Vincent Van Gogh Wheat-field with Cypress Tree oil on canvas 1889
For an author who sets forth his aims to "offer an interpretation" of Van Gogh's life "that is up to date, unmystified, concise and . . . compassionate," Julian Bell succeeds in at least three of his four goals. Van Gogh: A Power Seething is only 148 pages and sets out Vincent's life from childhood to unfortunately early death using all the plentiful resources available to the modern researcher. But while I was reading I felt sympathy was lacking. Van Gogh's extraordinary written voice from his letters is used sparingly and with skepticism, and most of the book dwells on the way Van Gogh appeared to others, detailing stories by friends and family that generally show Van Gogh at his worst. Theo Van Gogh showed more empathy and discernment (and more balance) when he described the complications of his brother's personality: "It appears as if there are two different beings in him, the one marvelously gifted, fine and delicate, and the other selfish and heartless."
When looking on Van Gogh's life from the outside, there is certainly much to trouble. He was sometimes violent, sometimes misogynistic, spendthrift with his family's money, radical in belief and life-style, vehement and often strange in his behavior around others. But he was also humble, persistent, thoughtful, intelligent, widely read, and totally devoted to the beauty he saw in even the most poor, sad, and out-of-the-way circumstances of life. There is much to inspire in the way his art and certain of his letters transcend the pitiful details of his mistakes and missteps to become timeless documents of what it is to be human. Without looking at things from the inside, from Van Gogh's own point of view, he becomes an indecipherable enigma. But when empathy and imagination are used to attempt to enter into the space of his emotions, it becomes clear that his dogged honesty and complicated personality led him both to the depths of misery and to the heights of creation. Some of those very personality traits that made him an incredibly difficult person to know as a friend or family member were also the traits that contributed to his great achievement as an artist: his stubbornness, his side-ways thinking, his imaginative leaps, his uncontrollable honesty, his wildness, his unanswered love and alienated loneliness.
It is the emotional intensity of his artwork that makes it so powerful even now. A book that ignores most of the emotions of its protagonist for most of its pages can't help but to be an incomplete although well-written and researched account of a life deeply lived.