Born March 30th, 1853 in Zundert, The Netherlands, Vincent Van Gogh took his first breath in the wake of an impossible legacy, lived a tortured life, and died before he had an opportunity to see the world acknowledge his genius. For all of that, his 37 years have proven a gift to humanity and, in acknowledgment of his 165th birthday, I wanted to share his life, work, and words with all of you, with these books about Vincent Van Gogh.
Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White-Smith
Now considered the definitive biography of Van Gogh, written in partnership with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Naifeh and White-Smith had access to materials no previous biographer had the opportunity to study. They have made the larger-than-life Vincent human and accessible without diminishing the historical and artistic presence of Van Gogh one whit.
Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
While I’ve understood the concept of “creative non-fiction” intellectually for some time, I’ll admit I never quite understood how it could be successfully executed until reading Heiligman’s lovely, if tragic, biography of the Van Gogh brothers. Based on the letters between Vincent and Theo, Heiligman creates vignettes carefully grounded in the words of the men themselves while allowing for a certain amount of closely researched narrative. The effect is the literary equivalent to one of the moving photographs from Harry Potter and just as magical. Geared toward young adults, it’s an excellent introduction to the artists and his family while also being thoroughly engaging for adults with foreknowledge of the subject.
Vincent by Barbara Stok
Though presented in graphic novel format, this account of Van Gogh’s time in Provence is frank and intense, covering subjects ranging from the artist’s battles with mental illness to his sometimes painfully obsessive relationships (both romantic and sexual), to his tumultuous interactions with fellow artists such as Paul Gaugin. Simple, gorgeous, and sometimes visually shocking, this is an affecting portrayal of Van Gogh that touched and surprised me, as well as, at one point, bringing me to tears. Proceed carefully if you’re particularly sensitive to color shifts and visual portrayal of mental illness.
Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters by H. Anna Suh
As she did with Da Vinci, Suh has chronologically matched Van Gogh’s paintings with snippets of his letters, allowing insight into what Vincent was thinking and feeling, and what was occurring in his life, as he created his works. The text and art are printed side by side, allowing the reader/viewer to experience them simultaneously, giving her the sensation of standing beside Vincent, or perhaps Theo, listening as the artist or his best beloved family member lectures on the genesis of each work. The book is oversized, which presents more detail in each of the lovely reproductions and a more intense viewing experience.
Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings by Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger
Few artists are as honest about their growing pains as Van Gogh was. He struggled to find his style and palette, craving recognition while, at the same time, expressing openly how much he still had to learn and how hard he worked to create. While some of his self-deprecation was certainly due to depression and anxiety, there is so much more to Vincent than his mental illness, as there is to all creators who wrestle with altered neurochemistry and circumstance, and paging through his work, through his progression, not only gives insight into the man himself, but hope to creators of all sorts.
So, happy birthday, Vincent. Though you’ll never know how much your work has meant to us, we will continue to celebrate it, and you.
[Ed. Note: The post has been fixed to reflect that it’s Van Gogh’s 165th birthday]