Notes Introduction


In the ten years they spent writing Van Gogh: The Life, authors Steve Naifeh and Greg Smith generated thousands of pages of research notes that, for space reasons, could not be included in the printed book.

These notes perform a variety of functions:

  1. to identify precisely the sources for all the quotations and factual material used in the printed book;
  2. to share the authors’ insights and assessments of sources that could not be accommodated in the narrative of the book;
  3. to bring previous Van Gogh biographers and academic scholars into the discussion over controversial issues in the literature;
  4. to alert readers where the book takes a position that differs from the canon of Van Gogh scholarship and to address those variances;
  5. to provide additional information about secondary characters, locales, art-historical movements, particular artists, works of art, etc;
  6. to offer “sidebars” on interesting subjects that are only collateral to Van Gogh’s story but readers may wish to explore further.

Using the Notes

These notes can be used with or without a copy of Van Gogh: The Life. Although they are organized in the traditional form of endnotes, they can be searched or browsed independently.

Each note typically consists of three parts:

  1. the “keywords” (in boldface) – the words in the book to which the note refers;
  2. the “citation” – the designation of the source of the quotation or information. Sometimes (especially when the source is a letter of Van Gogh’s), the citation includes the relevant passage from the letter (see “Citations” below);
  3. the “textual matter” – the authors’ additional commentary on the information or the source. Not every note includes textual matter.

If you are using the notes while reading the book, you can

  1. follow the notes from book-page to book-page in sequence;
  2. look up the notes for specific book pages;
  3. search for specific keywords in the text;
  4. read the notes for an entire chapter all at once.

If you are using the notes without the book, you can

  1. browse through the notes;
  2. search the notes using a keyword search or an advanced search (see "Searching" below).


You can search the notes using the search box. For those looking for the notes to a specific page of the book, enter the page number.

By using the "Advanced Search" function, you can also

  1. search within the notes to a specific chapter;
  2. search within a specific page range of the book;
  3. search for a specific word in the "keywords" (see "Using the Notes");
  4. search for a specific word in the "textual matter" of the notes

Abbreviations and Letter Designations

"BVG" refers to the English-language version of Van Gogh’s letters that his sister-in-law Johanna Bonger-Van Gogh translated and published in 1912.

"JLB" refers to the recent translation of the artist’s letters (into English and French) that was sponsored by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The editors of this tremendous effort were Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker. In 2009, the “JLB” translations were published as Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters. These translations, along with facsimiles of the original letters and copious annotations and illustrations, are available online at

The notes for Van Gogh: The Life also make extensive use of Van Gogh family correspondence, much of which appears in the book (and here) for the first time. Vincent’s brother Theo collected these letters along with Vincent’s and they have been preserved at the Van Gogh Museum. Family letters are identified using the Van Gogh Foundation Archives’ inventory system, which includes a catalogue number (“B”), a year of acquisition (“V”), the names of the sender and recipient, and the date of writing. For example: b3235 V/1984, "Gogh, Elisabeth van" to "Gogh, Theo en [and] Jo van", 2/3/1890.


Citations consist of the name of the author(s) or editor(s) of the source, the title of the source, and the page number on which the relevant information can be found. More extensive biographical information is provided at the beginning of each chapter’s notes or in one of several bibliographies (see “Bibliographies”).

Where material is cited within the textual matter of a note, only the name of the author and the page number are given. Where multiple works by an author/editor are used in the same chapter, the internal citation gives the name of the work as well the author and page number.

Unfortunately, citations to Van Gogh’s letters are particularly complicated. The book was written when only one English-language version of the letters was available, the “BVG” translation discussed in “Abbreviations and Letter Designations.” Therefore almost all the letter passages quoted in the book use the BVG translation. Moving the notes online, however, permitted incorporating the more recent translation by the Van Gogh Museum -- the “JLB” translation – into the notes as well.

These rules will help guide you through these dual citations:

  1. Citations to Van Gogh’s letters begin with a reference to the letter number from the BVG translation that appears in the book.
  2. Where the JLB translation does not vary significantly from the BVG translation, just the JLB number is also given in the note.
  3. Where the JLB translation does vary significantly, the corresponding text of the JLB translation is also given.
  4. Where the BVG passage that appears in the book is only a single word or a short phrase, the citation provides as “context” both the larger passage from the BVG translation and the corresponding passage from the JLB translation.
  5. Where the BVG passage that appears in the book is a sentence or longer, only the corresponding JLB passage appears in the note.
  6. Citations to Vincent’s letters within the textual matter typically use the JLB translation, but also give the corresponding BVG letter number.

N.B. A few notes are purely “textual” – an opportunity for the authors to provide additional information or commentary – and therefore do not have citations.


Van Gogh: The Life includes a selected bibliography that lists only the books, exhibition catalogues, journal articles, and articles in edited books that are actually cited in the text of the printed book.

The large number of additional sources that are cited only in the textual notes, rather than in the text of the book, appear in the “chapter bibliographies,” which can be accessed under “Chapter Bibliographies” in the “Sources” tab on the navigation bar.

The selected bibliography for each chapter contains the books, exhibition catalogues, journal articles, and articles from edited books that are directly cited or quoted in the notes for that chapter; as well as any archival materials, dissertations, or newspaper articles cited.

All of the information in all of the chapter bibliographies is collected into a full site bibliography, which is available under “Sources.”

Also under “Sources,” is a section on “Further Reading,” which presents a list of the authors’ suggested readings related to Vincent van Gogh, arranged by subject matter.

For bibliographic inquires, please contact us at: