By Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Random House, October 18, 2011, 0375507485

Van Gogh is a thoroughly researched, well-written biography of a deeply complex man. It’s long (almost 1,000 pages) and rich in detail, and worth a read by anybody who is interested in history, art, psychology, or being human.

I grew up in a family of artists. My father was a master “draftsman”, who made his living as a commercial artist. Van Gogh was not an expert draftsman, and would have scoffed at anybody who created art for anything but art’s sake. He was driven to speak through his art. My dad didn’t use art as expression: it was just about it being beautiful. Van Gogh lived art and before that religion, which is a very intriguing part of this biography.

He also suffered from mental illness and temporal lobe epilepsy. He was a “crazy” preacher before he was a “crazy” artist. People did not understand him or his art. Sadly, just as he was being recognized and celebrated, he died (probably not by suicide). The (likely) false story of his suicide made him even more of a celebrity.

There are so many themes and paths through this biography that it is hard to summarize. I strongly recommend you read this book.

[k1062] On a rainy day in October 1864, Dorus and Anna van Gogh bundled their angry, alienated son into the family’s yellow carriage and drove him thirteen miles north to the town of Zevenbergen. There, on the steps of a boarding school, they said good-bye to eleven-year-old Vincent and drove away.

[k1437] This was the lesson Dorus taught his leasehold farmers–and his son Vincent: “Keep helping us by helping yourself.” Without self-sufficiency there could be no self-respect. “Make sure that you can be independent,” Theo van Gogh wrote his younger brother Cor, “for being dependent is a misery for yourself and for others.”

[k1618] Vincent kept a salesman’s open mind about the images passing across his desktop. Indeed, for the rest of his life, he rarely singled out either a work or an artist for criticism. Rather than drowning in this sea of images, his enthusiasm seemed buoyed by it. “Admire as much as you can,” he advised Theo about this time; “most people do not admire enough.”

[k2350] Like Vincent, Renan’s Jesus was a “provincial,” a Galilean, with “an exquisite sympathy” for nature, in which he often sought solace. The eldest of many brothers and sisters, but never married, Renan’s Jesus shunned his family and came to value “the bond of thought” more than “ties of blood.”

[k2833] “I’ve found a joy in sorrow,” he wrote. “Sorrow is better than laughter.”

[k2885] “I shall be unlucky if I cannot preach the Gospel,” he wrote ominously in early November. “If my lot is not to preach … well, misery is truly my lot.”

[k3115] By the time Vincent arrived, however, Dordt (as everyone called it) had declined into picturesque poverty, its former splendors preserved in the amber of neglect and nostalgia.

[k3209] “There is a time in life,” he wrote, “when one is tired of everything and feels, perhaps correctly, as if all one does is wrong.”

[k3319] Vincent was never more alive than in the presence of death. “Oh! It was so beautiful,” he recalled the scene. “I shall never forget that noble head lying on the pillow: the face showed signs of suffering, but wore an expression of peace and a certain holiness.”

[k3614] Some nights, he slipped out of the house before the doors were locked and slept on the ground in a nearby shed “without bed or blanket,” according to Mendes, to whom Vincent confessed this ritual of self-abuse, because “he felt that he had forfeited the privilege of spending that night in bed.”

[k3617] When an even harsher penance was called for, Mendes recalled, Vincent would take his walking stick to bed and beat himself across the back with it.

[k3802] For Vincent, this promise of redemption was the comforting Truth–the it–in every moonlit night or starry sky.

I hope never to forget what that drawing seems to tell me: “I am the light of the world, he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”…Such things twilight tells to those who have ears to hear and a heart to understand.

Portraits, too, were transformed by the search for it.

[k3812] But no composite portrait he “painted” that winter was more vivid than the one he painted of himself. Looking through old art magazines at his uncle’s bookstore, he ran across an etching entitled A Cup of Coffee, which he described to Theo:

A young man with rather severe, sharp features and a serious expression who looks just as if he were pondering over a fragment from Imitation [of Christ] or planning some difficult but good work, as only une ame en peine [a soul in pain] can do.

Vincent added to this unblinking self-portrait his own prescient postscript: “Such work is not always the worst; for what is wrought in sorrow, lives for all time.”

[k3815] from Imitation [of Christ] or planning some difficult but good work, as only une ame en peine [a soul in pain] can do. Vincent added to this unblinking self-portrait his own prescient postscript:

[k3850] Despite the increasingly intense pressure of his studies, he labored painstakingly over each map, copying it again and again until it “finally has the quality I want,” he said, “namely that it has been made with feeling and love.”

[k4059] Dorus and Anna despaired at the latest debacle. “We have not told anybody about this,” they wrote Theo, “don’t you, either … What is going to happen?”

Vincent was devastated. He had failed yet again, this time on the very lowest rung of religious training. Where could he go from here? After the final verdict, he could not eat or sleep. He fell ill and lost weight so precipitously that his landlord felt compelled to write his parents and ask them to “come and take Vincent home.” “He does not sleep and seems to be in a nervous state of mind,” Dorus told Theo at the end of November. “We are very worried.”

[k4162] Armed with his father’s recommendation, passable French, and replenished ardor, he soon found a position in Petit Wasmes, one of a cluster of small towns that cowered together in the shadow of the Marcasse and Frameries mines. There a small congregation had just started its own church and was, by law, entitled to a state-paid preacher.

[k4171] His initial letters home were filled with enthusiastic reports of his new ministry. “It’s the kind of work he likes to do,” Anna wrote, entertaining yet another cautious hope.

[k4206] The miners envied the well-fed horses, who lived their entire lives underground in comfortable warmth and the “good smell of fresh straw kept clean.”

[k4225] The miners, too, recognized their new preacher for a stranger. Attendance at his sermons, which he gave in French, started “haphazardly” and soon fell off. Lacking “a miner’s character and temperament,” Vincent lamented, he would “never get along with them or gain their confidence.”

As he always did when reality threatened, Vincent withdrew deeper and deeper into delusion.

[k4513] Homeless, penniless, friendless, faithless, he had reached the bottom of his long descent. Guilt and self-loathing overwhelmed him. He branded himself as “an objectionable and shady sort of character … a bad lot … a ne’er-do-well.” He complained of feeling “dreadful disappointment gnawing” at his spirit, and “a wave of disgust welling up inside.” “How can I be of use to anyone?” he concluded bitterly.

[k4649] The guilt expressed itself in relentless protests of hard work, apologetic pleas for patience, and pathetic promises to pay his brother back. (“Someday or other I shall earn a few pennies with some drawings,” he wrote in his very first letter as an artist.)

[k4795] His parents reeled under these spiraling demands. The sixty francs Dorus sent every month represented more than a third of his pastoral salary.

[k4985] Still bitterly sad over a death she considered unjust, she remained locked in mourning: a severe, unsmiling figure in high-buttoned black satin, forever sealed to her dead husband by grief; and to her timid son Jan, now eight, by their shared loss.

If anything, the death of Kee’s husband only perfected the image that had so enraptured Vincent in Amsterdam. “That deep grief of hers touches and moves me,” he wrote. Now, as then, her sadness cried out for consolation–for Vincent, still the heart’s highest calling–and her tiny, twice-wounded family seemed even more in need of the completion he longed to provide. But he saw her in another way, too. As part of his new ambition to throw off Kempian self-denial and reclaim his family’s favor, Vincent had decided that he needed a wife. “I was set against being alone,” he later recalled. His parents had often expressed their desire to see all their children married, and for Vincent in particular, they believed marriage would both anchor him and “spur him to acquire a social position.”

Vincent had discussed his new ambition with Theo in July before Kee’s arrival, expressing both his long frustration (“Women are the grief of the righteous”) and his new determination. “A man cannot stick it out in the open sea,” he argued; “he must have a little cottage on the shore with a bit of fire on the hearth–with a wife and children around that hearth.”

[k5070] To his surprise, the aging Cent received him warmly and told him “there really might be a chance for me if I worked hard and made progress.” After the visit, Cent gave him a paint box, an encouragement that Vincent found unexpectedly touching. “I am very glad to have it,” he said.

[k5108] With that, Vincent brought his brother fully into what would become the most furious campaign of persuasion he had ever mounted–in a life already filled with furious campaigns.

[k5140] To Theo, he pleaded the purity and chastity of his love for Kee. To Rappard, he argued the vapidity of romantic love and the imperative of carnal fulfillment.

[k5288] VINCENT NEVER RECOVERED from the events of Christmas Day 1881. “It is and remains a wound which I carry with me,” he wrote two years later.

[k5345] Like the movement he championed, Mauve stood near the zenith of his success when Vincent arrived in The Hague in the last days of 1881. Critics applauded and collectors clamored for his appealing images of life among the dunes and meadows, whether in oil or in watercolor.

[k5384] But it couldn’t last. No one could satisfy the demands of Vincent’s admiration for long, especially not the prickly, introverted Mauve. And Vincent’s wild flights of enthusiasm were always doomed to crash in disillusionment.

[k5422] Tersteeg did not mince words. He called Vincent’s pen drawings–his pride–“charmless” and “unsalable,” and reproached him for persisting in the clumsy, amateur sketches that filled his studio.

[k5427] Figure drawing, he told Vincent, “is a kind of narcotic which you take in order not to feel the pain caused by being unable to make watercolors.”

Even by the standards of their difficult past, it was a shattering indictment. Tersteeg had always had a perverse instinct for Vincent’s weaknesses; and Vincent, always a special sensitivity to his former boss’s rebukes.

[k5468] This was the pattern that would mark Vincent’s relationship with Tersteeg for the rest of his life: periodic fits of rage, followed by grudging efforts at reconciliation, followed by meaningless vows of indifference, in a rondo of obsession that never stopped.

[k5585] He bolstered this militant devotion to the figure by reading Alfred Sensier’s biography of Millet (“What a giant!”), and defended it with a campaign of words and images rallied by Millet’s battle cry: “L’art c’est un combat.”

[k5772] Only in his studio, with his models, could Vincent claim any advance in this mortal struggle. Everywhere else, victory eluded him: in his family, in his friendships, in his relations with his mentors, even in his endlessly compromised love for Theo. Only in his studio could he simulate the control that the world denied him elsewhere. Only here, directing his poor compliant models, could he make life submit to the images in his head. “If only one had to deal with people only inside the studio!” he exclaimed. “But personally I cannot get on well with people outside of it, and cannot get them to do anything.”

[k5939] Any poverty or suffering was best glimpsed through the correcting lens of art, and all love’s real lessons could be learned from his portfolio of prints.

[k5942] In Vincent’s reality, images told stories.

[k5965] To achieve significance, an image had to strip away the specifics of the observed world and “concentrate on what makes us sit up and think.” An image that “rises above nature,” he said, “is the highest thing in art.”

[k5972] In Vincent’s reality, images evoked emotions.

[k5974] Art should be “personal and intimate,” he said, and concern itself with “what touches us as human beings.”

[k5977] He hailed “sentiment” as the sine qua non of all great art, and set for his own art the highest goal: “to make drawings that touch some people.”

[k5985] In Vincent’s reality, both the search for significance and the search for sentiment demanded simplicity. In his own work, he pledged to seek images “that almost everybody will understand”–to simplify each image “to the essentials, with a deliberate disregard of those details that do not belong.”

[k5993] The search for simple truths dominated Vincent’s visual world. He loved cartoons–everything from the political send-ups of the British magazine Punch to the caricatures of the two great French illustrators of the century, Paul Gavarni and Honore Daumier, whose droll, sometimes hilarious drawings of bourgeois vanity and official buffoonery carried a weight of humanity as heavy as Millet’s toiling peasants.

[k5996] Like Daumier and Millet, Vincent shared the Victorian fascination with “types.” The notion that human behavior could be explained through physical appearances was only one of the many comforting pseudosciences spun off by the century’s social, economic, and spiritual upheavals.

[k6008] Onto this childhood template, the new gospels of physiognomy and phrenology, the “tournure” of Daumier and Gavarni, the icons of Millet and the English illustrators, only added layers of refinement and confirmation.

This was the “reality” that Vincent increasingly imposed on the world around him. “I see a world,” he said, “which is quite different from what most painters see.”

[k6015] It was a reality of uncompromising simplicity. Even his greatest passions had to conform to simple formulae, like the captions on his prints, whether “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” or “aimer encore.”

[k6026] He treated people according to type, expected them to act according to type, and judged them according to type.

[k6030] Most of all, artists should act like artists. Again and again in Vincent’s defiant standoff with the world, he invoked the destiny of “type” to define and justify himself.

[k6036] “I do not intend to think and live less passionately than I do,” he declared. “I am myself.”

[k6048] All women were easily deceived and readily deserted, he believed, but poor women especially, if not taken care of by a man, were always “in great, immediate danger of being drowned in the pool of prostitution” and lost forever.

[k6058] HOLD UP IN HIS Schenkweg studio, surrounded by prostitutes posing as maternal icons, orphans as shoeblacks, vagrants as Millet farmers, and pensioners as fishermen, Vincent could keep the real world at bay.

[k6310] Vincent’s art would also have to change. Despite his last-minute conversion to landscape and color, Vincent had continued to resist Theo’s pressure to make salable art. Only a few days before, he had argued in a letter that “to work for the market is in my opinion not exactly the right way,” and dismissed “speculation” in art as nothing more than “deceiving amateurs.”

[k6358] “When I paint,” he wrote Theo, “I feel a power of color in me that I did not possess before, things of broadness and strength.” After some initial hesitation, he “plunged headlong” into the new medium with all his characteristic fervor and abandon.

[k6375] “I have a painter’s heart,” he proclaimed. “Painting is in the very marrow of my bones.”

And then he stopped.

[k6396] “What am I in the eyes of most people,” he lamented, “a nonentity, an eccentric or an unpleasant person–somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low.”

[k6433] Mocked in public, scorned by his fellow artists, alienated from his brother, and facing the challenges of a new family and a new medium, Vincent escaped into the past on a wave of nostalgia. He blamed his ostracism on the “skepticism, indifference, and coolness” of modern life: its decadence, its dullness, its lack of passion. With a poignancy striking for a twenty-nine-year-old man, he mourned his lost youth and cursed the factories, railways, and agricultural combines that were robbing the Brabant countryside of its “stern poetry.” “My life,” he wrote Theo, “is not as sunny now as it was then.”

[k6455] By the time Vincent arrived in London in 1873, weekly illustrated magazines had become the rage. As the audience for them grew bigger and more sophisticated, so did the images. Thanks to the same advances in printmaking that made Adolphe Goupil and Cent van Gogh rich, publishers could achieve a subtlety of detail and tone unthinkable in the early years when drawings had to be painstakingly carved, in reverse, onto boxwood boards.

[k6667] Yet again, his grand plans fell victim to his overheated expectations.

[k6783] On March 30, Vincent passed his thirtieth birthday alone, rereading Hugo’s tale of hounded exile, Les miserables. “Sometimes I cannot believe that I am only thirty years old,” he wrote. “I feel so much older when I think that most people who know me consider me a failure, and how it really might be so.”

[k6876] He linked the Impressionists to the forces of decadence about which Herkomer had “sounded the alarm bell.” “The changes that the moderns have made in art are not always for the better,” he cautioned his brother, “neither in the works nor in the artists themselves.” He accused the Impressionists of “losing sight of the origin and the goal” of art. He associated their confectionary colors and unfocused forms with the “hurry and bustle” of modern life, with the ugly summer houses of Scheveningen, the disappearing moors of Brabant, and everything else that had “taken the joy out of life.”

[k7083] At the same time his debts mounted, he fell deeper and deeper into isolation. In June, he was refused permission to draw in the almshouse, cutting him off from Zuyderland and the other almshouse residents.

[k7100] Vincent’s ailments seemed never to subside, only to accumulate. Reports of nervousness, feverishness, faintness, and dizziness continued throughout the spring and summer, rising in a defensive crescendo–as they always did–in advance of his brother’s arrival.

[k7157] Throwing aside the careful circumspection of their letters, they reopened every wound inflicted in the year since they had last met, provoking each other to towering rages and fuming silences. This time Theo insisted that Vincent find a job and make more efforts to sell his own work. Business at Goupil had fallen off (as it had everywhere in the recession of 1882–83) and Theo’s finances were strained to the breaking point.

[k7173] When Theo’s train pulled away from the station that night, Vincent’s parting thought was that his brother had become his father.

[k7232] Vincent left The Hague in search of Theo. On the moors of Drenthe, he seemed to imagine, the brothers might finally find the mythic union they had pledged each other on the road to Rijswijk. It was a redemption second only to the one that always beckoned him from an even more distant moor. Vincent had sacrificed everything–wife, family, home, art–to this elusive vision of perfect brotherhood. Soon it would be Theo’s turn to do the same.

[k7587] In early November, Theo tried yet again to cut off the exchange with an especially curt note. “For the present,” he wrote, “things will remain as they are.” It had exactly the opposite effect. Enraged, Vincent shot back an ultimatum that exposed the raw need beneath his exhausted arguments. If Theo did not quit Goupil, he warned, “it is my intention to refuse your financial help.”

[k7653] Everywhere he turned, they had opposed him, obstructed him, thwarted him. Their implacable disapproval had brought him to tears of indignation. “I am no criminal,” he cried. “I don’t deserve to be treated in such an inhuman way.” In his love for Kee Vos, in his artistic ambitions, in his rescue of Sien, they had “closed their ears and eyes” and “hardened their hearts” against him.

[k7661] Like Gerome’s prisoner being ferried to his oriental Golgotha, Vincent came home seeking victory in victimhood. “To my way of thinking,” he explained Gerome’s painting, “the man lying fettered is in a better position than the fellow who has the upper hand and is taunting him.” Why? Because “it is better to provoke a blow,” he declared, “even if it is a hard blow, than to be indebted to the world for sparing you.”

LESS THAN AN HOUR after he arrived, Vincent provoked the first blow.

[k7686] Declaring himself and his father “irreconcilable down to the depths of our souls,” Vincent surrendered to despair after only one day.

[k7693] “Old fellow,” he begged his brother, “help me get away from here if you can.”

Yet he stayed.

He stayed for almost two years.

[k7705] Between the father’s well-meaning self-righteousness and the son’s paralyzed vulnerability, there could be no common ground.

[k8427] When Theo tried to reopen consideration of the Impressionists, Vincent recoiled even more sharply. Claiming both ignorance (“I have seen absolutely nothing of them”) and indifference (“I am little curious about or desirous for other or newer things”), he dismissed Impressionism as nothing more than the elevation of charm over substance. “I do not disdain [it],” he said disdainfully, “but it does not add very much to the beauty of what is true.”

[k8507] Pushing himself to go faster and faster (“I must paint a lot”), Vincent learned to complete an entire portrait in a single morning. He reached his goal of fifty heads by the end of February 1885 and still continued doing them–a record of monomaniacal labor unmatched since the orphan man Zuyderland stepped before his relentless pencil in The Hague.

[k8602] The coming of Christmas, with its cruel promise of family harmony and universal joy, pushed Vincent fully into despair.

[k8715] Even afterward, in his letters, Vincent never referred to the dramatic events of March 26, nor ever expended a single word of his profligate descriptive powers on the day of his father’s funeral procession through the wheat fields.

That day, March 30, was also Vincent’s birthday: his thirty-second.

[k8855] But Vincent saw only Sensier’s Millet: a sentimental man-child with a vivid, maverick imagination; misunderstood by the public, spurned by critics, and hounded by creditors; a melancholic loner given to uncontrollable fits of weeping and suicidal musings; an artist filled with defiant passion and inexplicable guilt. “I don’t want to stop feeling pain,” Sensier quoted his subject. “Pain is what makes the artist express himself most distinctly.”

[k8958] Railing against the “so-called civilized world” that “banished [me] because of my clogs,” he claimed a martyrdom of solidarity with all the “common people”–not just the potato eaters of Nuenen, but also the groundlings of Zundert, and the miners of the Borinage.

[k8962] This was no delusion, Vincent insisted. The world was delusion.

[k9139] Consistency was always an early casualty in Vincent’s persuasive terrors, but his defense of The Potato Eaters cracked open a rift of contradiction that had run through his artistic ambitions from the start. Deprived of natural facility, he had always clung to the faith that hard work and mastery of the rules, from Bargue to Blanc, would be rewarded with success. He defensively ridiculed the notions of “innate genius” and “inspiration,” while exalting his own meager tools: “drudgery,” “science,” and most of all, energy. But in the face of continuing frustration and failure, he had always left open another way of defining success.

[k9152] Only after Portier and Serret added their voices to Theo’s criticism (Serret had pointed out “certain faults in the structure of the figures”) did Vincent abandon his claim to “lifelike” figures and fall back on his last line of defense: passion.

[k9324] Instead, his fevered defenses had landed him on a distant, unknown shore: a place without “true” color or line; a place where hues clashed and objects took shape unhindered by nature’s narrow-mindedness.

The art that Vincent described did not exist yet: not in his books or portfolios of prints, not on the walls of any galleries or museums, and certainly not on Vincent’s easel. Nothing could have been further from it than the turgid, tenebrous image that set the storm in motion, or the scores of paintings and drawings with which he had tried to justify it. Hardened in opposition to his brother’s advisements to bright colors and mired in yet another fantasy of family, Vincent clung to the aggrieved palette and rejected subjects of The Potato Eaters long after his Odyssean vision had left them behind.

[k9363] The Jewish Bride was only one of dozens of images Vincent consumed that day.

[k9372] Unfamiliar to Vincent until he entered the gallery where it hung, Hals’s huge painting of a proud company of Amsterdam militiamen struck him dumb. “I was literally rooted to the spot,” he reported to Theo. “That alone–that one picture–is worth the trip to Amsterdam.”

[k9472] In the studio, he rejected the dusty apples and potatoes of the previous month with a large still life of brightly colored fruit and vegetables rendered in bold complementary contrasts.

[k9475] In these and a dozen more paintings he tore through in the first weeks after returning from Amsterdam, Vincent displayed another new freedom he had learned at the Rijksmuseum: speed. In this, too, his arguments had long outpaced his art.

[k9478] Easily frustrated and desperate for signs of progress, he justified his manic (and expensive) work habits by arguing that quantity would yield quality in the end, and therefore speed mattered more than the precision he could never master.

[k9530] By relentlessly equating his art and himself, he had seized the high ground of modernism staked out by Zola: the singularity and primacy of artistic temperament

[k9533] When his peasant models fled, they took with them his only escape from the self-accounting that he always dreaded. He continued to resist the most obvious form of introspection–self-portraits–but the lack of models set him inexorably on that inward path.

[k9551] Looking around his studio in November for a subject to replace the faithless peasants, Vincent found an object that invited him to probe the unhealed wound only touched in The Old Church Tower at Nuenen.

[k9577] To complete this chronicle of rejection, grief, self-reproach, and defiance, Vincent added at the last minute a new object–an extinguished candle–the final snuffing out of the rayon noirz, and a confession that he could never make any other way.

[k9606] Trust the spirit, as sovereign nature does, to make the form; for otherwise we only imprison spirit, and not embody.

[k9683] Abandoning his rhetoric on the joys of the heath and solidarity with the peasants, he hailed the “bustle” of Antwerp’s chaotic commercial life, claiming “I needed it badly.”

[k9977] He forbade the use of any fudges that might interfere with the search for the perfect line: no maul sticks, no hatching, no stippling, no tinting with stumps or chalk.

[k9979] But Vincent knew only fudges. All of his figures emerged from the fire of trying–from relentless attempts, using every means and material available, to create a convincing image. Where Siberdt demanded simplicity–black lines against a white background–Vincent could give him only shadows.

[k10032] He went through the motions of submitting a drawing to the competition, the concours, that concluded the term, but mocked himself for trying (“I am sure I shall place last”). Still, he could not have been prepared for the judges’ recommendation that he be sent down to an “elementary level” course to draw with ten-year-olds.

[k10040] The teeth that he had often cited as symbols of his virility rotted and broke off. His cheeks sank, his stomach ached, his indestructible body went weak and feverish. But he couldn’t tell Theo why.

[k10178] In the decade since Vincent left Paris in disgrace after his fall from Goupil, the Impressionists’ long struggle for legitimacy (and sales) had moved from insurgency to vindication to eclipse. Their relentless descriptions of sunlight and bourgeois ephemera seemed more and more a confectioner’s art–pretty, optimistic, and meaningless–to artists and critics hungering for expressions of the fin-de-siecle darkness.

[k10247] VINCENT ARRIVED IN Paris with only one mandate: to please Theo. He had come unannounced, unexpected, and unwelcome.

[k10458] NOTHING SET VINCENT apart from his fellow students more than his lack of facility. If he had wielded a pencil as wittily as Lautrec or a brush as winningly as Anquetin, his strange appearance might have been overlooked, his blunt manner forgiven. Led by Anquetin, who had drawn exquisitely since his schoolboy days in Normandy, and Lautrec, a precocious illustrator, Cormon’s acolytes put a high premium on drawing, just as their master did.

[k10472] “We considered his work too unskillful,” recalled a fellow Cormon student; “there were many who could surpass him from that point of view.” Another said, “His drawings had nothing remarkable about them.”

[k10484] By summer, he was gone. He had promised to study at Cormon’s for three years; he stayed less than three months.

[k10493] A Cormon classmate remembered how Vincent “used to rage from time to time that though connected with the picture trade no one would buy anything he did.”

[k10527] The combination of wealth, license, and the opportunity for display made Paris the capital of sexual gratification–and venereal disease–on a randy continent in a libertine era.

[k10529] Virtually every artist in Cormon’s atelier not only kept a mistress but also made nightly forays into Paris’s libidinous underworld. Even Russell would leave the beautiful (and pregnant) Marianna to enjoy the end-of-empire decadence available on almost every street corner.

[k10537] “The whore is like meat in a butcher’s shop,” he wrote in 1888, “and I sink back into my brutish state.”

[k10762] In his unreasoning vehemence, he often ended up arguing both sides of an issue, as if the fight were all that mattered. “One hears him talk first in one way, then in the other,” Theo exclaimed in exasperation, “with arguments which are now all for, now all against the same point.”

[k11084] Goupil would risk its money and its reputation in a search for the next Impressionists, whoever they might be.

Finally, they chose the man to lead the search: Theo van Gogh.

History would later give Theo full credit for Goupil’s initiative in the new art.

[k11091] In the end, the fateful decision to give Theo van Gogh the mandate to deal in the new art on behalf of Goupil may have hinged on an accident of architecture: only the Montmartre branch offered a discreetly separate display area–a small, ill-lit mezzanine, or entresol–where the controversial new images could be quarantined from the firm’s less adventurous clientele.

[k11121] For all these reasons, Theo enjoyed a power in the contemporary art world far out of proportion to the modest funds and timid initiatives he deployed starting in the fall of 1887.

[k11132] To help him find his way through this clamor of advocacy and chaos of imagery, Theo turned to the one person whose eye and allegiance he trusted: his brother.

[k11141] “Never denounce a movement in the arts,” Tersteeg warned, “[for] what you denounce today, in ten years may make you kneel.”

[k11214] Other artists were drawn to the burning flame of enterprise on the rue Lepic and the entresol, but only Bernard bid for Theo’s favor by directly courting his strange and difficult brother.

[k11226] Suddenly he went wild,” Guillaumin told an early chronicler, “shouting that the movements were all wrong, and he began jumping about the studio, wielding an imaginary spade, waving his arms, making what he considered to be the appropriate gestures.” The scene reminded Guillaumin of a painting by Delacroix: Tasso in the Madhouse. But civility to a madman was a small price to pay for a chance to show on the entresol.

[k11289] Vincent opened a dialogue of imagery with each of the painters in the brothers’ circle.

[k11292] He answered Lautrec’s pastel portrait of him with still lifes–one of a glass of absinthe–done in the same soft palette and feathery strokes.

[k11298] Emile Bernard introduced Vincent, in both words and images, to a radically new direction in art. Intent on being a leader, not a follower, Bernard advocated an imagery that would overturn Impressionism, not merely “renew” it. Beginning in 1887, he developed a stylized art of flat planes of color and bold outlines arranged to maximum ornamental effect, and compositions reduced to the simplest possible geometries–in short, an art that defied the canons of Impressionism in all its forms, indicting equally the feckless vagaries of Monet and the faux precision of Seurat. Both had failed in art’s greatest mission, he argued: to penetrate to the essence of life.

[k11304] These ideas belonged originally to Anquetin, a fearless innovator; the imagery, to the reclusive Paul Cezanne. But Bernard advertised them to Vincent in the bold new language of the Symbolists–the language of Huysmans’s A rebours.

[k11330] Vincent was drawn especially to images of geishas (as he was to all depictions of pleasuring women) and to busy city scenes: detailed panoramas of a distant world that appealed both to his long obsession with perspective and to his natural window-gazing, eavesdropping curiosity.

[k11334] It wasn’t until late 1887, however, when Bernard introduced him to their symbolist secrets–their expressive code–that Vincent accepted the simple prints as lessons for his own art.

[k11393] Vincent couldn’t help his vehemence. Every idea he ever seized, he seized to its furthest margin; every enthusiasm, wrung to its extremity. In his effort to capture “a sense of life’s intensity,” Bernard wrote of Vincent’s painting, “he tortures the paint … He denies all wisdom, all striving for perfection or harmony.”

[k11401] NO ONE KNOWS why Vincent left Paris in February 1888.

[k11413] The cloud of explanations that Vincent offered for his departure–shape-shifting with every gust of enthusiasm or self-justification–only confirms the fundamental inexplicability of it.

[k11449] As for the pleasures of whores and the dangers of syphilis, Vincent offered another license: “Once you’ve caught it,” he said blithely, “you’ll never catch it again.”

[k11461] By the time Vincent departed, the brothers had achieved a euphoria of unity unseen since the Zundert parsonage.

[k11486] Two years later, only months before his death and with the clarity of madness, Vincent admitted the truth about his leaving:

After Father was no more and I came to Theo in Paris, then he became so attached to me that I understood how much he had loved Father…. It is a good thing that I did not stay in Paris, for we, he and I, would have become too close.

[k11622] Under the spell of yet another vision of success, Vincent made extravagant promises to his partner in Paris. “Take these three for your own collection,” he urged Theo concerning one of his triptychs, “and do not sell them, for they will each be worth 500 later on.”

[k11625] But his illusions were short-lived.

[k11632] “When I stopped drinking and smoking so much,” he wrote, “I began to think again instead of trying not to think. Good Lord, the depression and the prostration of it!”

[k11806] Vincent couldn’t even persuade his fellow artists to exchange works with him. Seurat, Pissarro, Russell, Gauguin, Bernard, even the talentless Koning, all passed up opportunities to trade paintings, despite Vincent’s persistent importuning.

[k12351] Gauguin proposed that Theo lead an effort to raise the astounding sum of six hundred thousand francs “to set up as a dealer in impressionist pictures.”

[k12362] In desperate straits, Gauguin finally backpedaled from his grand scheme and wrote Theo “replying categorically and affirmatively to the proposition you made me concerning going to Arles.”

[k12423] With increasing frequency, he referred to himself as “mad” or “cracked” or “crazy”–sometimes in self-conscious jest, sometimes in deadly earnest. Being treated like a madman, he warned pointedly, can lead to “actually becoming so.”

[k12512] Then, just as suddenly, his brush would dart to his palette, dabbing and stirring, dabbing and stirring, searching for a new color; then rush to the canvas, bursting with new arguments and fresh fervor. “[He] became a fanatic as soon as he touched a paint brush,” recalled the Zouave Milliet disapprovingly. “A canvas needs to be seduced; but Van Gogh, he, he raped it.”

[k12541] “Great things do not just happen by impulse,” he had written early in his career, “but are a succession of small things linked together.”

[k12560] Inevitably, once his brush touched canvas, all Vincent’s nights of careful planning collided with the impetuous rush of paint.

[k12595] “I am vain enough to want to make a certain impression on Gauguin with my work,” he confessed, “so I cannot help wanting to do as much work as possible before he comes.”

[k12726] “One cannot study Japanese art without becoming much happier and more cheerful,” he assured them.

[k12729] “Japanese artists often used to exchange works among themselves,” he explained. “The relationship between them was evidently, and quite naturally, brotherly … The more we can copy them in this respect the better for us.”

[k12733] LIKE ALL HIS DESPERATE bids for belonging, Vincent’s campaign for membership in the brotherhood of “Japanese” artists carried the seeds of its own undoing. The same crosscurrents of devotion and antagonism, adhesion and aversion, that roiled his love for Theo and his friendship with Van Rappard quickly undermined his relations with Pont-Aven.

[k12738] Throughout the summer, his letters to both Bernard and Gauguin squirmed between allegiance and resistance.

[k12741] While Gauguin proved an erratic and unengaged correspondent, Bernard matched Vincent argument for argument, passion for passion, in a tug-of-war over the direction of the new movement. With Gauguin, who had a direct channel to Theo, Vincent struck an almost reverential tone (“I do not want to say depressing or dismal or malicious things to so great an artist,” he told Theo). But with Bernard, who shared his letters with Gauguin, Vincent could dominate the three-way conversation while preserving the appearance of deference to the older artist.

[k12879] Obsessively introspective and often alone, Vincent thought deeply about questions that preoccupied the writers, artists, and philosophers he read; but his personal theories on art, as on everything else, were neither coherent nor consistent. He never could command consistency from himself (not even within the same letter, much less between correspondents), nor could he keep his ideas isolated from the swirling currents of his emotions. Even within a single painting, his palette and brush often skidded from theory to theory, from model to model, in pursuit of the emotion that seized him–the only dogma that mattered.

[k13240] “I have a terrible need of–shall I say the word?–religion,” he wrote, shuddering at the confession. “Then I go out at night to paint the stars.”

[k13278] But only one man could lead them. “There must be an abbot to keep order,” Vincent insisted. “Gauguin and not I will be the head of the studio.”

[k13280] “You have committed yourself to Gauguin body and soul,” he solemnly instructed his brother. Only in this way could they achieve the procreative triumph that Vincent had long envisioned. “I can see my own painting coming to life,” he imagined. “And if we stick to it, all this will help to make something more lasting than ourselves.”

[k13296] How would Gauguin, a man of forty with multiple careers and a world of experience, respond to Vincent’s devouring need to reshape the people and things closest to him because he could change so little else about his life?

[k13340] He had come of age on the fringes of Impressionism, studied with Toulouse-Lautrec, and exhibited at the Salon while still a teenager. Financially secure but spiritually thirsting, Laval, who had lost his real father at age eight, distinguished himself among all the young painters of Pont-Aven as Gauguin’s most devoted acolyte.

[k13384] Gauguin denounced the Neo-Impressionists as makers of “petit-point tapestries” and cursed “those damn dots.” Pissarro accused Gauguin of “bad manners” and dismissed his art as “a sailor’s art, picked up here and there.” “At bottom his character is anti-artistic,” Pissarro sized up his former friend, “he is a maker of odds and ends.” Degas called him “a pirate.”

[k13391] Banishing his past as a bourgeois Sunday painter, stockbroker, and Impressionist hanger-on, he grew his hair long and dressed in operatic costumery (extreme dishevelment one day, swaggering capes the next, often bedecked in ostentatious jewelry).

[k13469] Instead, he found only Theo’s cautious optimism and his strange brother’s suffocating enthusiasm. “All I have brought back from the tropics arouses nothing but admiration,” he wrote acidly in November

  1. “Nevertheless, I do not arrive.”

[k13485] Gauguin not only dominated the young challenger Bernard (though the two would soon clash over authorship of the new art), he underscored his primitive primacy by seducing Bernard’s seventeen-year-old sister Madeleine.

[k13538] Vincent reeled under his guest’s onslaught of success. Just as Gauguin’s hearty condition foiled Vincent’s argument that all true artists suffered for their art, Gauguin’s successes on the entresol undermined years of excuses for why his own art had failed to sell.

[k13582] (“My body is not attractive enough to women to get them to pose for me free for nothing,” he lamented.) In these fabled precincts, Gauguin, on the other hand, flourished. With his hypnotic sensuality and menacing physicality, he seduced the beautiful and aloof Arlesiennes with an audacity–and lack of conscience–that left Vincent breathless with envy.

[k13733] Unlike his guest, Vincent could not draw freehand. He depended on models, studio “tricks” like the perspective frame, and endless attempts to achieve anything like verisimilitude. Even then, the sure lines and graceful contours of Degas (or Gauguin) eluded him. He could use the new art’s mandate to “exaggerate and simplify” as an excuse for his weak draftsmanship, just as he had used Delacroix’s par coeur call to justify his errant lines, impetuous brush, and perpetual inability to render “likenesses.” But without the opposition of reality, without the cover of defiant deviation, his weaknesses would be laid bare. There was no perspective frame for the imagination.

[k15048] The two men were on their way to sign the lease when something inside Vincent collapsed. “He suddenly confessed to me that for the time being he lacked the courage to stand on his own feet,” Salles reported, “and that it would be infinitely wiser and very much better for him if he spent two or three months in a mental home.”

[k15178] In the asylum’s cloistered calm, undisturbed by police, creditors, landlords, street boys, or spying neighbors, Vincent found the serenity he had always longed for. “Where I must follow a rule,” he once said, “I feel at peace.”

[k15183] No paintings stared down from the walls–no ghosts from the past. All had been either sent to Theo or left in Arles. The great weights of ambition and expectation had been lifted from his shoulders.

[k15191] For the first time in his career as an artist, he could draw and paint in public unmolested and unmocked.

[k15283] Morel’s theory of degeneration–the final and most sinister expression of his century’s fascination (and Vincent’s) with “types”–would wreak an awful toll in the century that followed: from sterilization campaigns to extermination camps. But for Vincent, it proved a liberation. By giving the storms in his head a medical explanation, Peyron lifted the weight of the past off Vincent’s shoulders.

[k15383] Now, finally, in the clarity and serenity of his alpine retreat, Vincent could set aside his useless perspective frame, unclench his fist, and let his brush find the truest image.

[k15468] IN THE CENTURY after Starry Night was painted, scientists would discover that “latent” epileptic fits resembled fireworks of electrical impulses in the brain. William James called them “nerve storms”–“explosions” of abnormal neural discharges that could be triggered by just a few “epileptic neurons” in a brain made up of billions of neurons.

[k15466] Guided only by “feeling and instinct,” like the ancient Egyptians, he painted a night sky unlike any the world had ever seen with ordinary eyes: a kaleidoscope of pulsating beacons, whirlpools of stars, radiant clouds, and a moon that shone as brightly as any sun–a fireworks of cosmic light and energy visible only in Vincent’s head.

IN THE CENTURY after Starry Night was painted, scientists would discover that “latent” epileptic fits resembled fireworks of electrical impulses in the brain. William James called them “nerve storms”–“explosions” of abnormal neural discharges that could be triggered by just a few “epileptic neurons” in a brain made up of billions of neurons.

[k15474] The brain could weather these storms, researchers discovered, but it could never fully recover from them. Each attack lowered the threshold for the next attack and permanently altered the functions that had been shaken. The combination of fear (of another attack) and underlying neurological changes in the affected area of the brain created a pattern of behavior–a syndrome–associated with what came to be known as “temporal lobe epilepsy.”

[k15488] Stress, alcohol, poor diet, vitamin deficiencies, emotional shocks, all could increase the brain’s susceptibility to electrical storms.

[k15494] Vivid dreams, unexpected events, rejection by loved ones, derogation by strangers, ambushes of memory, eruptions of “intense meaningfulness” (whether from religious thoughts or metaphysical musings)–any or all could provoke the troubled brain to another attack.

[k16093] “I often think that if I had done as you did,” he wrote Theo in a spasm of regret, “if I had stayed with Goupils, if I had confined myself to selling pictures, I should have done better.”

By the week before Christmas, Vincent had worked himself into a fever of dread. “It is exactly a year ago that I had that attack,” he wrote as the day approached.

[k16139] He blamed himself not only for his illness, but for not seeking treatment sooner and not recovering faster.

[k16214] HOLIDAY SHOPPERS PASSING BY THE PAINT STORE OF JULIEN “PERE” Tanguy at Christmastime in 1889 saw something very strange in the window: two huge bouquets of sunflowers.

[k16218] Some were startled by this vision of summer in the wintry gloom; some, bemused; many, dismayed.

[k16219] But others came looking for it. They had read Jozef Isaacson’s article in De Portefeuille in September or registered the brief mention in La Vogue that same month; or they had seen the tantalizingly cryptic review by a pseudonymous columnist named “Le Flaneur” in the April Le Moderniste Illustre directing them to Tanguy’s shop, where they could find “pictures fantastically spirited, intense, full of sunshine.”

[k16226] One of those who came to Tanguy’s in search of the myth, as well as the art, was a young art critic named Albert Aurier.

[k16234] Aurier arrived in Paris as a wunderkind writer and critic. He published his first journal at age nineteen, wrote for Le Chat Noir by twenty, and caught Mallarme’s eye at twenty-one. His meteoric rise coincided exactly with the ascendance of the critic as the single most powerful voice in the art world.

[k16238] As the influence of the Salon’s prizes waned, critics and reviews rushed into the vacuum of discernment, clamoring for the attention of bourgeois buyers bewildered by the dizzying array of choices now open to them.

[k16242] The era of art franchises had begun. The model, of course, was Georges Seurat, whose distinctive Pointillist images had been championed by the critic Felix Feneon not just as attractive decorations and masterpieces of craft, but as inevitable expressions of the zeitgeist.

[k16245] Art was no longer enough. In a culture besotted by words and fashion, art needed advocates to persuade and mobilize; and artists needed movements to succeed. Critics provided both.

[k16250] During the long summer of 1888, while Vincent flooded both his comrades in far-off Brittany with ringing calls to the new art of Japan, Bernard circulated among the holiday crowds in Pont-Aven using Vincent’s ideas, and even some passages and drawings from his letters, to “sell” the new movement to influential critics like Gustave Geffroy. Another of his targets was the lanky twenty-three-year-old rising star Albert Aurier.

[k16264] Only a few days later, on Christmas Eve 1888, Gauguin had fled the Yellow House. It was hardly surprising that, upon his arrival in Paris, he immediately contacted Bernard; or that the first person to whom Bernard reported the terrifying story was Albert Aurier.

[k16285] But the letter backfired. Indeed, Gauguin’s campaign to acquit himself worked at cross purposes with his outreach for favor. To the true believer Aurier, champion of outcasts and deviants, Vincent van Gogh, not Paul Gauguin, emerged from Bernard’s narrative as the truer artist. For Aurier, Vincent’s unthinking fury–whether directed at Gauguin (as Gauguin later claimed) or at himself–represented exactly the kind of extreme experience, the orgasmic surrender to sensation, that Huysmans exalted in A rebours.

[k16292] According to Lombroso, many of history’s greatest artists–Moliere, Petrarch, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, the Goncourt brothers–had suffered epileptic fits.

[k16297] Throughout 1889, while Gauguin and Bernard vied for the favor of the Catholic critic with increasingly hortatory images of Christ, Aurier’s interest stayed fixed on the lonely figure locked away in a Midi asylum.

[k16306] What better subject for the inaugural issue of his new journal, Mercure de France, that would greet the New Year and the new decade in January 1890?

[k16320] From these opening trumpets, Aurier’s article clamored with the thrill of discovery. He had found a genius–an “exciting and powerful,” “profound and complex” artist–an “intense and fantastic colorist, grinder of golds and of precious stones”–“vigorous, exalted, brutal, intense”–“master and conqueror”–“unbelievably dazzling.”

[k16337] He had revealed reality for the “enchantress” she was–an enchantress that kept most mortals under her spell using “a sort of marvelous language” that only artist-savants like Vincent could decipher.

[k16344] Never had there been a painter, Aurier exclaimed, whose art appealed so directly to the senses: from the “indefinable aroma” of his sincerity to the “flesh and matter” of his paint, from the “brilliant and radiant symphonies” of his color to the “intense sensuality” of his line.

[k16351] “Finally, and above all,” he wrote, “[Van Gogh] is a hyper-aesthetic … who perceives with abnormal, perhaps even painful, intensities”–intensities “invisible to healthy eyes” and “removed from all banal paths…. His is a brain at its boiling point, irresistibly pouring down its lava into all of the ravines of art, a terrible and demented genius, often sublime, sometimes grotesque, always at the brink of the pathological. “

[k16356] Anyone could claim Symbolist ideas or imagery, Aurier wrote, throwing down a gauntlet to any artist who aspired to Vincent’s example. But only a privileged few could claim a true Symbolist temperament. And these few were chosen by nature, not affect; by instinct, not intellect.

[k16361] Indeed, Aurier claimed for Vincent the greatest prize of all–the crown of L’oeuvre. Ever since Zola’s masterpiece appeared in 1885, on the eve of Vincent’s arrival in Paris, its call for a new art for the new age had gone unanswered.

[k16373] AS AURIER UNDOUBTEDLY expected, his article rocked the art world like an anarchist’s bomb.

[k16375] For many, the exhibition of Les Vingt, opening in Brussels only a few weeks after the article appeared, offered their first glimpse of Aurier’s new “genius.” To bait public interest still further, Aurier wrote a condensed version of his paean, titled simply “Vincent van Gogh,” for the January 19 issue of L’Art Moderne, the Belgian organ of Les Vingt, which appeared on the eve of the opening.

[k16382] But avant-garde artists and critics rallied to the double charge. They praised Vincent’s “fierce impasto” and “powerful effects.” “What a great artist!” they cried. “Instinctive … a born painter.”

[k16395] Long indisposed (and unaccustomed) to flattery, Vincent first responded to the article with blushing surprise and self-effacing denials. “I do not paint like that,” he wrote Theo immediately, as if to cut off any borning expectations. “My back is not broad enough to carry such an undertaking.”

[k16421] But a few days later, no doubt after reading Aurier’s article, he had surprised Vincent with a proposal that they set up a studio together in Antwerp, claiming “Impressionism will not be truly accepted in France until it has returned from abroad.”

[k16483] Almost from the moment he first read Aurier’s article, Vincent had felt caught in a lie. “I ought to be like that,” he said, “rather than the sad reality of what I feel myself to be.”

[k16487] “As soon as I read the article in question,” he later recalled, “I feared at once that I should be punished for it.”

[k16495] Vincent’s fear of a reckoning welled up from deep in his childhood. In the Zundert parsonage, his mother had taught that fate would always have its revenge against excess or falsity.

[k16515] “My pictures are after all almost a cry of anguish,” he wrote to Wil in an entreaty meant for his mother’s ears.

[k16558] He was found the next morning wandering the streets of Arles, dazed and lost, unable to remember who he was, or where, or why.

[k16562] BUT THIS TIME was different. This time, the demons would not release him.

[k16569] Almost a month passed before he emerged long enough to write one single letter, and that one took several tries to complete. “Don’t worry about me,” he wrote Theo on March 15.

[k16621] By May, Vincent was a celebrity. The Aurier article had lit the fuse. The explosion came in March, when the annual Salon des Independants opened in the splendor of the Ville de Paris pavilion on the Champs-Elysees.

[k16627] Vincent’s work was dubbed “le clou”–the star–of the show, throwing even the new offerings of Seurat into the shadows.

[k16632] Even Claude Monet, the monarch of Impressionism, pronounced Vincent’s pictures “the best of all in the exhibition.”

[k16641] It was one thing to seclude a troubled family member in the far-off mountain retreat at Saint-Remy, away from the insults of daily life and public ridicule. It was quite another to imprison an artist that all of avant-garde Paris proclaimed a genius.

[k16646] Under the onslaught of questions and doubts, Theo quickly capitulated.

[k16648] But on May 10, not even two weeks after the latest “recovery,” Theo sent Vincent the hundred and fifty francs he needed for the journey north.


[k16725] But on May 20–only three days after arriving–Vincent abruptly packed his things and returned to the station.

[k16730] Just as in the past, Vincent blamed his quick departure on Paris itself.

[k16745] “I can do nothing about my disease,” he wrote guiltily from his banishment in Auvers. I do not say that my work is good, but it’s the least bad that I can do. All the rest, relations with people, is very secondary, because I have no talent for that.

[k16753] In Auvers, Vincent could finally be treated by a doctor who understood artists.

[k16755] But when Vincent went to see Gachet on the day of his arrival, he found the sixty-one-year-old doctor as detached and distracted as the ophthalmologist Peyron.

[k16885] Then suddenly, he announced a visit. After all Vincent’s exertions, it had taken only a casual invitation from Dr. Gachet, who dropped in at the Paris gallery, to make the impossible happen. “He told me that he thought you entirely recovered,” Theo reported about Gachet’s brief visit, “and that he did not see any reason for a return of your malady.”

[k16895] Theo no doubt hoped the brief excursion would appease his demanding brother. But it had just the opposite effect. If anything, the fleeting visit only emboldened Vincent’s vision of a new family, together forever in the peaceful valley of the Oise.

[k17010] Other than Millet, no painter of Vincent’s lifetime had touched his heart or shaped his art more than Daubigny: hero of the Barbizon; champion of plein air painting; liberator of the brush from Salon rectitude; godfather of Impressionism; friend and mentor to generations of painters of nature, from Dupre and Corot to Cezanne and Pissarro.

[k17017] “It must be good to die in the knowledge that one has done some truthful work and to know that, as a result, one will live on in the memory of at least a few.” Twelve years later, Daubigny’s widow still lived in the big pink house near the station–an image of abandoned womanhood and faithful grief that transfixed Vincent’s imagination.

[k17067] By July, his relationship with Dr. Gachet had fallen into the familiar spiral of alienation and rancor.

[k17123] It was Rene who, after discovering Vincent’s taste for the pornography that he and his friends traded in, paraded his Parisian girlfriends in the painter’s presence, fondling and kissing them to torment poor Toto, and encouraging the girls (some of them dancers from the Moulin Rouge) to tease and torment him by pretending to show amorous interest in him.

[k17356] No one in Auvers (at the time) remembered seeing Vincent with a gun, and no one admitted to giving or selling or lending him one.

[k17387] Revolvers were rare in Auvers, and in the days after the shooting, locals inventoried every one of them. Only one was missing–along with its owner. Rene Secretan and his “Puffalo Pill” “peashooter” had left town–spirited away with his brother Gaston after the shooting by their pharmacist father in the middle of the summer.

[k17508] Artists and colleagues who had ignored or ridiculed Vincent in life urged on him the consolation of his brother’s work in death. “As often happens,” he wrote bitterly, “everyone is now full of praise.”

[k17539] In wild displays of defiance and rage–some of them directed at his wife and child–in attacks of paranoia, in spells of denial and magical thinking, in neglecting his health, his sleep, even his clothes, Theo mourned his brother by becoming his brother.

[k17544] Within days, the breakdown was complete. On October 12, 1890, Theo was admitted to a hospital in Paris. Two days later, he was transferred to a private asylum in Passy, the leafy suburb where he had vacationed the previous summer.