Van Gogh's Capacity to Surprise

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VAN GOGH: HIS LIFE AND HIS ART. By David Sweetman, New York: Crown PublishersInc., 391 pp., $30 VINCENT VAN GOGH: PAINTINGS. By Evert van Uitert, Louis van Tilborgh, & Sjraarvan Heugten DRAWINGS. By Johannes van der Wolk, Ronald Pickvance, & E.B.F. Pey, New York:Rizzoli, 292 pp., & 336 pp., $90 (vols. 1&2)

BROWSING through the splendid catalogs from the Rijksmuseum, based on a showmounted for the centenary of van Gogh's death, or reading David Sweetman'sbiography, one can't escape feeling grateful to Vincent van Gogh. The myth ofthe tortured genius aside - Sweetman helps us put it aside - van Gogh simplyseems one of the most joyous of painters. This joy seems to burst forth from theobjects in his paintings.

The story of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is anything but happy in theconventional sense. Sweetman, well-known in Britain for his televisiondocumentaries on the fine arts, carefully relates the ups and downs of the man,while making occasional sallies into art criticism. Van Gogh wrote manyarticulate letters, and Sweetman likes to quote him when he can to nail down aninterpretation, but this is not the main contribution of his book.

In order to revise our image of van Gogh, Sweetman details his wanderings,his several early careers, his complex, difficult relationships within hisfamily, and his various physical problems. Like many a 19th-century artist, vanGogh drank a lot of absinthe; like many, he had syphilis. His bad diet wasunique, and originally self-imposed as a kind of asceticism as well as a gestureof sympathy with the poor coal miners among whom he worked early in his life. Healso worked himself extremely hard; his total oeuvre, revealed in part in thecatalogs published by Rizzoli, was produced in only a decade.

Sweetman is very good on the early truncated careers of van Gogh, whichincluded a disappointing spell in the family art business, a brief job in a bookshop, and, perhaps more importantly, the years when religion was van Gogh'scalling. Vincent did well in school, but stopped abruptly when he was 15;Sweetman suggests this may indicate the first of those manic-depressive episodesthat would later become more dangerous and perhaps led to his suicide.

Van Gogh's profound interest in the Bible and his equally profound sympathyfor the poor compelled him to become an evangelical somewhat at odds with hisfather's liberal Christianity. His merging of his life with the poor of themining area of Boringe alarmed officials of the church; he was told to stop.Sweetman writes: "One could only bring people to God by representing thepattern of bourgeois values to which they could aspire. …