Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved - book cover
History & Criticism
  • Publisher : Random House
  • Published : 02 Nov 2021
  • Pages : 448
  • ISBN-10 : 0593356675
  • ISBN-13 : 9780593356678
  • Language : English

Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved

The compelling story of how Vincent van Gogh developed his audacious, iconic style by immersing himself in the work of others, featuring hundreds of paintings by Van Gogh as well as the artists who inspired him-from the New York Times bestselling co-author of Van Gogh: The Life

"Important . . . inspires us to look at Van Gogh and his art afresh."-Dr. Chris Stolwijk, general director, RKD–Netherlands Institute for Art History
Vincent van Gogh's paintings look utterly unique-his vivid palette and boldly interpretive portraits are unmistakably his. Yet however revolutionary his style may have been, it was actually built on a strong foundation of paintings by other artists, both his contemporaries and those who came before him. 

Now, drawing on Van Gogh's own thoughtful and often profound comments about the painters he venerated, Steven Naifeh gives a gripping account of the artist's deep engagement with their work. We see Van Gogh's gradual discovery of the subjects he would make famous, from wheat fields to sunflowers. We watch him experimenting with the loose brushwork and bright colors used by Édouard Manet, studying the Pointillist dots used by Georges Seurat, and emulating the powerful depictions of the peasant farmers painted by Jean-François Millet, all vividly illustrated in nearly three hundred full-color images of works by Van Gogh and a variety of other major artists, including Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, positioned side by side. 

Thanks to the vast correspondence from Van Gogh to his beloved brother, Theo, Naifeh, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is able to reconstruct Van Gogh's artistic world from within. Observed in eloquent prose that is as compelling as it is authoritative, Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved enables us to share the artist's journey as he created his own daring, influential, and widely beloved body of work.

Editorial Reviews

"A captivating look inside the mind of Vincent van Gogh . . . Naifeh lucidly traces the painter's relationship with everything from 17th century works by Rembrandt (who, like Van Gogh, had a penchant for ‘obsessively' painting himself) to experimenting with the Pointillist dots of Georges Seurat (which, Naifeh writes, ‘freed Van Gogh from the unforgiving linearity of realism') to his fascination with Japanese woodblock prints. . . . While illuminating the life of one of the world's most significant artists, this also sheds a broader light on the fascinating nuances of the creative process."-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A celebration of one of the world's greatest artists and the works that inspired him. . . . Handsome . . . with learned explanations, dozens of beautiful reproductions, and an especially moving essay about the author and his husband of 40 years, scholar Gregory White Smith, who died in 2014, and their love of art. An accessible, heartfelt introduction to Van Gogh's work and life."-Kirkus Reviews

"Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved is a profusely illustrated musée imaginaire, representing Vincent's ideal museum. It is a volume which the artist would have loved to have had by his bedside table. Naifeh, along with his companion the late Gregory White Smith, was the co-author of the 2011 best-selling biography Van Gogh: The Life-so he draws upon great accumulated knowledge."-The Art Newspaper
"Continuing Steven Naifeh's work that began with the landmark biography Van Gogh: The Life, his important new book, Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved, illuminates Van Gogh's remarkable journey to becoming an artist. Richly illustrated, it inspires us to look at him and his art afresh by revealing his deep admiration and affection for the artists who inspired him."-Dr. Chris Stolwijk, general director, RKD–Netherlands Institute for Art History, and co-author of Vincent's Choice and Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night

"Vincent van Gogh-that great modern original-revered the earlier masters. In this illuminating book, Steven Naifeh juxtaposes individual Van Gogh paintings with works by more traditional artists whose subjects or styles inspired him. Again and again we see-beautifully stated-what makes the modern modern. But we also come to see, paradoxically, a less isolated Van Gogh. He's knit into the community of a great tradition."-Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, Pulitzer Prize–winning authors of de Kooning: An American Master and Francis Bacon: Revelations

Readers Top Reviews

Girl with Pearl Earr
This is a beautiful art book full of color photos exploring Vincent's love of art alongside his own. It will make a wonderful gift this holiday season and I know I'll be handing out a few!
Insightful observation coupled with solid research, this complements Naifeh's previous Van Gogh work. Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved is a great book for the historian, artist, or reader you love!

Short Excerpt Teaser


No one needed the balm of religion more than Vincent van Gogh.

From childhood, he fixed on the image of Christ as both sorrowing and the comforter of sorrows. This was the image enshrined forever in his imagination by an engraving of Ary Scheffer's Christus Consolator that hung in his father's parsonage throughout his childhood-as far as we know, the first work of art to enter his consciousness. Illustrating a passage from the Bible ("I have come to heal those who are of a broken heart"), it became one of the favorite religious images of a nineteenth century fixated on images of innocent suffering: A radiant but sad Christ sits surrounded by supplicants prostrated by pain, oppression, and despair. He opens his hand to reveal the wounds he received on the cross, a reminder of his own suffering. The message was clear: Suffering brings one closer to God. "Sadness does no harm," wrote Van Gogh's father, the pastor Theodorus, "but makes us see things with a holier eye."

In many of the rooms that Van Gogh rented throughout his early life, he hung religious illustrations on almost every wall, image after image, mostly of Jesus, until "the whole room was decorated with biblical images and ecce homos," a co-worker named Paulus Görlitz recalled many years later. On almost every image Van Gogh wrote the same inscription from 2 Corinthians: "Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing." At Easter, he surrounded every print of Christ with palm branches. "I was not a pious person," said Görlitz, who roomed with Van Gogh when they worked together as booksellers in Dordrecht in 1877, "but I was moved when I observed his piety." Görlitz remembered Van Gogh's telling him, "The Bible is my solace, my support in life. It is the most beautiful book I know."

That same year, at the age of twenty-four, Van Gogh moved to Amsterdam, where he set out to become a Dutch Protestant pastor like his father, whom the family called Dorus. It was an arduous career choice. Before he could begin any theological studies, he first had to be admitted to a university, and that required years of academic training, including studies in Greek and Latin. Van Gogh was determined to do it in record time. "May God grant me the necessary wisdom to end my studies as early as possible," he wrote with impatience, "so that I can perform the duties of a clergyman." The subject of religion was not included in his preparations for the university entrance exam, but he could not resist it for long. Soon he was studying the Bible straight through yet again, somehow finding time in his busy language studies to make long lists of parables and miracles and arranging them in chronological order, in English and French as well as Dutch. "After all," he explained to Theo, "it is the Bible that is essential."

Van Gogh meanwhile pursued his language studies with an intensity that exceeded even his usual fervor for new endeavors, applying himself "with the tenacity of a dog that gnaws a bone," as he put it. But there were signs of trouble right from the start. The work did not yield readily to Van Gogh's ardor. "It does not come to me so easily and quickly as I could wish," he admitted to Theo, praying for a lightning bolt to restore his conviction.

It did not take long for inspiration to strike. During the pivotal summer of 1877, Van Gogh heard a sermon by a Dutch Reformed minister named Eliza Laurillard on the parable of the sower, and it showed him how he might combine the great consuming passion of his life-family reconciliation through religion-and the great consoling preoccupation of his life: art. "Jesus walked in the newly sown field," Laurillard began. Using simple, vivid imagery he portrayed a Christ not only embodied in nature, but also intimately connected with the processes of nature (plowing, sowing, reaping), and inseparable from the beauty of the natural world. Other preachers, including Van Gogh's father, had declared the "divineness of Nature." But Laurillard went further. Finding beauty in nature was not just one way of knowing God, he proposed-it was the only way. And those who could see that beauty and express it-writers, musicians, artists-were God's truest intermediaries.

This was an electrifying new ideal of art and artists. Before, art had always served religion: from the ubiquitous emblem books that taught children moral lessons, to the devotional prints that hung in every one of Van Gogh's rooms. But Laurillard preached a "religion of beauty" in which God is nature, nature is beauty, art is worship, and artists are preachers. In short, art is religion. "He made a deep impression on me," Van Gogh wrote, as he returned again and again to hear Laurillard preach. "It is as if he paints, and his work is at the same time high and noble art."