After a decade of research and writing, Gregory White Smith ’73 and Steven Naifeh recently published Van Gogh: The Life, a biography of one of the world’s most renowned creative geniuses. Described as “magisterial” by the New York Times, the 900-plus-page volume charts the emotionally disturbed painter’s 37-year lifetime, during which he produced a dazzling body of work yet never gained fame, was widely ridiculed, cut off a portion of his ear, and agonized over “the empty stupidity and the pointless torture of life.”
The book posits a new theory—that Van Gogh did not commit suicide but was accidentally killed. Smith and Naifeh, who met at Harvard Law School and are life partners as well as writing collaborators, have worked together on a number of books; their 1989 Jackson Pollock: An American Saga won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Smith recently spoke to arts writer Pat Sims about the new work.
How did you decide to write about Van Gogh?
We came off the Pulitzer for Pollock in 1991 and knew we wanted to do another biography of an artist. We had done Pollock feeling artists had not been given the full-out biographies others had—military figures, politicians. We thought, who else is out there? How important was their art? They had to have made a major contribution. The first person we thought of was Van Gogh. What’s not to be interested in? The art is phenomenal, he’s the most-loved artist in the history of Western art with the best-known art. People know the sunflowers, the starry night, all these images they hang on their walls and in college dorms; he’s really ubiquitous. So we decided he’s the guy.
What were some of the obstacles you encountered?
Neither of us spoke Dutch. Vincent wrote mostly in Dutch, and that was the big stumbling block. We spent most of the ten years consumed with getting around that and hired eleven Dutch translators. We were tremendously aided by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. We also had French and German translators. Steve and I both read a little French, but Vincent was extremely knowledgeable and read German, English, Dutch, and French, so that presented another research problem. We really needed to understand his imaginative world. He read thousands of books—they’re mentioned in his letters—all of Zola, Dickens, all the great canon of Western Europe; he loved Beecher Stowe. He committed whole swaths of poetry to memory. In those days people didn’t have ways of keeping images, but he had phenomenal memory; he could remember paintings he had seen twenty years earlier—the way the light struck the clouds—in photographic detail. The other thing that struck us was what a sad life he led. People know the broad outlines, they know he wanted to be a parson, they know the ear incident—all those things suggest he had a terribly sad life, and that was one of the great attractions, one of the reasons his art continues to exert such appeal. People know he was unhappy, tormented, but his works are so incredibly joyful, positive, so full of life. I think it’s kind of consoling, knowing someone could live that life and create such incredible work.
Did you ever feel overwhelmed?
Like from day one. Absolutely. We had no idea what we were getting into. We spent eight years on Pollock. We weren’t able to calculate working in multiple languages, and there were almost a thousand letters that Vincent wrote and another thousand his family wrote about Vincent—a huge body of literature. About half had been translated, and we had to translate the other half. It was far more challenging and a taller mountain than we had expected.
How did you divide the work that had to be done?
For most of our joint writing career, and certainly for both Pollock and Van Gogh, Steve has undertaken the considerable research duties and I have undertaken the writing. But I have to add: There is no such thing as good writing without good thinking, and the thinking is entirely jointly done.
What’s it like working with your life partner?
I don’t know how people do it alone. It’s sort of funny—when we went to the National Book Award for Pollock [a 1990 finalist], the first question was, ‘How did you two write a book?’ But when we went to the Pulitzers, they didn’t ask; they knew Woodward and Bernstein and the way they worked cooperatively. But we were the first people who had been nominated for a National Book Award for two authors. You get so deeply involved in the tiniest detail, you care deeply whether he was in Antwerp in January or February 1881. If you were alone and swimming in this morass of details, no spouse would be able to summon up the interest required for that kind of obsession, whereas with both, you can bounce information off each other. You can get a genuine conversation going that no one else would talk about. The miracle is that anyone writes this kind of book alone.
Did your legal background help with the research you did on Van Gogh’s death?
I think it probably did. Law school does teach you a way to think that has to do with reasoning from the facts and a sort of Sherlock Holmesian way of seeing inconsistencies you wouldn’t normally see, picking out things that don’t fit together, evidentiary things. We were two-thirds into the book and started looking at information and sources, and what kicked in was just general skepticism, which I think is great for any writer to have. Where did they get this information? Did the person just spout something someone else told them? Who is the eyewitness, someone who just thought this might make a nice story? We were able to show many ways in which the old story was unsupported and found new information that did a better job of explaining all the inconsistencies. There was confirmation from a little-known source we came across from digging deep and going to some obscure sources based on our investigation. Vincent was not murdered, he was shot accidentally by local teenagers. Vincent himself had railed so often against suicide, so it never felt right after all the things he had been through—why would he go out and shoot himself? But people like their myths.
Reading this book made me feel at times that I was really inside Van Gogh’s head. Was that an effect you intended?
I didn’t think people would sit still for nine hundred pages about a painter, many of them concerning his religious beliefs, his wandering and frustrated sexual life, bad relations with his parents. The challenge from the beginning was to make him a sympathetic enough character to make people care. It helped tremendously that he was Vincent Van Gogh. They knew Starry Night was coming, Sunflowers was coming, these great icons of Western civilization were coming, but you needed more than that to get people caught up, to care that he has to ask his brother for money and that completely humiliates him. There was a sense that there had to be an armature, an emotional story, in order to have people stay interested. When you’re talking about things that don’t set people’s hair on fire, you have to understand [things like] why religion was so important to him; it was incredibly important to his later artistic posture, where his art came from, and what he was trying to do. That was the challenge. You need to get the reader inside his skin.