If the purpose of biography is to leave the reader feeling he knows the subject, Naifeh and Smith have succeeded with Van Gogn: The Life perhaps beyond their intent. Exhaustively researched and documented, Van Gogh presents the life of the painter in a way that asks the question: how many lives is art worth? Long before the end of his life, Van Gogh had repulsed his friends, convinced the inhabitants of everywhere he lived that he was not only mad, but impossible to abide, and caused his own family to reject him. Even his faithful brother Theo had rejected his increasingly selfish and self-centered demands for more money, more intimacy and the abandonment of his own dreams. His fellow artists - including those such as Gauguin who had tried repeatedly to understand and ally with him - rejected his ideas, his influence and his companionship. After abusing his father to the point that may have led to the older Van Gogh's death and compelling his mother to expel him from their home and her life, he gave new definition to the term "needy" by trying to impose himself on virtually every acquaintance who expressed even ambivalence toward him and his work. Long before the end of this lengthy volume, the reader begs to be acquitted of the artist's life.
Naifeh and Smith do so thorough a job of documenting the ugly repulsiveness of Van Gogh's nature that the reader, who has waited more than half the volume before Van Gogh paints his first (unsuccessful) canvas, must question whether all the pain, hurt and desolation dealt by Van Gogh to all who knew him was worth his contributions to art. As one sad example, he tortured his sister-in-law, suffering from classic symptoms of post-partum depression with a collicky newborn, by suggesting that her milk was inadequate and was the cause of her baby's problems because of her unwillingness to relocate with her husband, Theo, to Auvers to live with Van Gogh.
At the same time as the authors continually reassert that Van Gogh's painting style changed art forever, they do nothing to prove it. Ending the volume at the moment of Theo's death only eight months after Van Gogh's, they record virtually nothing of Van Gogh's effects on art after his death. His influence, his acolytes, the schools that took their ideas from him - we learn nothing of any of these. The descriptions of his painting technique leave huge gaps in the record, even as the ultimately repetitive recounting of the effects of his childhood and early years on all of his subsequent life left the reader desperately begging for an editor. Also, it is hard to understand how two authors so steeped in Van Gogh's world could mistranslate relatively simple French phrases.
But these are quibbles. The overall effect of the volume is magisterial, leaving the reader convinced that few facts of Van Gogh's life remain to be uncovered. Even the manner of his death - a mystery for more than a century - is plausibly reexamined in a way that fits the evidence into a nested pattern, even as it fails to totally convince. Written clearly, free of cant, and doing a marvelous job of recreating the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and France during the late 19th century, Van Gogh: The Life begs leisurely exploration.