Lust For Life by Irving Stone
What a beautiful novel. I picked this out of a box of books that had been withdrawn from my college library. It’s a biographical account of the life of Vincent van Gogh. Irving Stone researched the book by following the path that van Gogh traveled during his life, and by drawing material from the robust correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo. It’s a book that’s simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring.
We follow van Gogh as a young man, trying to find his purpose in life: as an art dealer and teacher in England, as a divinity student in Amsterdam, and as an Evangelist in the coal mines of Belgium. Finally, he decides to dedicate his life to painting. For years he hones his craft in Holland under the most discouraging conditions. He lives in poverty, he starves, he takes constant abuse from the art community, yet he works on. He spends some time living with his family in the country, painting the peasants of Holland, trying to become the Dutch Millet. However, his romantic misadventures cause him constant problems in the rural community and with his family.
Finally, his brother Theo, who had been his greatest investor and only constant supporter, invites him to Paris to become a part of the art scene there. Here, van Gogh encounters the Impressionists and his whole perspective on painting is changed. He is introduced to color, to larger than life personalities (Gauguin, Cezanne, Emile Zola, Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, Seurat, etc.), and to absinthe…
In Paris, van Gogh breaks from the dark palette of Holland and merges his style with the vibrant colors of the Impressionists. Then he goes to Arles where the bright sun drives him into a period of unbelievable prolificacy, and perhaps towards madness as well. He begins to have fits (epileptic or psychotic?), and spends the rest of his life struggling to find balance in his life and his work. If he doesn’t paint, he finds his life meaningless, and if he paints with all his passion, he works himself into a nervous state and has episodes. Finally he loses the struggle and commits suicide (although there is some debate about whether he might have been murdered).
This was a fantastic read. Extremely engaging. I learned a lot, although it’s important to remember that the novel is fiction, even if it is rooted in fact. I was particularly moved by the relationship between Vincent and Theo (perhaps the greatest brother in history).
This would be a good book to keep around the library, but I think I’ll loan it to my grandfather (a massive fan of biography) before mailing it to a friend of mine who is a wonderful painter.