Book Review: Lust for Life by Irving Stone

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Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers. 1888. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London. Source

Even though I’m often in a mess, inside me there’s still a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest little house, in the filthiest corner, I see paintings or drawings. And my mind turns in that direction as if with an irresistible urge. As time passes, other things are increasingly excluded, and the more they are the faster my eyes see the picturesque. Art demands persistent work, work in spite of everything, and unceasing observation.
– Vincent van Gogh, the Hague, on or about 21 July 1882, to Theo van Gogh (Letter #249)

It’s been a long time since a book made me cry– and I mean actually cry, not just get misty-eyed. I honestly kind of hate admitting that fact, as this book is very much an artifact of 1934 (when it was first published): while it is undoubtedly a classic, it is also a modernist (i.e. heroic and slightly masculinist) telling of the artistic life of Vincent van Gogh. Furthermore, one cannot help questioning the veracity of the biography because many parts had to be speculations by Irving Stone because of how the book is written. Nevertheless, I, like many others, am a fan of van Gogh’s work and have always been fascinated by his tragic life story. And, in all fairness, credit is due to Stone for his research of van Gogh’s 700+ letters to Theo, as well as his admission at the end of the book that some of the scenes were informed imaginings.

I’ve decided that this review is going to be not so much a full-on book review of Lust for Life, but rather several analyses of parts of the book that align with things that have been discovered about van Gogh and his work in recent years. Also, because I listened to the audiobook over the course of 3 weeks instead of physically reading it, my ability to cite specific quotes will be limited, and I apologize in advance for any discrepancies between my interpretation and the source material. 

The turbulent life of Vincent van Gogh has become the stuff of art history legend, and everyone with an even cursory knowledge of Western art history is at least a little familiar with his work. His story has been woven into and around pop culture, with Lust for Life being one of these first instances: more recently, he had a whole episode dedicated to him on “Doctor Who” in 2010, in which his mental illness was explained by his ability to see an alien monster; an animated feature film called “Loving Vincent”, comprised of hundreds of thousands of real oil paintings, is coming out sometime in 2016; the 1971 song “Vincent” by Don McLean has been covered several times by the likes of Josh Groban and Chloe Agnew (of Celtic Woman fame); and you can even buy a van Gogh plush doll, complete with a detachable left ear.

Lust for Life chronicles van Gogh’s life from his late teenage years until his death, as well as his brother Theo’s death six months later and his widow’s decision to move Theo’s body so that it could be next to Vincent’s. It focuses on key moments in his life that informed his art, such as his time as a minister in the poor Belgian mining town of Borinage; his introduction via his art dealer brother, Theo, to the Impressionist group in Paris; his discovery of the joys of brightly colored oil paints and how much more vibrant they could be when hand-mixed; his various major psychotic breaks; his hospitalization in Arles; and his final days before his suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise. It is easy to see early on why it is called Lust for Life, because van Gogh was fanatically passionate about love and religion before he dedicated himself to art. It’s also easy to see how this book was a big factor behind van Gogh’s enduring pop culture status.

Illness, Mental Health, and Death

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Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear. 1889. Oil on canvas. Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Source

One cannot discuss van Gogh without also discussing his mental health, even though we do not know precisely what was wrong with him. In the book, he described himself at one point as “syphilitic,” acknowledged his excessive drinking of absinthe (which is a convulsant and can cause hallucinations), and after his notorious fight with Paul Gauguin that was followed by the act of cutting off part of his ear, his doctors diagnosed him as epileptic.

In recent years, many aspects of van Gogh’s life and death have been questioned, especially in regards to his mental health. In psychiatrist Dietrich Blumer’s 2002 article, “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,” he states that over 150 physicians have attempted to posthumously diagnose van Gogh, despite thin evidence and the misinformed nature of 19th century medicine. Blumer concluded that, based on the evidence that does exist, van Gogh likely did indeed suffer from an epilepsy-related illness, and that his consumption of absinthe probably exacerbated his condition. Another popular diagnosis that has been assigned to van Gogh is syphilis. Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, was relatively common before the advent of penicillin. Van Gogh was known to frequent brothels (indeed, he almost married a prostitute, Sien Hoornik), and he was treated for gonorrhea in 1882. It has been proposed that his case of syphilis (which was never conclusively diagnosed in him) could have advanced into neurosyphilis, which could explain his irrational behavior. However, it takes 10-20 years after the initial infection of syphilis for it to infect the brain or spinal cord, and it is unlikely that van Gogh would have developed such a severe case in such a short amount of time.

In 2008, art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans published a book, Van Gogh’s Ear, which analyzed van Gogh’s letters, biographical material, and original police reports in regards to the infamous incident in which he cut off part of his left ear following a violent argument with Paul Gauguin. Kaufmann and Wildegans hypothesized that Gauguin, who was his roommate at the time and an accomplished fencer, cut off part of van Gogh’s ear with a rapier. They claimed that he chose to hide the truth of the attack because it would have jeopardized his career and Gauguin would have been imprisoned; apparently in his mind, accepting the title of “Fou-Roux” (crazy redhead) and constant bullying was somehow easier.

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Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows. 1890. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.  Source

The most heart wrenching part of Lust for Life for me was when you knew his life was about to come to its tragic end. Even though I knew that he would die, things were starting to look positive for him– he sold one painting!– and I couldn’t help but hope that it would somehow have a different ending. It is generally accepted that van Gogh killed himself in 1890. Desperate at the thought of his brother’s deteriorating finances, on which he had been reliant for over a decade, the story goes that, while out painting the wheat fields of Auvers-sur-Oise one afternoon, he put a pistol to his chest and died at his inn over 29 hours later. However, his painting materials that he supposedly took to the wheat fields with him that day were never found, and neither was the gun. This event, too, has been recently brought into question. Van Gogh: The Life, written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, was published in 2011. They argued that van Gogh was accidentally shot by two teenage boys that he was known to go drinking with, and that he instead claimed that he tried to kill himself to protect them from the authorities (they also claim that, even though his life was starting to look up and had never mentioned suicidal tendencies in his letters, he had little will left to live, so being shot by another was almost a favor to him). This account corroborates with art historian’s John Rewald’s 1930s version of events that were the result of his visit to Auvers, and evidence that the bullet entered his body at too high of an angle to be self-inflicted. Nevertheless, this theory has since been heavily questioned.

Art

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Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night. 1889. Oil on canvas. MoMA, New York City. Source

Many of van Gogh’s most famous and revered works are marked by their distinctly bright colors. In Lust for Life, he talks about how much he loves the color yellow, as well as his decision to start making his own paints after he realized that he could create brighter colors than those that came out of paint tubes. In 2012, a Japanese medical student, Asada Kazunori, argued that van Gogh was colorblind (specifically that he had a moderate lack of receptors for the color red). I find this theory to be frankly preposterous and incredibly subjective, as Asada was basing his argument on the fact that the jarring use of reds and oranges became more “beautiful” when altered in a digital colorblind simulation program. However, a 2006 scientific analysis of van Gogh’s work that appears to have a lot more credibility– and is much less diminishing of the artist’s vision– claims that he depicted natural turbulence with mathematical precision, particularly when he was in a state of prolonged mental agitation. This ability to “see” what cannot be seen is echoed in Lust for Life, when he describes how he wants people who view his paintings to feel the atoms of the world he depicted, and taste the fruit as though it is real and not painted on a canvas.

Unfortunately, many of van Gogh’s paintings now face degradation due to chemical reactions between the pigments in the paint and UV light. Reds, pinks, oranges, and purples mixed with red lake pigment can fade. Chrome yellows can turn brown. Cadmium yellows can oxidize. Van Gogh was aware when he was alive that some of his paintings were already fading, stating in a letter to Theo that “paintings fade like flowers.”  The ambient light in the galleries displaying his works at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has been diminished in an effort to prolong the lives of the colors, but other than that, there is little that can (ethically) be done to reverse light damage.

Digital conservation is another strategy that is being considered. One must determine the painting’s chemical composition and history, determine what pigments were used in what binders, and what sorts of climate fluctuations the painting could have been exposed to. From there, the pigments are re-created and exposed to aging experiments to mimic climate changes. If the results are similar to what is seen in the actual paintings, scientists can then make an educated guess on what the painting originally looked like and create a digital visualization of it.

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Vincent van Gogh, Sheaves of Wheat. 1890. Oil on canvas. Dallas Museum of Fine Art. Source

It is possible that van Gogh and his work would still be famous without Lust for Life, but the book certainly helped propel him to “legendary tragic artist” status. When you read his actual letters, you can see that he truly did have a lust for life (albeit an uneven and tormented one), and it is undeniable that Stone masterfully captured that feeling.

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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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