From childhood on, Vincent van Gogh was repeatedly described as “strange.” Though he learned to draw early—instructed by his mother, as were his five siblings—he wasn’t a prodigy in anything but loneliness and alienation. In their thorough, moving Van Gogh: The Life (Random House, $40), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pollock biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith present afresh the tormented history of one of modern art’s most distinctive and beloved painters. But during his life van Gogh was estranged from his family (including, for long stretches, his famous correspondent, brother Theo); failed at school; at his uncle’s art shops in The Hague, Paris, and London; at teaching and preaching, and, seemingly, at life itself. He came to art only in his late twenties, devoting the last decade of his life to it. Everything he’d attempted before that informed his work, however, and the authors skillfully reveal the deep roots of such quintessential van Gogh images as the sower, the starry night, and the solitary walker.
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