Van Gogh on canvas and in correspondence

Van Gogh, A Retrospective, edited by Susan Alyson Stein. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Assoc., Inc.; distributed by Macmillan Publishing Company, N.Y. 385 pp. $75. If there were an all-world top ten of painters, it is likely that Vincent van Gogh would be on nearly every ballot.

His tragic life has been depicted in novel and on film, and most are aware that he (1) ate paint, (2) cut off his ear, and (3) committed suicide. But fortunately, Susan Stein has given us a book that cuts beneath the overt horror of his human experience and gives us a sensitive humane view of an artist struggling against the fierce onslaught of poverty and madness to place on canvas after canvas a vision of our world that is vibrant and alive.

This book has the appearance of a blockbuster coffee table display book, filled to overflowing with more full-color reproductions of Vincent's paintings than one is likely to see in person. But, lo, the wonder of this book is the text. Made up entirely of letters written at the time, the book lets the reader become an intimate participant in the life of this turbulent artist. The letters are those of his brother, Theo, his landlords, fellow artists, models, doctors, friends, art critics, and, most heart-rending, those of Vincent himself. Compulsive, obsessive as he was, there was a great love in this man for those about him and for the natural world he so vividly painted. And this love was returned by most of those he encountered.

One is moved by so many events in Vincent's experience: Theo's constant care and support, the disruptive relationships with other artists, the cool Cezanne and intense Gaugin, the total misunderstanding of his work during his brief lifetime, and his truly tragic demise.

One final note. In psychological circles today, creativity is equated with madness, and Van Gogh would probably be a prime example. But this text makes clear that his work was done during periods when he was not troubled. One senses an urgency on Vincent's part to accomplish as much as possible during these periods. Vincent worked only 10 years and produced an enormous number of paintings and drawings. Such output had to be the result of discipline and sanity.

This book is a testament to Van Gogh's achievements.

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