VINCENT van Gogh tends to be remembered as an art saint whose radiant paintings of sunflowers and starry skies seem somehow imbued with moral valour. He identified with the poor and marginalised and looked upon art as a humanitarian calling. He died unknown, at the age of 37, and you suspect he will always be a shining hero not only to people who worship art but to those who feel their own talents remain insufficiently acknowledged by their peers.
On the other hand, is it possible we have him entirely wrong, that he was just a creep and selfish user who felt that a life in art meant never having to say "thank you"? Such is the portrait that emerges from Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith's energetic, hulking and negatively skewed Van Gogh: The Life (Random House). The artist, as they see him, was manipulative and bitter, more of a perpetrator than a victim. The eldest child of a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, he grew up in a rural corner of Holland and was not exactly an easy son. For part of his adulthood, we are told, in "a campaign that seemed intended to mortify and embarrass his parents", he moved into their parsonage in Nuenen and shocked the congregation by swearing, smoking a pipe, drinking Cognac from a flask, dismissing the locals as "clodhoppers" and loudly proclaiming his atheism.
His financial dependency on his brother, Theo, is already well known, but it is not until now that anyone has publicly accused him of being lavish. Although he pleaded poverty and was forced to cadge, in reality he lived beyond his means, "never budgeting and never saving", at least according to the authors. "The problem went beyond simple profligacy," the authors write. He had a "delusional sense of entitlement".
From such comments, you might think Van Gogh harboured an epicurean predilection for Bordeaux wines and foie gras. It is true he lived on borrowed money, but you cannot accurately call him profligate. He used his money to finance his art, and the paintings that resulted, most would agree, were worth the expenditure.
The biography does float at least one sensational theory. It strongly suggests he was murdered. In this it challenges the version of history offered by everyone from professors such as Meyer Schapiro to performers such as Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. It asks you to delete from memory the image of Van Gogh lying alone in a wheat field in Auvers-sur-Oise, bleeding from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his stomach. The authors argue the bullet was fired elsewhere in town by a teenager who had made a summer sport out of teasing him. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has stated it does not accept the verdict of murder.
The new biography runs to 953 pages. But length alone does not render a book definitive; gaps abound. The authors seldom slow the rush of facts to offer analysis or raise even the most basic questions. For starters, what illness was V an Gogh suffering from? Naifeh and Smith, inexplicably, do not weigh in on the debate. Some psychiatrists have made the case for paranoia. Others believe he was manic depressive. It goes without saying that no diagnosis can begin to explain the origins of Van Gogh's art. But it would have been helpful to have a page or two summarising the current medical consensus.
Another question that remains unanswered: when and how did V an Gogh become interested in art? The authors trace his awakening to July 1869, when, at the age of 16, he left the family parsonage in provincial Zundert and moved to The Hague to begin his working life. He was hired by his Uncle Vincent, who, as it happened, was an art dealer with Goupil & Cie, a Paris-based firm.
"In his enthusiasm for his new job," the authors write, "Vincent took a characteristically sudden, feverish interest in a subject toward which he had shown no particular inclination before: art." Not true. As the authors well know, V an Gogh drew copiously throughout his childhood. Their book reproduces a stiffly detailed barnyard scene sketched in pencil shortly before he turned 11. It is hard to know why Naifeh and Smith opted to disregard any art biographer's obligation to look at juvenilia and identify themes and preoccupations that recur in an artist's mature work.
In V an Gogh's case, his early drawings represent more than a vestigial glimmer of his later accomplishments. He was, of course, a master letter writer, and many of his early drawings were landscapes inserted like so many illustrations into the body of his letters. His instinct for combining text and images is fascinating, because you might say the chief struggle of his art was to integrate the two forms. In the end, he did find a way to make his paintings as alive as his correspondence; significantly, his marks as a painter are reminiscent of handwriting. In his masterpiece, Wheat Field With Crows, for instance, a profusion of short, blunt, parallel lines of cadmium yellow slant strongly to the right. The strokes of his brush come in a sequence, like words in a sentence. He transformed the trademark of Impressionism, the buttery brush stroke, into a calligraphic, confessional presence.
His early stint at Goupil & Cie was important because it acquainted him with a vast array of 19th-century prints. He remembered images that other people forgot and came to possess a deep, nearly erudite knowledge of art history. Or, as the authors clumsily put it: "Vincent kept a salesman's open mind about the images passing across his desktop."
For all its put-downs and grating cynicism, the book is highly readable and lavishes welcome attention on Van Gogh's lesser-known middle period. But the bulk of this book is taken up with his pre-Arles adventures, when he was trying to find his artistic bearings. He did not care for the newly ascendant French Impressionists, with their fixation on the shifting effects of sunlight, and accused them of elevating cleverness over substance. He preferred, in his own work, the smudgy atmospherics of black chalk and narratives involving lumpen weavers who lived on potatoes.
For inspiration, he turned to weekly British magazines such as The Graphic and Punch and cut out scenes attesting to poverty and illness. Van Gogh had an admirably daring eye; he found the line separating high and low culture entirely phony and preferred to divide the world's images into those that move you and those that merely pretend to sophistication.
After all that has been written about Van Gogh, there is still no agreement on who he was. Whether he was a high-IQ aesthete or an intellectual simpleton, a frugal-minded bohemian or a miscreant squandering spare resources; whether he was the Ingrate From Hell or a sensitive artist, or whether he was none of these - clearly, it is a sign of his greatness that so many people feel so proprietary about him. Yet not all interpretations are created equal. Perhaps only in an age that distrusts the notion of genius could we wind up with a life of Van Gogh that treats his iconoclasm as an expression of anger-management issues. Hasn't he suffered enough without this? © 2011 The New York Times.