Anybody else out there a huge Van Gogh fan? I’ve been fascinated . . . okay, obsessed with his art, his life, his history, since I was a little girl. I’ve read a number of books, watched a number of movies about his life. Was he insane? Or just a frustrated artist who sadly failed to attain fame until after his death?
Let’s talk about his death. Suicide? I’ve always questioned that. A number of other historical scholars share my opinion that Vincent was murdered. There are also some theories that it was not Vincent who cut off his own earlobe, but that it was severed during a sword fight with his contemporary and idol, Paul Gauguin after a heated argument.
These theories are those I explore in my upcoming novel, PIGMENTS, a story where my heroine, Rachel Parrish, travels back in time to access Vincent’s memories through his DNA.
“Dear Theo” is, in essence, an autobiography of the artist, the man, the enigma: Vincent Van Gogh. The work chronicles over 1000 pages of letters Vincent wrote to his younger brother over his short lifetime. Theo Van Gogh, who owned a gallery and tried valiantly to champion his brother’s work, literally supported Vincent throughout his career.
The original publication of Vincent’s letters, all of which Theo’s widow kept, allows the artist to tell his own story. The original text is Bible-thick and very expensive. Although I managed to borrow the hardcover edition through Tufts University’s library system (I work there), I found it almost as difficult to get through as the Bible itself.
In 1937, the scholar Irving Stone, with the help of his wife, went through the 1000+ pages of Vincent’s letters. He combed out the insignificant details of ordinary life, translated the original Dutch to English, and produced a book he felt would be, a. short enough to be palatable to a general audience, and b. producible at a price that would sell. I am now listening to the audiobook version of this compilation.
Reading about Van Gogh’s life and hearing his own words describing it are two, very different mediums. I’m only about 1/3 of the way through. But I have to tell you, my feelings for Vincent are tarnishing, as silver does when left to open air. In his younger years (early 20s), Vincent yearned to follow in his father’s footsteps: that of a Protestant minister. But his faith proved too weak to sustain the course. He turned to art—first drawing, then watercolors, to express his views on life and its hardships. It was not until later that he took up oil painting.
Vincent had a soft spot for the working class. The coal miners. The weavers, the seamstresses, and the prostitutes. Those who worked hard in horrific conditions to make just barely enough to survive. This is not surprising. He became one of them.
But he was determined to be an artist, a vocation he defines as “seeking truth yet never to arrive.” It seems his heart was in the right place. Still, I have to question his sense of responsibility. In letter after letter to his younger, more successful brother Theo, the main thing he does—repeatedly—is to defend his own views on life, and to ask for more money.
In listening to Vincent’s own words in describing his mentors—those who, one by one, abandoned him—I cannot deny: he sounds like either a sociopath, or one who suffers from bipolar disorder. In one breath he states he “cannot blame” his mentors for turning their backs on him. In the next, he condemns them for their blindness to his worth.
Does this sound like a man who could have self-mutilated? Committed suicide? Absolutely not. At least so far, in the letters from Van Gogh’s own hand, I see a picture of a man with a very high opinion of himself whose pride, if nothing else, would keep him from doing himself harm. From taking his own life.
My love affair with the Van Gogh legend started when I was just a kid. I was at the tender, impressionable age of fourteen when Don McLean’s rendition of “Starry, Starry Night” came out. We all loved Vincent. He was the starving artist, one to be pitied. He “suffered for his sanity.”
I have to admit—a third of the way through the audiobook of “Dear Theo,” I’m losing patience, as well as pity, for Vincent. I hope this impression changes.
I’ll keep you posted . . .
Claire Gem writes award-winning supernatural suspense. You can find out more at http://www.clairegem.com.