“In their magisterial new biography, “Van Gogh: The Life,” Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith provide a guided tour through the personal world and the work of that Dutch painter, shining a bright light on the evolution of his art while articulating what is sure to be a controversial theory of his death at the age of 37. … Mr. Smith and Mr. Naifeh diligently examine the development of his ideas, his techniques, his startling ability to inhale lessons from other painters and transform their innovations into his own. … What Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith capture so powerfully is van Gogh’s extraordinary will to learn, to persevere against the odds, to keep painting when early teachers disparaged his work, when a natural facility seemed to elude him, when his canvases failed to sell.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Everyone knows Vincent Van Gogh’s history — the mad, suffering genius who cut off his ear for a prostitute and committed suicide in a cornfield with circling crows. But what if the stories are pure Hollywood? … this marvelous new biography invites us to question our assumptions. … To follow their Pulitzer prize-winning “Jackson Pollock,” Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, two Harvard law-school graduates, have spent 10 years re-investigating the life of Van Gogh: the facts and the factors — hereditary, historical, sociological and cultural — which produced an artist whose work, like Pollock’s, is today worth untold sums. The resulting 900-page biography reads like a novel, full of suspense and intimate detail. … [With regard to the death,] Naifeh and Smith carefully review the evidence and conclude that Van Gogh almost certainly did not commit suicide. He was shot in a courtyard, not in a field, injured, probably accidentally, by harrying adolescents. Although the bullet came from an improbable angle, and from too far away, Van Gogh claimed, “I wounded myself,” so the boys would not be blamed. “Do not accuse anyone. It is I who wanted to kill myself.” As the authors appeal Van Gogh’s case, all our stereotypes are questioned. What if untreatable epilepsy drove him mad, he didn’t cut his ear to impress a woman, and he was shot by delinquents? Will the Van Gogh industry — exhibitions, scholarly books, coffee mugs, rock songs — survive? In beautiful prose, Naifeh and Smith argue convincingly for a subtler, more realistic evaluation of Van Gogh, and we all win.”
–Julia Frey, The Washington Post
“Now, at last, with “Van Gogh: The Life” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, we have what could very well be the definitive biography … In it we get a much fuller view of van Gogh, owing to the decade Naifeh and Smith spent on research to create this scholarly and spellbinding work. Against all odds the pair … have managed to slough off ossified impressions and speculations and gotten into van Gogh’s skin, making it possible for us to experience anew his heartbreaking relationships with his family and a much wider circle of friends and acquaintances. … When all else failed, van Gogh committed himself to his art, and the last third of this magisterial work details his attempts to find his place in the world. … How pleased he would be to know how much his art has been admired for more than 100 years. And how pleased we should be that Naifeh and Smith have rendered so exquisitely and respectfully van Gogh’s short, intense, and wholly interesting life.”
–Roberta Silman, The Boston Globe
Tortured is the apt word for Vincent van Gogh’s journey through a short life (1853-1890), explored as never before by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in “Van Gogh: The Life.” … As a tale of ambition, hard-fought fleeting triumphs and dark despair, it has the dramatic pull of a gripping 19th century novel. As an inquiry into the man whose images adorn napkins, dorm rooms and the homes of billionaires, it is an essential reality and mythology check. If that weren’t enough, Naifeh and Smith have achieved something more valuable. Their biography enriches the eye. Its insight and vast information vault readers into the work of van Gogh and the artists of his time. It deepens the experience of looking at art. … a book brimming with vivid and tactile details … Immersion in van Gogh’s ordeals more than justifies the length of “Van Gogh: A Life” … Grounding van Gogh in religious traditions, political and family history, geography and the books that he devoured in several languages, the authors break with the accepted record most dramatically on his death. They challenge the notion that he committed suicide, arguing that van Gogh was most likely shot by a nasty teenager from a wealthy Parisian family whose hobbies included torturing the odd untidy misfit and playing with guns. Their evidence is as persuasive as their revisionism chips away at a revered legend. … Yet Naifeh and Smith don’t debunk the van Gogh legend, they illuminate and clarify its constitutive elements.
–David D’Arcy, San Francisco Chronicle
“Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, whose 1989 biography of Jackson Pollock won the Pulitzer Prize, have written this generation’s definitive portrait of the great Dutch post-Impressionist. … Their most important achievement is to produce a reckoning with van Gogh’s occasional ‘madness’ that doesn’t lose sight of the lucidity and intelligence–the profound sanity–of his art. … this comprehensive book ‘gives’ us the full, ragged glory of his life.”
–Richard Lacayo, Time Magazine
“Winners of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Jackson Pollock, [Naifeh and Smith] bring a booming authorial voice and boundless ingenuity to the task and have written a thoroughly engaging account of the Dutch painter. … the authors vividly reconstruct the intertwined stories of his life and his art, portraying him as a “victim of his own fanatic heart.” Messrs. Naifeh and Smith present Van Gogh’s story in such a fluent and captivating manner that … their fine book has the potential not only to reinvigorate the broad base of popular interest that Van Gogh already enjoys but to introduce a whole new generation to one of art history’s most remarkable creative spirits.”
–Jonathan Lopez, The Wall Street Journal
“… here is his story again, laid out again in staggering detail (868 pages, 6,000 pages of 28,000 notes available online) in Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, authors of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. It’s a tour de force of biography, 10 years in the making and containing new revelations about an already much-examined life. This is thanks to the authors’ (and a team of translators) access to newly translated letters of van Gogh, a man for whom writing letters was almost as important as painting. Or breathing. This is a well-written book, extraordinarily thorough and admirably restrained, even sympathetic to its subject.”
–Maria Puente, USA TODAY
“The book – although approximately 900 pages – never loses its narrative tension. It’s so close to Vincent’s skin that it almost hurts. It’s the best of the best.”
–Bas Heijne, Handelsblad (The Netherlands)
“This was my favorite book of the year. It was a surprise hit considering its length and subject matter–can a 980-page biography about a dead artist really be that compelling? The answer is yes, when it’s written by Naifeh and White Smith. They won a Pulitzer Prize for their 1998 biography of Jackson Pollock, and I’d venture a guess that this tome will do no less. … It also gives a raw view of family dynamics, especially as they develop when one family member begins to dominate resources, both emotional and financial. I came away with an enhanced sensitivity to the suffering that often accompanies producing Art and a respect for Van Gogh’s courage in the battle he waged with himself.”
–Hannah Elliot, Forbes
“Brilliant … Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith are the big-game hunters of modern art history. Their previous doorstop biography of a legendary painter, Jackson Pollock: an American Saga (1989), was fact-packed enough to win a Pulitzer yet also riotous enough to inspire a Hollywood biopic. Van Gogh: the Life, which similarly rushes along on a tide of research, could do the same. … a massive study in psychological profiling…This book is not called The Life for nothing, or in hubris…. At once a model of scholarship and an emotive, pacy chunk of hagiography, Van Gogh: The Life swallows archives whole to argue that the tempestuous, tragic, romantic figure of the artist we always had was the correct one, the main difference being that his exit was probably in keeping with the majority of his terrible, yet impossibly fruitful, three-and-a-half decades on earth: beyond his control. “
–Martin Herbert, The Telegraph
“… in every sense monumental: [Van Gogh: The Life] was 10 years in the making, and Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith even devised special software to cross-search their database of 100,000 digital notecards. … they had a team of eight researchers and 18 translators. This is not, to put it mildly, standard biographical practice. … The Van Gogh who emerges from this extraordinary marshalling of resources is … a far more comprehensive figure than earlier versions.”
–Michael Prodger, The Sunday Times of London
“In a new biography of van Gogh the devil is in the detail. … as an enormous and engrossing new biography shows, van Gogh’s lust for conflict was strongest of all. The book is composed, like a pointillist painting, of thousands of factual details. Nothing is sacrificed to curtail its length … the story has a momentum that justifies the time it takes to tell it … “
“An enormously compelling psychological study, one I savored long into the night – many nights – and could hardly wait to return to each day. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s monumental new work is an erudite yet accessible examination of the life and ‘brief, incandescent artistic enterprise’ of the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. … In dazzling detail, they tell the familiar story of Van Gogh’s convulsive life … perhaps their most startling inference, prefaced by the disclaimer that ‘no one knows what happened,’ is that Van Gogh wasn’t a suicide. They refute inconsistent, self-serving accounts from contemporaneous sources and rely instead on medical reports of the wound’s trajectory and the confessional commentary, made decades later, of a man who admitted to owning a gun as a boy in Auvers and, with other town youth, taunting the mad artist. They conclude that Van Gogh, who lived for 30 hours after the shooting, chose to die ‘a martyr’ rather than implicate his young tormentors. … After turning the book’s final pages, I headed straight for the (free) companion website (www.vangoghbiography.com), where in addition to the footnotes, I found links to other online Van Gogh resources, and a picture gallery showing in glorious color his iconic sunflowers, starry nights, wheat fields, and self-portraits.”
–Kathryn Lang, The Dallas Morning News
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, authors of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, have now tackled another troubled and great artist, Vincent van Gogh. … Now we have a biography based on ten years of research, astounding in its thoroughness and range, in which the authors really come to grips with Van Gogh the man and on every page bring him to life. They offer new perspectives on Van Gogh’s psychological motives for this behavior. The depth of the research (28,000 footnotes are published online) in no way impedes the immediacy of the writing style that carries us directly into the mind and soul of this unique human being. … This is a remarkable and valuable book.
–Ann Dumas, The Royal Academy Magazine – Winter 2011
The massive biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith is especially deserving of admiration for the manner in which an overwhelming amount of information has been shaped into a very readable, even gripping story. It contains everything, every book, every friend and foe, every day and every hour, but the authors always present it in a flowing style that sometimes is almost cinematic. There are gripping cliff hangers and stark shifts in the narrative, for instance in the description of the incident of the ear, in Arles. “He went back to the Yellow House, staggered upstairs to his bloody bedroom, lay down dizzily on the scarlet blanket and closed his eyes, expecting – perhaps even with pleasure – the worst.” End of chapter. Next sentence, next page: “Theo could not believe his good fortune. Jo had finally said yes.” That is drama. Naifeh and Smith present Vincent as a tragic figure, and in that respect they do not really deviate from the general image. The myth of the unfortunate misfit remains unchanged, but it is developed in detail and in depth. … Smith and Naifeh [also] paint a strong image of the way in which Van Gogh identified himself with literature. It is well known that he read prodigiously, and continuously evangelized about his readings, but it is striking how tightly some books seemed interwoven with Van Gogh’s own experiences, as if there was no real difference between fact and fiction. … The suspicion that Vincent’s suicide in Auvers could have unfolded very differently [from the accepted version] is supported very persuasively.
–Koen Kleijn, Groene Amsterdammer (The Netherlands)
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the authors of this mammoth new life, have done an excellent job, putting together a fast-moving narrative that scarcely slackens as it takes the reader from Vincent’s birth in Zundert, a little place in the south of the Netherlands, to his death from a gunshot wound in Auvers, northern France, 37 years later. They are good at sketching the various locations where Vincent alighted, including late-Victorian Brussels, Antwerp, Paris and Arles. … After [the] account of his behaviour, Naifeh and Smith’s theory that, rather than committing suicide, Vincent was killed by a French teenager, appears quite plausible. … They point to some intriguing anomalies in the evidence (especially the mysteriously missing weapon, which was never found).”
–Marvin Gayford, The Telegraph
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have written the most extensive biography of Van Gogh. A tour de force beginning with his parents’ family tree and ending with speculation about who fired the deadly shot, it’s an enormous achievement. … Reading his life story is like riding an endless roller coaster of delusional highs and lows. … His journey from youthful sketches to the evanescent, almost electrically charged body of work produced in his final years is equally fraught with impossible dreams and self-doubt. But Naifeh and Smith reveal a keen intellect, an avid reader and a passionate observer of other artists’ work who progressed from labored figure studies to inspired outbursts of creative energy. … [A] sweepingly authoritative, astonishingly textured book.
–Suzanne Muchnic, The Los Angeles Times
“[Vincent] was tortured, a man who eventually died young (only 37) by his own hand (of course). All very tragic, if undeniably romantic. And all profoundly mistaken, according to Naifeh and Smith, authors of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Jackson Pollack [sic], about another volatile painter who died young. … Naifeh and Smith are persuasive in that conclusion, as they are in everything else in this magisterial biography. … In Vincent Van Gogh’s heartbreaking story, there’s really nothing more to add.”
–Brian Bethune, Maclean’s (Canada)
A gripping and almost certainly definitive account of the all-too-short life of a great artist who believed he was doomed to oblivion. … Van Gogh’s life has long been the stuff of tortured-artist drama, but it is hard to imagine it has ever been told better than by Pulitzer winners Naifeh and Smith (Jackson Pollack, 1991, etc.). … they offer a credibly argued theory that suggests he died from an accidental shooting, not suicide. Despite its exhaustive length, the book is brilliantly written and engaging, presenting a three-dimensional and larger-than-life portrait of the artist.
—Kirkus Book Review
In terms of scholarship and readability, this hefty tome is impressive. It is rich with detail, while its narrative never flags … a fully rounded figure emerges from the shadows of a myth.
The Metro (United Kingdom)
Sunday Times Art Book of The Year
This huge achievement, almost 1,000 pages of carefully researched details assembled over 10 years by two Americans whose biography of Jackson Pollock won the Pulitzer prize. Somehow, they have even discovered previously unused material (such as letters about Van Gogh rather than to or from him) and then suggest alternative readings of some of the key moments of his life. … This will surely be the standard biography for years to come.
—Sunday Times of London
“Van Gogh: The Life, the intricate and panoramic biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, is a provocative work about the volcanic man and his art. … Naifeh and Smith treat ‘the life’ with remarkable detail and, despite its imposing length, a very accessible narrative. In that way, it’s similar to their Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, for which they earned a Pulitzer Prize. This is an insightful and important work, unquestionably the essential biography for years to come.”
–Peter M. Gianotti, Newsday
“This sprawling (950+ pages), magisterial tome, written with access to materials from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam which have never before been studied by biographers, is both readable and fascinating. It brings to life many hitherto-unknown characters in the artist’s life, such as his mother, Anna, and sheds new light on his famous relationship with his younger brother, the art dealer Theo. Among the many riveting details: His mother disliked his work and always disposed of any paintings he gave her; Theo tried endlessly, in many different ways, to try to get Vincent to change his painting style. The details of Dutch history and the writers’ insights into its citizens’ national character are also highly revelatory.”
–Lorna Koski, Women’s Wear Daily
“Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith [have] come along with a Van Gogh for our times in Van Gogh: The Life. The Vincent in their pages reflects our times: conflicted, troubled, and, now, digital. … Van Gogh: The Life reigns as the new heavyweight champion of Van Gogh studies and sets a new standard for scholarship for biographies in general. But all that biographical research would be worthless without a novelist’s touch. … Naifeh and Smith grab you from the beginning and never let go. … Finally, what makes Van Gogh: The Life truly representative of today is how it’s taken biography and gone digital. … The book’s accompanying website serves as an invitation and a challenge to future scholars and biographers. … Van Gogh: The Life stands as the new definitive biography of Vincent Van Gogh and will be the basis for the next generation’s version of Vincent, too.”
–Bob Duggan, Big Think
“Van Gogh: The Life,” the intricate and panoramic biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, is a provocative work about the volcanic man and his art. … Naifeh and Smith treat “the life” with remarkable detail and, despite its imposing length, a very accessible narrative. In that way, it’s similar to their “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” for which they earned a Pulitzer Prize. This is an insightful and important work, unquestionably the essential biography for years to come.
–Peter Gianotti, McClatchy Newspapers
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith … have marshaled a decade’s worth of research to write this crystalline retelling of a famous artist’s infamous story. … Its narrative sparkles with specificity, sentence by sentence, through 868 pages. … Naifeh and Smith have also corralled herds of tertiary information into an online pasture, www.vangoghbiography.com, a magisterial addendum of research notes, character summaries, literature reviews, genealogy and images. … Madness is never elevated in this book. … The shrinking periods between breakdowns are not moments of clarity and peace for Vincent, but spaces of fearful anticipation and dread. The reader, however, is not so much paralysed by despair as propelled forward by the “vortex of tragedy,” toward more clearheaded understanding of the artist.
–Andrew Kear, Winnipeg Free Press
Long in the writing, deep in research, … it is extremely readable, contains new material and is freshly, even startlingly re-interpretative of a life whose bare bones are very familiar. The more one reads, the more absorbing it becomes, both in its breadth of approach and its colossal detail.
–Richard Shone, The Spectator
… the authors demonstrate remarkable ability to paint vivid “word portraits” of van Gogh at work. … superb, compulsively readable … Naifeh and Smith provide important insights into aspects of van Gogh’s career that are frequently over-shadowed by the celebrated attempt to create a “School of the South” with Gauguin in Arles. … The brilliant commentary that characterizes the latter half of Van Gogh: The Life also underscores why he never really joined the ranks of any of the prevailing art movements of his age. Van Gogh was never a full-fledged Impressionist nor was he a Symbolist. … Van Gogh blazed a trail toward modern art by trying to evoke the art of the past.
—California Literary Review
Time now, it’s reasonable to expect, for an out-and-out corrective: a Van Gogh biography exhaustive enough to recalibrate everything ever written by or about him. In a 10-year venture, involving teams of researchers and translators from the Dutch, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have assembled what amounts to a companion volume to their thumping great 1989 Jackson Pollock: An American Saga …, in a 16-page, small-print “Appendix: A Note on Vincent’s Fatal Wounding”, the authors entertain the strong possibility that, far from taking his own life, the artist was halfway through a productive working day when a bullet entered his body, fired from a distance and at a low angle.
–William Feaver, The Guardian
The very title of the book is audacious. The project planning seems almost insurmountable, even if the subject were a contemporary man of no accomplishments. …’Van Gogh: The Life’ manages the breathtaking success it achieves, living up to the subject, creating the life of the artist by virtue of the fact that the team who wrote it comprise a sort of gestalt entity, a left and right half of the brain that can properly assemble and bring life to those whom it observes. Steven Naifeh is the researcher, the observer, who records the facts and hands them to Gregory White Smith, the storyteller. … Not surprisingly, given the effort and artistry on display here, the work in prose rivals the best of its subject’s work.
‘Van Gogh: The Life’ clocks in at 879 reading pages, with about a hundred pages of notes in the book itself. Remarkably, the rest of the research, over 6,000 pages, is available online, at Van Gogh: The Life Biography. But here’s the question you, the potential reader have to ask yourselves, and it is an important question, to be sure: Is this enormous book worth your valuable reading time? What is the compelling draw to pull you through nearly 900 pages? It’s as long as a Tom Clancy or Stephen King novel, and does not involve time travel or blowing up the Kremlin.
But the mystery here is every bit as compelling as the Kennedy assassination, and the narrative pull more engaging than blowing up the Kremlin. The impact that Vincent Van Gogh had upon this world, the beauty and joy and sadness he expressed in his art is universal. It needs no translation. The power is undeniable. How did these paintings, these images come into this world? ‘Van Gogh: The Life’ can and should be read as a page-turning mystery. How did this odd-looking, mentally ill young man create images that may well last beyond what we politely call modern Western civilization? His life, we come to discover, was an absolute mess. But from it emerged starry nights and self-portraits that sear our souls.
Soul-searing is relevant in this work, and in this life. Van Gogh always life beyond his means, always pushed to the extremes. Naifeh and Smith give us every detail that we need, and that’s a lot of detail, but no more. We meet his grandparents and parents, his mother in particular. Then we’re off into a life of grit, failure, compulsion, family, mistakes, sex, disease and art. Smith’s prose is precise and passionate. You’ll need to remind yourself that you’re reading non-fiction, as Smith has a talent for immersing you in character arcs and plot points that is very novelistic. But all those great details, the plot points that amaze you — his faux-marriage to a prostitute, an intense set piece that takes place after a devastating mining disaster — as unearthed by Naifeh, are the stuff of corroborated fact, and literally years of research.
While we do get to literally live Van Gogh’s life, Naifeh and Smith make that life come to life by giving us the properly shaded vision of those who surrounded Van Gogh. These characters — his family, his friends, some famous, some not — figure into plot arcs that keep the pages turning as fast possible to bring readers to those penultimate moments when Van Gogh literally changed the world. It’s every bit as earth-shaking as any fictional construct and grippingly-plotted in this well-constructed biography.
Reading ‘Van Gogh: The Life’ is not a trivial investment of the time you will spend in this life. Give it an hour a day, and you’ll easily finish it in a month. The return is two-fold. The satisfaction of joining Van Gogh as he realizes a success that will go unrecognized while he is still alive is palpable, tremendous. It is a moment before the moment. When you see his works, you will know the man, and know the works; “As my work is, so am I.”
But the success of the biography is that readers will know more than the man and his work; they will know the world, their world, this world, as Van Gogh knew his, to the extent that is possible. You will see a starry night, yourself in the mirror, fields in the sun, and know that terrible beauty there, in our own hearts.
–Rick Kleffel, Bookotron.com
“… in their magisterial new biography, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have dramatically revised the last act. After meticulously reviewing the evidence and testimony related to the artist’s death, they conclude that van Gogh probably was shot – most likely by accident – by one of two young brothers whom he knew. … I find their argument persuasively airtight …They have fashioned a fully rounded, and generally sympathetic, portrait of a complex personality that illuminates the heart and soul behind the famous facade, with all the contradictions and flashes of brilliance and lucidity.”
–Edward J. Sozanski, Philadelphia Enquirer
“Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have written the authoritative biography of Vincent van Gogh. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam calls Van Gogh: The Life ‘The definitive biography for decades to come.’ The Wall Street Journal describes it as ‘captivating.’ High praise and more than well deserved. I admire many of the earlier biographies, but the Naifeh/Smith work stands out as the leading and only Van Gogh biography for Van Gogh scholars and enthusiasts alike. The book took more than ten years to write and research and yet, in a work of this vast scope, one could easily assume that the effort spanned twenty or thirty years. Van Gogh: The Life is an absolutely remarkable exploration of Vincent van Gogh and his work. The material, as I’ve mentioned, has been covered before, but never so thoroughly and with such thoughtful attention to detail. Naifeh and Smith turn old myths and fallacies inside out and present the life of Van Gogh in an entirely new and remarkable light. … In addition, many of the past Van Gogh biographies (and Van Gogh references in general) can suffer from a certainly dryness of style. Van Gogh: The Life, however, is immediately engaging in its approach. It’s a rare feat for a biographical work of this depth to be ceaselessly entertaining as it also explores its subject matter in minute and brilliant detail. In the end Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith is an absolutely extraordinary and astonishing book. Without question, this is the most superb Van Gogh biography ever written–indeed, one of the best written biographies ever published.”
–David Brooks, Van Gogh Scholar (http://www.vggallery.com)
Best Art Book of the Year
Sunday Times of London
Best Books of 2011
The Washington Post
Best Books of the Year
100 Notable Books of 2011
The New York Times
Michiko Kakutani’s Picks for 2011
The New York Times
Top 11 Books of ‘11
Top 10 Art & Architecture Books
Five Brilliant Biographies
The Best of 2011