It takes a village

I finally finished Steven Naifeh's insanely long biography of Vincent van Gogh. I'm now far less taken by the "genius" of Vincent. Rather, I'm enamoured with his brother.

The book is a brilliant illustration of the importance of family. Vincent appears to have been a loner, but defies the lone genius trope.

Theo knew better than anyone the trials of living with his brother: the insecurity and defensiveness, the alternating currents of guileless optimism and abyssal depression, the inner war of grand ambition and easy frustration.

The family were prolific letter writers, and so the story is largely constructed around surviving correspondence. Mainly that between the brothers, but also of their family and contemporaries. Looking through my notes, however, much of it is taken with harangues, tantrums, feuds and demands.

He wrote Theo, too, unapologetically detailing his new life (“I have a real studio of my own, and I am so glad”) and hinting darkly that he might be forced to borrow again from Mauve if Theo did not replenish his empty pockets—or even go to Tersteeg for money. Fearing another family embarrassment, Theo sent the money, but not without blistering his brother for behaving so badly toward their parents. “What the devil made you so childish and so shameless?” he scolded. “One day you will be extremely sorry for having been so callous in this matter.” Vincent exploded at the rebuke, responding to his brother’s accusations in a long and furious rebuttal. “I offer no apology,” he declared. To Theo’s charge that such bickering threatened their aging father’s health, Vincent replied acidly: “The murderer has left the house.” Instead of softening his demands, he complained that Theo had not sent enough money, and insisted that Theo guarantee further payments because “I must know with some certainty what to expect.”

The book charts Vincent's slow spiral, from an upper middle class upbringing, through repeated failures in numerous fields. Vincent appears to have lived with mental illness most of his life, and only really started to gain fame after his suicide.

Along the way Vincent seemed to alienate almost everybody, including his parents, uncles, bosses, co-workers, landlords, art suppliers, fellow students, siblings, and entire towns and villages.

But not his brother. Theo supported him throughout, financially and emotionally. For most of his time as an artist Theo paid his bills. He offered encouragement and advice, and acted as a go-between to important contacts or people Vincent had already antagonised.

For someone who dreamed of family and a place in the world, Theo was it.

That any of us know of Vincent van Gogh is due to Theo and his wife, Johanna. Theo even saved his paintings and letters, stashing them in drawers and under his bed. But he died shortly after Vincent. It was Johanna who organised exhibitions of, and curated, Vincent's work. Johanna was even the first to publish the brothers' correspondence.

Vincent was a genius but he didn't do it alone. It took a village.