Why Diane's guest Ben Wittes says no.
The great 19th-century painter Vincent van Gogh is known for sunflowers and cypress trees, self-portraits and starry nights. He was also known for his tormented soul. He suffered from mental illness. He never sold a painting during his life. And his death at age 37 is long thought to have been suicide. Now, in the first major biography of the Dutch artist in years, one of the authors offers compelling evidence the gunshot wound that killed van Gogh was not self-inflicted. A discussion of the mystery of van Gogh’s death and the magic of his art.
- Steven Naifeh Co-author of "Van Gogh: The Life" and "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga," which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography; he has a master's in art history from Harvard University.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Today, the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh hang in world class museums. They fetch millions at auction. But during his short and tormented life, he never sold a painting. The authors of a nearly thousand-page biography offer new perspectives on his life, his work, and his death, which they believe was not a suicide. The book is titled "Van Gogh: The Life." Steven Naifeh who is co-author with Gregory White Smith joins me in the studio, and throughout the hour you can join us.
MS. DIANE REHM800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook and Twitter and do today, I urge you, visit our website, drshow.org to see a gorgeous slideshow of a number of Van Gogh paintings on the main page of the website for today's hour on Van Gogh. You'll see the painting "Wheatfield with Crows," painted in 1890, and that's the slideshow. Do join us. Good morning to you, it's so good to see you.
MR. STEVEN NAIFEHGood morning. Thank you so much for having me here.
REHMYou know, an awful lot of people have been talking and writing about the issues you raise regarding the question of Van Gogh's suicide, and I do want to get to that, but first, I want to talk to you about his life, especially his mother and his relationship with his mother, which I found stunning.
NAIFEHWell, see, it's hard to imagine -- there's such a prejudice against the notion that a mother could not like her child. It is hard for us to accept, but one of the things we tried to do in the book was to show what her past had been like, what her family history had been, why she would not have -- would have been capable of disliking her own child, and it's actually quite understandable.
NAIFEHHolland had been such a tumultuous country both politically, there was so much warfare, the constant threat of flooding and death and the country had reached a point of sort of calm, and it had become a very conservative, very -- it was normality being normal, being of your class, doing the right thing, wearing the right clothes, thinking the right thoughts. These were terribly important to them, and they really believed these were crucial to a happy life.
NAIFEHSo when she had this child who was difficult from the very beginning, he was unruly, he was -- he refused to dress properly, he didn't want to go out, and he wanted to play with the kids in the street rather than go to the proper families. He was a very difficult child, and he was followed by a series of very well-behaved children. His younger brother, Theo, who was so important to his life was the ideal child. His father -- there's this wonderful note that if Theo heard birds singing, he would whistle along with them.
NAIFEHIf his mother was working in the kitchen, he would run in to help her. So she had this one child who was shaming the family constantly, and this other child who was just the pride and joy, and it's not un-understandable that she would favor one over the other.
REHMBut it's fascinating that Vincent and Theo became so close.
NAIFEHWell, and I think the dominant relationship in his life by far is this relationship with Theo, and it's very complicated.
REHMHe was four years younger.
NAIFEHHe was four years younger, and because Vincent was so brilliant, and because he could enact a kind of reparative relationship with his younger brother by being a good parent to him that he didn't see himself getting from his own parents, Theo as a young boy just worshipped Vincent. He loved him profoundly. The word he used himself late in life was that he had an adoration for Vincent, but as they grew up, and Theo got a little bit older, and Vincent no longer had complete control over him, the relationship gets very difficult, and then Theo takes over Vincent's place in the family.
NAIFEHVincent's the oldest child. He's the one with the name -- the favored family name, Vincent. He's intended to take over his childless uncle's huge art empire, and all of that fails because of his personal problems, and Theo becomes the son to the uncle. He's the one who takes over the art empire. He's the one everyone in the family loves. So -- and then Vincent becomes completely emotionally and financially dependent on this youngest brother, so how could he possibly not have a conflicted relationship with him?
REHMSteven Naifeh, he's co-author of "Van Gogh: The Life." He has and his co-author won the Pulitzer Prize for "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga." He has a master's in art history from Harvard University. Do join us, 800-433-8850. One tiny fact that we left out, at the beginning of his life, Vincent Van Gogh replaced a Vincent...
REHM...who had died in birth.
NAIFEHIn fact, Vincent Van Gogh, the famous painter, was born a year to the day after another boy had -- was born and died. And so there was a Vincent Van Gogh in the church graveyard where his father preached, and, you know, there is certainly an interesting thing to speculate on, was the mother in same way angry at the second son for surviving when the first son didn't? Despite the furor over our ideas about the suicide, we try not to speculate, and since we have no evidence, they never talk about it. There's no mention of the first son in any of the family letters.
NAIFEHSo there is -- and also, children, you know, child mortality was rife in Holland. Every family lost children, so it isn't to say that it wasn’t a source of enormous grief, but it was a very common experience. We don't...
REHMAnd to name the living -- the child that did live...
NAIFEHThe same name.
REHM...the same name.
NAIFEHWell, that was because of the way -- Dutch life was very, very, very regulated, and the naming of a child followed a pattern. And because his paternal grandfather was Vincent, it was inevitable that the first child would be called Vincent, and when that first child died, since the next child was a boy, they immediately gave him the same name.
REHMWhen you think about Vincent Van Gogh's early life, do we know how early the epilepsy began to present itself?
NAIFEHWe don't know for sure. We don't know the first psychotic attack until he went to Drenta when he was in his 20s. But because of the incredible unruliness of his behavior as a child, which was very well documented by the family members, even by their servants, it is well know that he was extraordinarily very eccentrically difficult as a child. And because temporal lobe epilepsy, the form of epilepsy he had, is often congenital, again, this takes us into the realm of speculation, but it seems quite likely that he had it from birth.
REHMYou had access to a huge trough of letters that really gave you quite an insight.
NAIFEHWell, first of all, there's Van Gogh's own letters which are voluminous and brilliant, but also very complicated. Because they're mostly written to Theo, and because he had this conflicted relationship with Theo, Greg, my co-author, spend a year and a half reading those thousand letters, spending 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for a year and a half, and he read them like a Talmudic scholar. He read them like reading the Bible.
NAIFEHHe deconstructed those letters in order to try to understand where is Vincent being honest when he's trying to manipulate Theo, how was he manipulating Theo. Because he never expected that anyone other than Theo would ever read these letters, unlike a great historical figure. I'm reading the biography of Theodore Roosevelt right now, and of course he -- his wife said burn this letter after every one of her letters.
NAIFEHThey controlled their correspondence. Vincent had no idea the world would read his letters, so you can get inside his head in a way that's almost unique for a major historical figure. And then on top of that, Theo, God bless him, not only kept virtually all of his brother's letters, but he kept all the family letters, and that's what very few other scholars have had an opportunity to work from, and those family letters show how Vincent was viewed by everybody else in the family.
REHMCertainly his mother called his art ridiculous.
NAIFEHRidiculous. Yeah. That was, you know, one of the amazing things, when we writing about Jackson Pollock, it was so exciting because you could meet hundreds of people who knew him and who could tell you stories that had never been in print anywhere before. When you're dealing with somebody who died 120 years ago, you know, there are no people to go to get new information, but...
REHMThere are letters.
NAIFEH...but there are letters and there are even articles and interviews that were done and nobody ever looked at, and there was an interview with his sister, Lies, done in the teens, in which she said that her mother, right up to the end, considered his art ridiculous, which sounds outrageous to us, and certainly as a mother one would -- it's hard to handle the idea that a mother would feel that way about son's art, but because he is so much a part of our visual DNA, we all know his work so well, we know "Starry Night," we know the sunflowers, they look like part of our daily lives. It is hard to remember just how shocking those brilliant colors were in 1890.
REHMAnd the fact that when he was in hospital...
REHMShe just went right past and never went to see him.
NAIFEHShe never visited him in the hospital. He was in the insane asylum, both in Arles and Saint Remy, and she never once visited.
REHMSteve Naifeh, he is co-author along with Gregory White Smith of a new book, "Van Gogh: The Life."
REHMWelcome back. My guest this morning is Steven Naifeh. He's co-author with Gregory White Smith of a new book. It's a biography of Vincent Van Gogh. It's titled "Van Gogh: The Life." In it which -- it's a book that's nearly 1,000 pages. There are notes, there are -- you said it took nearly ten years to write this book.
REHMAnd you've got thousands of notes up on the web.
NAIFEHYes. We had to make a decision early on that because we were -- we wanted this to reach a large audience, we wanted people to read it almost like a novel, we couldn't devote half the book to footnotes. And we knew that there would be a lot of them. There are 6,000 pages of footnotes.
NAIFEHSo we had to put them online. And we were very gratified by the Boston Globe which said that we propelled the publishing world into the internet age by doing that for the -- ostensibly for the first time.
REHMTalk about his art and why it was so controversial.
NAIFEHWell, you know, people ask -- well, one of the reasons that people have been afraid to talk about his insanity is people in the art world do not want people to think that somehow, like the way his mother did, that the art is insane because he was insane. But we would argue that everything that everybody does is a product in some way of who they are.
NAIFEHAnd that seems so self evident that it's hard to imagine that people would disagree with it but they do. We would argue that his insanity and the form it took alienated him. He had no friends in his life. He was -- he lived -- there were months -- and this is so sad -- there were months when the only person he interacted with was the waitress he ordered his dinner from at the café each day. And that alienation, in a sense, forced him to create his art in -- separate from a body of other artists. He learned from many, many different artists but he was not a part of any group. And therefore he created this by himself.
NAIFEHI mean, so much art comes after him that is influenced by him, and we know his art so well that it seems to us as if it is a key part of this sort of ongoing narrative of the history of Western art. But at the time it was so brightly colored, the forms were so simple and so seemingly inconsequential, you know, a chair, a shoe, people simply until the very end of his life when they began to see it. Monet in the last six months of Vincent's life saw them in an exhibition in Brussels and said, this young man is doing something very, very interesting. So people just at the very end began to see what we now today see but not until the very end of his life.
REHMWhen you look at his work with this slathered on heavy layers of paint, so unlike the impressionists...
REHM...with their delicacy, with their beauty, he seemed to put his anger, his fear, his hostility...
NAIFEHAnd also just his energy, his intensity...
NAIFEH...into this. And, in fact, his brother who was one -- who was a very important art dealer, he was one of the first art dealers to show the impressionists. He had a major exhibition for Monet early on, one for Rodin early on. And his brother who was a salesman, he was an art dealer, he was constantly urging him, don't put so much paint on the canvas.
NAIFEHDon't paint so brightly. Paint nice. He said people like paintings they like. They want paintings that are comfortable and pleasant and -- but Vincent simply couldn't do that. He had to be Vincent.
REHMSteve, let's talk about some of the models he used.
REHMHe couldn't afford to pay for the usual models so he turned to women who were desperately in need of money.
NAIFEHAnd also some men. For instance, he went to the old men's home in the Hague and he would pay these -- they were called orphan men, these sort of old people who had nothing else to do and therefore would take very, very little money. But he also paid -- oh, this is one -- the life is so sad that the great glory of the story is that he extracted these glorious jubilant images that have given the whole world comfort from a life that was itself so sad.
NAIFEHThe reason he liked painting people, even though he had no real technical skills in depicting the human form and especially the human face, was that it was -- his only way to connect with people was to hire a model. And he often hired not only prostitutes but the cheapest of the prostitutes. And one aspect of this incredibly sad life is the only relationship that was of any significance was with a prostitute scene who was the saddest of the street whores, to use her word, of the Hague. And he went to the hospital when she had her child. When the boy was born he lovingly found a crib for him.
REHMWas it his child?
NAIFEHIt -- we -- it is -- we checked the timeline. It is, in fact, conceivable, but highly unlikely.
NAIFEHShe was seeing so many people a day...
NAIFEH...that the idea that it was his seems pretty -- but he treated it as if it were his. And there are some tender passages in his letters when he talks about his relationship with that child that are so endearing. And then to find out that this sort of artificial family he created with her as his artificial wife and her children, especially this boy, as their artificial son, he paid them by the day. He paid them literally a wage, her prostitute wage to stay with him. It just...
REHMAnd then when he wanted to marry her, the family went nuts.
NAIFEH...went nuts. I mean, the mother -- I mean, there are so many sentences that to our late -- you know, early 21st Century years sound unacceptable. She uses the phrase of our class with regularity. So it was extremely...
NAIFEHHis mother did.
NAIFEHShe -- I mean, it was very important to her that if they consorted with anybody that they consort with people higher up on the social ladder, not lower down. Because there was -- you were constantly trying to raise yourself in the class structure of Holland. For their son, who was a middle class boy to -- and whose uncle was extremely wealthy and whose family was -- had some sort of status within the church and within the art circles, to marry the lowest of street prostitutes would've been -- for example, it would've made his sisters un-marriable .
NAIFEHIt would've had huge, terrible implications, not just for their status as a family but for the fortunes of the other people in -- the other children.
REHMLet's talk about those sisters for a moment. How did their lives turn out?
NAIFEHWell, the whole family is -- I don't wanna give away what happened to Theo, but it's very sad. There's a kind of coda to this story that will shock a lot of people who don't know what happens to Theo. But the youngest brother, unlike what we think about Vincent, did kill himself during the Boer War. He went and fought in the Boer War in South Africa and died there at a young age.
NAIFEHThe oldest sister had a perfectly conventional middle class life. She was very much like her mother. The middle child -- or the middle sister Leis (sp?) fell in love with her employer. She went to work as sort of like a maid in the family, had a child by him, had to give the child up for adoption and she ended up marrying him. But she never got over the fact that she'd given up her child.
NAIFEHAnd the last sister, who was in some ways the closest to Vincent, went -- had schizophrenia. And she went into an insane asylum when she was 42 and died almost 42 years later...
NAIFEH...only a few years before I was born. That's how close we are to all this. And the last 42 years of her life she never said a word. And she tried to take her own life several times. And it's -- the family was full of very severe mental problems.
REHMAnd we should say that Vincent Van Gogh's mother outlived him by 17 years.
REHMNow, I have been pronouncing it Van Gogh. Have you always pronounced it...
NAIFEHYes. The American pronunciation is Van Gogh. And it would be a little bit like calling Paris by its French pronunciation. As an American it would be sort of uncomfortable to do so. And the Dutch are very accepting of the fact that we mispronounce his name. The Dutch pronunciation is so complicated as one of Vincent's non-Dutch friends said, it sounded like a lot of spitting and coughing. It was basically something on the order Van (sounds like) Huh.
NAIFEHAnd both -- and it's -- and in northern Holland it's sort of a Hard G, Vincent Van (sounds like) Gugh. Whereas in the south where he was born, it's a softer G, Vincent Van Huh. So we give up on all of that and we're sticking with Van Gogh.
REHMPerfect. And indeed sticking with Van Gogh throughout this hour, I hope you'll take a look at our website, beautifully created for us by Ann Stopper, a slide show of Vincent Van Gogh's work. In the meantime, you can join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Here's a Tweet. "Have you seen the movie 'Vincent and Theo'? If so, what was your impression of the movie?"
NAIFEHI have seen it. I'm a huge Altman fan and I think "Gosford Park," which I've seen four or five times, is one of the great all-time films. I think "Vincent and Theo" is not a particularly successful film. There really hasn't been a successful film, in our opinion, since "Lust for Life," which was by no means an accurate record of Vincent Van Gogh. To see the Hale and Hardy movie star Kirk Douglas play Van Gogh is a bit odd. But something just happened this week which is really quite touching, and that is that Kirk Douglas, someone on his behalf asked for a signed copy of the book.
REHMOh, I love it.
NAIFEHIsn't that -- I was so charmed that...
NAIFEH...that Kirk Douglas, who sort of helped make Vincent as the universal beloved icon that he is wanted to -- wanted a signed copy of our book was really -- really touched Greg and me a great deal.
REHMHe has been on this program twice, once before his stroke and one since his stroke. He's a lovely, lovely man. Let's now get to this question about whether Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide. Joe sends an email saying, "Didn't Vincent Van Gogh write a suicide note?"
NAIFEHNo, he didn't. In fact, not only did he not write a suicide note, he didn't clean up the room. So if he had thought that he was going to kill himself he would've removed from the room things he didn't want Theo to see. And he did nothing of the kind. Now what he did do is he wrote a rather unhappy letter but his life is full of unhappy letters several days before his death. But he never sent that letter. He rewrote it and it was -- the last letter he sent Theo was really quite a happy letter. It had sent in an order for a lot of paint indicating that he had a whole lot of paintings in mind. And that was the last letter that went to Van Gogh...
REHMAnd you're listening...
NAIFEH...I mean, to Theo.
REHM...to "The Diane Rehm Show." So how did the whole idea of suicide get changed in your mind?
NAIFEHWell, many scholars of Van Gogh have been uncomfortable with the suicide story. There's so many elements of it that are -- that just don't make sense. The idea that he would go out to paint in an afternoon and then at the end of a painting session pick up a gun and shoot himself just doesn't sound right.
REHMHe didn't own a gun.
NAIFEHAnd he didn't own a gun and nobody knew where he would've gotten a gun. And who -- he had just come out of an insane asylum -- who would've given him a gun. And where did the -- where was the gun? No -- they went to the site where he supposedly had done this. They couldn't find the gun. They never -- for another 50 years they never found out where the gun had come from. Also where he supposedly shot himself was over a mile from the inn and it was up a very sharp...
REHMThe inn where he was staying.
NAIFEH...where he was staying, and the escarpment was quite steep. He was shot in the lower abdomen. Less than two percent of the people who shoot themselves to kill themselves shoot themselves there for a very good reason. It's a long lingering painful death. And it was -- and the medical description from the doctors who observed him said that he -- that the gun was held from too far out and from a very unusual angle, so much so that a scholar at the Van Gogh Museum in -- about five years ago proposed that he couldn't have shot himself. But he just couldn't imagine who else could've shot Van Gogh.
REHMSo you come up with another theory.
NAIFEHWell, you know, people wonder after 120 years how do we do this. And the reason is no one else attempted the big biography. This was -- to us, more astonishing than finding this information about the death, is that this hugely important perhaps most beloved artist of all time with this mass of letters had never prompted the big ambitious book. That's really to us -- it was hugely beneficial to us to have this fabulous subject that no one had ever attempted the big book on.
NAIFEHBut that meant that nobody had ever gone through all the evidence. Nobody -- if you're a scholar of art history you don't read all of the minor books that virtually nobody ever reads.
REHMWhich is why you do not call yourself an art historian.
NAIFEHNo. And, in fact, this story of the death isn't a matter of art history. It's a matter of biography and a matter of forensic evidence. Our being lawyers is probably more important to this than having studied art history.
REHMSo what was the first clue?
NAIFEHWell, the first clue was the medical evidence of the bizarre angle. Then the second clue was the -- was this unbelievable interview, that I think very few people read, with a man named Rene Secretan (sp?) who was a very wealthy banker and businessman, the year before he died, in which he first of all says it was his gun. And then he gives this unbelievably self incriminating interview. You know, most people when they finally talk about having known a famous person they say, oh he was great and we had a great friendship and he gave me a painting, and on and on.
NAIFEHInstead, he talks at length about how he and his brother used to torment poor Vincent. They put salt in his coffee. They put a snake in his paint box and he almost blacked out. They brought their girlfriends from Paris and sort of fondled them in front of him to -- 'cause they knew he was...
NAIFEH...alone -- thank you -- alone. And it was terribly embarrassing. So it's an incredibly, very unusually self incriminating, almost confess-ory interview. And he admits that he had this malfunctioning gun that he had borrowed from the innkeeper -- the inn where Vincent died. And then it finally -- the only place in the interview where it becomes inconsistent is when he -- is where he talks about where he was when the death took place, and claims that the gun was with him until the last day. But then also claims that Vincent had stolen it from him. So the story breaks down at the very moment where his incrimination comes in.
REHMSteven Naifeh, co-author of "Van Gogh: The Life." When we come back we'll open the phones. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the life and death of Vincent van Gogh with Steven Naifeh. He and co-author Gregory White Smith spent 10 years on this magnificent biography. I hope you'll join us 800-433-8850. Let's go to Inverness, Fla. Good morning Pete, you're on the air.
PETEGood morning, this is truly a pleasure, thank you. If Vincent were alive in our modern society, he almost certainly would have received some therapy and probably some pretty powerful medications. Do you think that his art would've been lost in that case?
NAIFEHYou know something, that is, I think, the best question -- I've actually heard it twice now in -- but that's the best question I've heard. Because it's really sort of -- it presents the moral quandary. You're absolutely right.
REHMTo treat or don't you treat.
NAIFEHTo treat. But you're absolutely right. There are medications for temporal lobe epilepsy. We've received a number of letters from people who suffer from it. It's a terrible disease and there's no question he would've been treated for it. And it -- and I think you're right. He would've been a different person. The art, in some ways, would've been different and he might not of been the Vincent van Gogh that we know. You know, the world would've lost the Vincent van Gogh we know. He would've been a happier person. You know, that's a terrible moral quandary and it's a...
REHMI should say.
NAIFEH...really good question. If I can jump in on the suicide, the one thing I forgot to mention which is probably the most powerful piece of information was that all the pieces were put together in a memory that was registered by the great art historian John Rewalt who visited Auvers in the 1930s and saw people who knew Vincent or knew -- who were in Auvers when Vincent died. And the talk in the town of Auvers, when Rewalt visited -- this is the greatest artist historian of impressionism and post-impressionism, was that Vincent had been killed accidentally by a couple of boys and that Vincent decided to take the blame because it was a way out of this tormented life.
NAIFEHAnd so here the talk in the town, as recalled or as recorded by this great art historian, fit all the other details that came together. That's why we felt strongly that it would've been irresponsible not to at least present this alternative theory.
REHMAnd you do it in an appendix as opposed to...
REHM...in the stuff of the book. The other factor -- it's just so extraordinary, this wound in the side.
REHMAnd then he walks all the way back to the end.
NAIFEHYeah, how could he have done it. I mean, it was an extremely painful wound. The idea that he could've walked a mile down a deep escarpment with that kind of injury has always perplexed people.
REHMAnd why would he walk if he wanted to...
NAIFEH...why would he not pick up the gun and finish himself off...
NAIFEH...given the amount of pain that he was suffering?
REHMAnd the other question. Didn't he say something, like, "I don't want anyone else to take the blame for this."
NAIFEHNo, what he said was -- and this to us was -- is really interesting. When the police came -- attempted suicide was a crime in France in the 1890s. When the police came in and asked him "Did you shoot yourself", he paused and he said "I believe so." And then they said -- then he paused again and very forcefully said "Don't accuse anybody else of having done this." Forget art history, just think common sense.
NAIFEHIf you've just shot yourself, do you say "I believe so, don't accuse anybody else of doing this"? So we think the evidence -- you know, it's circumstantial, it's definitive, it's why we put it in the appendix and not in the book itself. But we think it would've been irresponsible not to share this evidence with the world.
REHMAnd to Marietta, Ga. Good morning, Diana.
DIANAHello. Yes, I had a question. I first saw van Gogh's portrait -- self portrait's in Paris. And that was the first time I saw them, not as a print but as an actual painting. And I couldn't believe how they just grabbed you. It was like he was looking at you and saying "Pay attention to me, look at my pain." And I wonder what the author thought about the self portraits.
NAIFEHWell, you know, Vincent, like Rembrandt, painted himself repeatedly. Rembrandt, for a whole range of reasons. Vincent because he couldn’t find anybody else to paint off. And, I mean, he painted himself so often, partly, because he couldn't get other people to paint him but fortunately he did because so many of these portraits are so powerful. But what's, I think, one reason why we all love his paintings so much is that, for Vincent, every single painting was a self portrait.
NAIFEHA painting of a chair is a self portrait, a painting of a pair of shoes lying next to each other is a self portrait. The painting of a landscape is filled with his persona. And I think, you know, even though he couldn't make a direct connection with the real people in his life, he has made a direct connection with millions of us who have been to...
REHMThrough his own passion.
NAIFEH...through his own passion. And that is one of the things that I think -- why -- people will ask, why is he so universally beloved? Why is he even better known in Uganda and Cambodia and Uruguay and New York then Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, even the other -- or Rambrandt? The one painter who connects to children as well as adults to people all over the world regardless of race and religion is Vincent van Gogh. And it's because of this incredibly direct connection, the sincerity of those images.
NAIFEHWhether it's a sincere depiction of his own face and his own personality or a depiction of anything that he was painting, you know. There's a wonderful phrase from him -- and he wrote beautifully. If he had not been a great artist, he could've been a great writer. He, you know -- his paintings are heart breaking because they were heartbroken.
REHMInteresting. To Ayer, Mass. Good morning, Michael.
MICHAELGood morning. It's interesting that we might so often fail to draw parallels between, say, the life of Van Gogh and issues we face today. He could've been a great person in any number of fields because, in my opinion, he understood mastery. It takes years and vast determination, dedication and self discipline and I was hoping your guest might speak to this a bit.
MICHAELAnd I love the...
MICHAEL...I love the quote "To master one art is to understand a little bit of them all."
NAIFEHWell, I think one of the -- we've been really very happy with the reviews, you know. When you write a book and never know what people are going to say about it.
NAIFEHAnd I think a point that was made by one of the reviewers that I thought was particularly nice about Vincent was -- is the sense of human nobility that comes from somebody who was so ill-suited to his chosen profession. When he -- you know, he could've really draw in the conventional academic sense.
REHMAnd yet if you look at this pencil drawings, early in his life, they're gorgeous.
NAIFEHWell, they are within about five years. But if you look at the very earliest ones like the ones he did in the (word?), they were almost like stick figures. He just forced himself day after day, drawing after drawing. He forced himself to become the great artist that we all know. And I think that this -- I think that speaks to the gentlemen's comment about how mastery doesn't always come easily. That it often comes from enormous heroic effort and it certainly did in the case of Vincent van Gogh.
REHMLet's go to Alexandria, Va. Good morning, Barry.
BARRYGood morning, thank you for taking my call.
BARRYI noticed that person after person mentions how direct the experience of looking at these works are to them and how the author is speaking about how unique in the history of, really, of creating modern art the work was. And I myself am an art therapist and we have a concept that we take from psychology called isomorphism. And what it means is that the external expression in making the art is a structurally the same as the internal experience of the art maker.
BARRYAnd I would like to pause at that the reason that Van Gogh has become such an icon for everybody aesthetically and psychologically is that because of his isolation and who he was, he was really forced to make his art from the deepest recesses of his own self, of his own psyche and he broke the mold, so to speak, creating that freedom for all modern artists to draw from themselves and not have to be stuck within the constraints of the economy.
NAIFEHI think that's -- it's beautifully stated.
NAIFEHAnd I'll give you an example. You look at Gauguin, for example, who's a great, great artist and who painted really, really beautiful paintings. But if you -- the show, if you saw it in Chicago or in Amsterdam, where you had the paintings they painted and when they were living together in Arles, as glorious as Gauguin is and he's about as good as it gets, the Van Gogh's are stronger. And I think it's for the reason the gentleman just spoke about and that was Gauguin was constructing those paintings intellectually.
NAIFEHI mean, he looked very closely at Cézanne, he looked closely as Pissarro and he looked closely at the impressionists and he imagined the kind of art he wanted to create and he did it beautifully and he did, he made magnificent images but they don't -- they are not an external representation of his internal construct to use your audience members wording -- words for Van Gogh. It all comes from the inside. It's all a deep expression of his own self.
REHMWhat about that relationship between Gauguin and Van Gogh?
NAIFEHWell, one of the things, we would say that this -- people talk about the influence that Gauguin had on Vincent. We would argue that in some ways the inference was the other way. Because what Gauguin -- Van Gogh was so lonely and he was so desperate for Gauguin to be there that, I mean, he just -- he wanted this housemate and the only reason that Gauguin went, again, was money. Theo, basically bribed him to move to the South and he could handle it for two months and finally left the day of the ear incident.
REHMHe bribed Gauguin?
NAIFEHHe bribed Gauguin, he paid -- he -- just as he was supporting Vincent, he offered to support Gauguin but only if he would move down and live with Vincent. And Gauguin was trying to -- it was sort of a little sibling rivalry here that was very tough on Vincent because at that moment, Gauguin was selling pretty well and Theo was selling his paintings. So all of a sudden, they're living together and Vincent is watching, in a mad, retched state, while his housemates paintings are being sold by his brother.
NAIFEHSo he tries to paint like Gauguin for several paintings. There's a painting of the arena, bull fight in the arena. There's a painting of a big celebration in the folly Les Arenes where he tries to paint from the head which is how Gauguin described constructing imagines intellectually. And they are failures as paintings whereas we think Gauguin learned something -- I mean, his art takes a leap forward in terms of intensity of color, in terms of innovation and we think that he learned some of that from Vincent during their two months together.
REHMAnd, of course, some people have wondered how -- if Van Gogh did not sell any of his paintings, how he supported himself and what you're saying is that Theo supported him totally.
NAIFEHYes. And in fact one of the reasons it was a conflicted relationship is that it was painful for Theo to have to do this. I mean, he was -- by the end of his life, he was supporting his mother, the sister we talked about who went into -- who had schizophrenia, he had gotten married, he had a child and he has Vincent. So he was splitting his salary six different ways.
REHMSteven Naifeh, he's the co-author of "Van Gogh: The Life" and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Several museum curators have expressed some doubts about your theory that Vincent van Gogh did not commit suicide. Leo Jansen, a curator of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam says of the biography "It's a great book," but he says, "experts have doubts about the theories." He says, "We cannot yet agree with their conclusions because we do not think there is enough evidence yet."
NAIFEHWell, first of all, let me say that Leo is a very close personal friend, OK. And he actually visited us in South Carolina last week and we're having dinner with him and his lovely wife in Holland in about two weeks. So...
NAIFEH...I know Leo really well. He read the book for us very, very carefully and he was the appointed spokesperson for the Van Gogh museum in their response to this new evidence that we present in the book. And what we would say is the following, a museum is a cultural institution, they have a lot of constituencies. They have to answer to the Dutch nation, they have to answer to their board of directors, they have to answer to the Van Gogh family, they have to answer to 120 years of scholarship at the institution.
NAIFEHWe think it is entirely appropriate that they take a cautious approach to looking at new evidence. You actually stated precisely the official statement that was arrived at by the museum which I think is both a cautious but I think in some ways a slightly supportive one. All they say is that this new information, it's intriguing, we do not yet think it is time to dispense entirely with the possibility that he committed suicide.
REHMAnd finally to Farmington Hills, Mich. Good morning, Jody.
JODYHi Diane, I am so thrilled to speak with you. Thank you for taking my call.
JODYMr. Naifeh, I have an art history major and I currently coordinate an art appreciate program for children in a local elementary school. And as you can imagine, they all love Van Gogh, it's -- he's one of the most popular artists. But I always have a little trouble when I'm talking with the kids about him because they've heard, maybe, things from their parents or I don't know in the media about his difficult life.
JODYAnd I'm really not sure how to approach that subject with them. These are children ages Kindergarten maybe through about the fourth grade. So did you have any recommendations about how to share some of the difficult information with kids in a way that would be appropriate and still help them appreciate the artwork?
NAIFEHWell I hesitate to tell an expert how to do what they do. I'm sure better then I possibly could. I would talk but if I have a suggestion, you know, they sense that he was an unhappy person but he also had this very productive life. And I think if you can share with them the sense that people who may be not entirely happy, for one reason or another, still can have a productive and good life, that is a lesson that even a young child can learn.
REHMAnd finally, talk very briefly about the incident with Van Gogh's ear.
NAIFEHYes, there -- we think -- unlike the suicide where he was coherent mentally and talked to Theo at length while he died and so we know he was not in the middle of a psychotic attack, we are all pretty convinced that the ear incident took place during one of his psychotic attacks when that kind of violence was possible.
REHMSo he did that...
NAIFEHHe definitely cut off his ear.
REHMWell, I want to congratulate you on this book. It really is just stunning.
NAIFEHWell, thank you so much for having me on your show. We've -- I've actually known you for -- you probably don’t remember me, but I remember you extremely well. I've been on your show several times...
NAIFEH...and I'm very grateful.
REHMSteven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, co-authors of "Van Gogh: The Life." Thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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