less convincing, because of necessity less developed, is the theory that Vincent met his death as a result of `accidental shooting by a local youth.' There may be grounds for this story - i.e. if Van Gogh died this way is it not more likely he had himself deliberately incited the youth to shoot- the coincidence of his death at this time when the harvest was just in `..for I see in this reaper the image of death, in the sense that humanity might be the wheat he is reaping..but there is nothing sad in this death, it goes it's way in broad daylight with the sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold..it is an image of death as the great book of nature speaks of it..' also provided the solution as he saw it to Theo's family's then pressing financial and emotional dilemma. The significant question, generally ignored, is if his death was pre-meditated where is the picture he would assuredly have left behind -instead of a final note- depicting the above enlightening end of harvest scene - unfortunately we are told all of his painting materials -including the picture he was working on- disappeared from the scene of the shooting - there is however good reason to believe it did re-surface to provide a more fitting end to Van Gogh's life.
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on 4 January 2013
I found this book extremely interesting and informative. As an art historian who has lectured for many years on this period and on Van Gogh, I found plenty of new information and facts which corrected my previous impressions. For example the fact that Van Gogh returned several times to Arles in 1889 after being committed to the asylum at St Remy, and of course the possibility that Van Gogh did not actually commit suicide, but was the victim of an accidental shooting which he decided to keep secret to protect those involved. There is no better account of Van Gogh's life in existence and this will become the standard biography. There some faults in particular the length of the book and certain amount of editing would have helped reduce its size by maybe a couple of hundred pages. There is repetition which a good editor could have cut out. However overall a great book and a great achievement
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on 5 June 2017
Fantastically in-depth look at Van Gogh, not only exploring his own life but that of his parents and contemporaries which I found gave great context. In particular I found the appendix concerning the authors' theory of Van Gogh's murder rather than suicide incredibly interesting, actually rather inclined to believe their idea.
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on 26 November 2013
I've read several biographies of Van Gogh, and as far as i know it's the first time foul play is suspected in the great artist's death. Very well written and factually accurate. Shouldn't be missed.
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on 10 January 2013
This biography was absolutely brilliant, well researched, so detailed & easy to read. I just loved it from start to finish, took me 3 months to read as the book is huge, so not easy to carry around with you. I'm a Van gogh fan now & reading this has got me really interested in art.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 February 2012
This vast biography is a gripping and often heartbreaking account of a tortured genius, probably suffering from what would now be diagnosed as a bi-polar disorder, which both fed his strikingly original work but also hindered his recognition as a great artist in his lifetime.

The joint authors paint a generally unflattering portrait of Van Gogh, although he was clearly well-intentioned, and showed occasional flashes of self-knowledge and touching, excessive humility or regret over past errors. Argumentative and excitable, he upset virtually everyone he met and drove away potential friends and lovers by being too intense, smothering and controlling. The only woman he ever managed to possess was the worn down prostitute Sien Hoornik, with whom he set up house, together with her baby, to his clergyman father's distress, only to abandon her for some new obsession with little evidence of any sense of guilt.

After a number of "false starts" as an art dealer who felt honesty-bound to tell customers the shortcomings of artworks for sale, a teacher, a theological student and a missionary in the grim coalmining area of the Borinage, he spent the last decade of his life as a self-taught and astonishingly prolific artist.

The book is strong on Van Gogh's development as an artist, and the various influences on his work, such as Delacroix's startling use of colour. We see his progression from detailed ink drawings, produced with the use of a grid, through a period of dark paintings, exemplified by his sludge-coloured representation of a group of peasants eating potatoes, to the great explosion of works in colour which began in Paris, expanded under the brilliant blue skies and arid landscapes of Provence, and ended in a final burst of activity in the picturesque riverside town of Auvers near Paris, where he died mysteriously from a gunshot wound.

His complex relationship with his brother Theo is covered in depth, as he cajoled, wheedled and bullied the young art dealer (who had taken over his job) into sending up to half his income each month to pay for the extravagant follies Vincent thought necessary for his work - studios, models for the portraits, and vast quantities of canvas and paint.

The chaotic days in the "yellow house" at Arles leading to the famous incident in which Vincent cut off his own ear are also brought to life, with a detailed comparison of the "chalk and cheese" differences between Vincent and Paul Gauguin who had been persuaded to visit him, as part of Van Gogh's self-deluding dream of setting up a community of artists. The painful contrast is made clear between the nervous Vincent, painting real scenes in the open air with spontaneity and lashings of paint, yet to find a single real buyer for his work, and the confident, manipulative Gauguin, who had just begun to enjoy a market for the pictures carefully planned and produced from memory in the studio, with the focus on symbolism and minimal use of paint.

The book lapses too often into a wordy, overblown, repetitious style from which suitable editing would have shaved off, say, at least 200 pages. This would have left more space to ensure that each reference to a key painting or description of a Van Gogh work is accompanied by a colour plate at a suitable point in the text. Failing this, you can in fact track down on Google imagesmost of the paintings mentioned.

If pressed for time, you may prefer to read Martin Gayford's much shorter, "The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles". Van Gogh's letters are also revealing, and may give a more balanced view through greater focus on his detailed reflections on life and art.
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on 3 November 2015
An excellent account of the life of the famous, but troubled, painter. Intelligently written yet so easy to read, this book will provide you with the facts that you want about the painter's life as well as an insight into the soul of the man. As a punter of limited artistic ability I have to say that I don't like all the works of Van Gogh but, after this read, I will look at his works in a new light and a feeling that I know him just a little bit. To get some emotion and personal connection from viewing Van Gogh, you can't go wrong with this book. Just my humble opinion.
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on 26 November 2015
I hate to swim against the tide but I hated this book. It is very detailed and well researched but the interpretation of the evidence is heavily skewed to present Vincent as a deeply unpleasant person with no redeeming qualities, a stupid man and (unbelievably) as a poor artist. Actually just about everyone mentioned is presented in an equally negative fashion...maybe it says more about the author than the subjects. There are no proper notes or references so the reader is persuaded to take at face value assertions that are often unwarranted by the raw evidence. Vincent was certainly a very difficult man but he was loved and admired by some who knew him best and his work will live long after this book is forgotten. I do think the hypothesis about how he died contained in an appendix is convincing though! Read Martin Gayford's 'The Yellow House' as an antidote to this painful stitch up.
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