Monday, February 1, 2016

A 950-page Journey

My series of reflections on Journey continues…...
(For background, refer to January 3 entry.)

If I were to turn this book over, most of you would immediately recognize the person on the cover. Even though there's not a single word to accompany his self-portrait, you would know. I often leave the book turned upside down on my nightstand, on purpose, because of the severe expression on his face. Angry, suspicious...or sad, perhaps? It's all in the eyes. "Keep your distance," they seem to say.

I purchased my copy over two years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I attended a book talk by the authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Since then it's been waiting on my bookshelf, almost forgotten. One of those books you have to be in the mood to begin, if nothing more than because of its shear size.

At 950 pages, the biography could be a hand weight. Sometimes it takes both hands to leverage it off the nightstand onto my lap, where I read a few pages, then hear it clunk on the floor as I fall asleep. To date, I'm on page 144.

So, why my commitment to follow the subject's journey, to keep rejoining his story night after night? Because I want to know how it all began.

On page 144 (age 23), he has no intention of being an artist. The authors make no mention that the idea has even crossed his mind. The closest he's come to art is working for his rich uncle, the art dealer. Fired from that job, he's tried teaching, preaching, being a missionary in a mining camp -- restless, "suffering great misery," as he said in a letter to his brother. When - and more importantly, why - does he pick up a paintbrush for the first time?

I know how his story ends. Tragically. Yet in only a decade as an active painter, he produced over 900 paintings and 1100 works on paper. Today, his art hangs in the most prestigious museums in the world. In 2015 one of his paintings sold for 66.3 million dollars.

With great fortune, I've stood with my nose inches away from his thick brush stokes.  I've swayed with the movement of his trees and felt the pulsating heat from the glow of his sun, painted as no one before him had painted. I imagine the artist sweating in the near-noon heat, transforming what he sees before him to what flows from his brush. And each time I've wondered about the man, about what led him to the creation before me.

Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun
Hence, I keep reading. And knowing what I know about journeys, I'm fully aware that I'm reading for more than a single event -- that so-called spark of creative genius or moment of inspiration. I'm reading for the story of a life. A journey that didn't begin with a brushstroke, with a man discovering a solitary paintbrush on his path. It's as much about the steps before, and then, the steps after.

After 950 pages, I hope to better understand the face on the cover, how Vincent Van Gogh painted not only what he saw in the mirror, but carried with him - on the inside. Even now, I place it back on my nightstand, right side up.

*Van Gogh, The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith



  1. You might enjoy listening to this audio book:

    Van Gogh kept up a correspondence with his brother wherein he struggles to describe what he sees and what he is trying to accomplish with his brush. You could skip the Introduction and go straight to the Preface, where Cooper Leith, the reader, sounds like what I imagine Van Gogh himself sounded like. Enjoy!

  2. Great idea, Michele! Thanks for the link. I will definitely check it out.


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