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219 of 247 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another Author's Perspective, October 26, 2011
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This review is from: Van Gogh: The Life (Hardcover)
As an art history professor and author of a book on Van Gogh, I have spent many years researching the life, motives and actions of Vincent Van Gogh. I am convinced that he was a heroic man. He was a consistent champion of the underdog, and on numerous occasions took blame for the misdeeds of others. The idea that Vincent wanted to protect the boys who accidentally shot him is consistent with his personality. Emotionally and intuitively, Vincent's accidental shooting and his protection of the young boys makes perfect sense, and offers a far more reasonable conclusion to an extraordinary life--one that was from beginning to end selflessly devoted to the Gospel theme of loving another in place of oneself. To Vincent Van Gogh, it was about cherishing daily life in pursuit of eternal salvation, though his path to redemption was uneven and even at times tortured. And perhaps--as Naifeh and Smith have suggested in their book--this act of compassion in shielding those young boys from blame, and in preventing his brother Theo from further undue stress, may well have been a coup de grâce...a final effort to propel himself into the eternal life to which he had long aspired.

In my view, Van Gogh: The Life is a book any serious Van Gogh fan should own for the impressive amount of information that Naifeh and Smith present. For instance, the authors offer the reader a portrait of conventional Dutch social life in the nineteenth century and the complex and conflicted role Vincent played within that era. Other notable features of the book include an astute discussion of the importance of music in Van Gogh's aesthetic formation. Passages of the book are simply beautiful and noteworthy. A systematic framework for more study of his fascinating life has been provided by the almost interrogatory nature of this compilation--not surprising given the background of the authors.

Nonetheless, I recall an admonition that Van Gogh made about information gathering and the artist. Vincent said that it was the task of the artist to emphasize the obvious and eliminate the extraneous. Van Gogh: The Life underplays what is in my estimation crucial in grasping Van Gogh, namely his sacred view of life. This universal view shaped his thought process and as an artist guided his choices of subject matter. Van Gogh loved the uplifting message of forgiveness embodied in the Gospel message of Christ. This appears poignantly in his many overtly religious works which Van Gogh painted in the last months of his life such as: "The Good Samaritan", "The Raising of Lazarus", "The Pieta" and "The Starry Night" of 1889. This was a time in which Vincent said he had a "terrible need for religion."

According to Naifeh and Smith, the light of his faith had been extinguished at the time of this father's death in 1885; Van Gogh's quest for the sacred had effectively ceased. Yet the evidence of Van Gogh's own letters in the ensuing years cannot be dismissed. Treating the sacred dimension of Van Gogh as fundamentally pathological rather than as a universalizing world view strips his art and life of its transcendent meaning and message. My conviction about the role of the sacred in fully understanding Van Gogh is widely shared by other 21st century Van Gogh scholars who are part of a reappraisal of religious themes in art. Notable museum exhibitions have also stressed this concept by displaying the overtly religious works of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Delacroix and many other renowned figures in the canon of a Western art. The sacred embrace that emerges from Van Gogh's art, letters and life outshines his illness, and provides all humanity with eternal hope.
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Showing 1-10 of 44 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 26, 2011 11:21:02 AM PDT
reader says:
This is a very helpful and insightful review--and I appreciate the writer's understanding of Van Gogh's religious life.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 26, 2011 8:04:26 PM PDT
C. D. Elder says:
Interesting debate about the role of religion in the life and art of van Gogh. I think the reviewer's obvious prior commitment to Christian doctrine ("conviction") causes him to filter information, looking for something "transcendent" to verify his belief. If a non-believer were to come to this conclusion against his own need for belief reinforcement, or to present his case neutrally, that would be more convincing.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 26, 2011 8:32:22 PM PDT
Van Gogh scholarship is a vast realm as anyone who has researched it will soon discover. Over the past twenty years numerous books have been written about the important role that religious thought played in 19th century art and literature more generally. Russian literature, French painting from Delacroix to Gauguin and onward. . .all provide cogent proof that fully understanding the motives of these artists requires an understanding of their worldviews. Unfortunately in our time religious experience has been demonized and radicalized because of extremist actions. But a full understanding of Van Gogh means to grasp him in his time and place as a worldview. Numerous authors Christian or otherwise have realized this and given full expression to the transcendent themes so often present in that century.The novel Les Miserables for instance is filled with transcendence and Victor Hugo was far from a rigid frozen fundamentalist his populist appeal was far-reaching and typical of the personal tone religious experience took at the time of Van Gogh. Warm Regards-- William Havlicek PhD

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 26, 2011 8:34:52 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Oct 26, 2011 9:00:34 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 26, 2011 9:18:01 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 26, 2011 9:32:03 PM PDT
Yes, much has been discovered over the past two decades within Van Gogh scholarship concerning the wide-spread belief in God in the 19th century and the degree to which even non-church attending artists were influenced by their childhood exposure to conventional religious views. One of the most important of recent books was authored by Debra Silverman and concerns the quest for sacred experience and transcendent themes in art by many artists of that era. Van Gogh, Millet, Rodin, Delacroix, Gauguin, Bernard, Ruskin and in fact the Neo Gothic Revival which impacted architecture in England and abroad were part of that religious atmosphere. All of this reflects the worldview that was common to the era and given universal expression in books such as "Les Miserables" and other books which made personal piety a household experience. Van Gogh would well have understood the currents of our era which swing from an embrace to a denial of the sacred. But in the end we must allow his convictions and underlying beliefs to shape our view of him. That is good scholarship and one cannot remain neutral where the truth backed by the artists own letters and testimonials.

Posted on Oct 27, 2011 10:34:39 AM PDT
I'd like your opinion on Chapter 1 which focuses primarily on Vincent's mother. Reading it I feel the authors are conspicuously zealous in their characterization of her "manic orderliness and fearful conformity". Throughout the chapter they apply no other human feeling to her other than duty...can they possibly know everything that was in her heart? And do they really think an intelligent reader needs to be reminded at every turn of their interpretation of her actions? Please let me know your thoughts.

Thank you,

Helen Gillis

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 27, 2011 1:52:35 PM PDT
Helen when one is rendering an opinion of a mother's motives I believe that actions speak louder than an author's words. What we know from our research is that Anna often came to
Vincent and offered consoling and comforting advice and admonition to him especially during the trying time of his obsessive attempt to court his cousin Kees. Years later Vincent himself said that had be heeded his mother's counsel he would have saved himself and the extended family a great deal of pain. Yes I agree with you . . . good historical reconstruction needs to be done with a very conscious desire to avoid extremes and the suggestion that we know the inner thoughts and motives of another person. My own view is positive of Anna given the intense and complicated son she had to deal with in Vincent. I also feel positive about his father as well for similar reasons based on recorded actions he took on his son's behalf. . . for instance going to the Borinage and getting Vincent home for care and encouragement. Warm Regards to you.

Posted on Nov 7, 2011 3:51:53 PM PST
Dr. Havlicek: This is indeed a helpful review, but it would be even more helpful if you could provide some specific examples to support the claims that your views are shared by other scholars and have been noted in exhibitions, etc. I get some sense that your interpretation, while provocative (and, for all I know, entirely accurate), may not be within the current mainstream of academic opinion on Van Gogh. Maybe that's hard to do within a short Amazon review, but I'd be interested nevertheless. In any event, thank you for taking the time to compose and post it.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 7, 2011 4:46:02 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 9, 2011 11:58:25 AM PST
Dear Aggressive Arms,

I am glad to supply you with several notable examples of scholarly treatments of Van Gogh's spirituality:
K. Erickson wrote "At Eternity's Gate" in 1998; D. Silverman wrote "Pilgrim's Progress and Vincent Van Gogh's Metier in Van Gogh in England" in 1992 and then she authored a second very important study of the religious nature of the thought and art of both Van Gogh and Gauguin in a book entitled: "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art" 2000. I would also highly recommend the standard commentary on the importance of the Gospel and Bible in Van Gogh's thinking which you will find in M. Roskill's edited "Letters of Van Gogh" 1991. There are many other examples of this which you can access if you obtain my book. Warm Regards to you.

Posted on Nov 8, 2011 8:35:17 PM PST
I think your review raises two questions. A narrower one is the importance of traditional Christian beliefs in Van Gogh's world view. I don't have much to say about that. But a broader one is to what extent we can interpret Van Gogh's unconventional life as one in which he acted the way he did because he had clear ideals which he followed - the sacredness of creation, solidarity with humble people, transcendence through art. Naifeh and Smith's book (I've only just gotten up to Paris so far) suggests an alternative view in which Vincent gave many noble-sounding justifications for his actions but really they stemmed from his personal idiosyncrasies and perhaps mental illness. The authors show many instances where Vincent gave long justifications for his actions but then reversed his arguments soon afterward, or showed contempt for the opinions of the very peasants he was trying to preach to (or later to draw), or came to his now-revered artistic works rather haphazardly. His family and friends all saw him as a strange, limited guy who couldn't take care of himself or get along with people. In hindsight we want to interpret him as a misunderstood genius, but the impression Naifeh and Smith give is that Vincent's contemporaries were right about him! I wonder if you, as a Van Gogh scholar, also got this impression from Naifeh and Smith's book and if you agree with it.
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